June 17, 2015

Can Laos Lead ASEAN in 2016?

By:  Edmund Sim, The Diplomat, June 10, 2015

Last month I conducted a workshop in Vientiane with the Lao government on the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).  This was sponsored by the Asia Foundation and Ausaid in support of Laos’ upcoming term as ASEAN Chair in 2016.  Laos last served as ASEAN Chair in 2004, during which the Vientiane Action Plan for the ASEAN Communities was issued, one of the key milestones in the AEC.

Photo Credit:  The Diplomat and Shutterstock.

Despite its previous experience as ASEAN Chair, much has changed in the AEC over the past 11 years.  ASEAN has signed various new economic agreements which add to the complexity of economic integration in the region, including some among Southeast Asian states themselves like the ASEAN Single Window Agreement and free trade agreements with several countries like South Korea and India. Hopefully the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership talks will be completed this year as well.

The AEC aspects of being ASEAN Chair have increased significantly since 2004, as have the Political-Security and Socio-Cultural community aspects.  Such responsibilities, along with the logistical burdens that would come with having two ASEAN Summits in 2016, led Laos to propose having the two summits mandated by the ASEAN Charter on a back-to-back basis in November 2016, effectively resulting in a single meeting.  This is understandable, but I hope that this becomes the exception and not the norm (for example, if and when Timor Leste becomes an ASEAN member and holds the ASEAN Chair, it could also do the same).  We have already had many deviations from the ASEAN Charter with regard to the notional rotation of ASEAN Chair and other formal aspects of ASEAN.

Does this mean that Laos as 2016 ASEAN Chair should be viewed with trepidation?  I think not.  Vientiane has previously hosted the ASEAN Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), so it can handle the logistical matters. Laos just did not feel comfortable handling two such meetings in 2016 in the form of both ASEAN Summits.

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