A joint statement recently issued by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on North Korea’s recent nuclear test was spelled out in 119 carefully selected words. At best, it was muted and conveyed a surprisingly detached position. It did not c
Asean’s response stood in stark contrast to the widespread international condemnation of Pyongyang’s test of a nuclear device, which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb, on January 6. The test drew a strong reaction not only from the United States and other Western powers, but also from North Korea’s old friend and ally China as well as Russia.
Conspicuously, the Asean statement, signed by all of the group’s foreign ministers, lacked the far stronger language featured in previous Asean statements about North Korea’s nuclear activities.
In August, for example, Asean foreign ministers expressed “concern” in a joint communique issued at their annual summit in response to North Korea’s firing of three ballistic missiles off its eastern coast earlier in May. The statement highlighted the importance of maintaining peace, stability and security in the region, while urging Pyongyang to comply fully with all relevant UN Security Council resolutions. It also noted North Korea’s commitments to carry out measures to resolve the nuclear issue, as promised by Pyongyang in the 2005 statement of principles reached during the six-party talks involving China, the US, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
Under Brunei’s chairmanship in 2013, Asean leaders had expressed concern over North Korea’s nuclear test the previous February. Brunei, which joined Asean in 1984, took a notable lead on the issue as part of its push to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone in Southeast Asia.
The group’s weak response to the latest North Korean action has already raised questions regarding the leadership of Laos, the current chair, and thrown some doubt on Asean’s aspirations to be the key regional player. There are also doubts about the health of the newly launched Asean Community, established at the end of December.
Laos recently succeeded Malaysia as Asean chair for 2016. At the handover ceremony in December, Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong promised that his country would work closely with Asean members and dialogue partners to help promote peace, stability and development in the region, including to implement the new UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The Lao Communist Party has ruled the landlocked country, with a population of 6.8 million, since 1975. Laos joined Asean along with Myanmar in 1997. Vientiane earlier planned to enter Asean together with Hanoi in 1995, but delayed its application in order to assess the progress of Asean’s enlargement and its impact on relations with major powers, especially China and the US.
Immediately following North Korea’s latest nuclear test, both Vietnam and Thailand urged the chair to issue a strong statement reflecting the group’s concern, particularly in light of the timing of the test, which did not augur well for the start of the Asean Community. Hanoi wanted to express “deep concern”, while Bangkok preferred the same language used in last year’s joint communique, according to Asean insiders.
After two days of internal debate during the drafting process, Vientiane in its role as Asean chair decided to adopt a milder position, omitting any expression of concern let alone condemnation. This could be seen as a move to explicitly avoid antagonising Pyongyang, with which Vientiane has maintained close ties. Laos is one of five Asean countries to maintain an embassy in Pyongyang. More than Asean officials care to admit publicly, they are anxious about how Laos, as the group’s chair, will approach this critical issue – and other possible crises – as well as the other crucial dealings with the group’s key dialogue partners. The Asean chair, which rotates among members on an annual basis, has the mandate to direct the group’s approach and stance on international issues based on consensus.
Many Asean members are also deeply worried that there could be a repeat of the political paralysis in 2012 when Cambodia, which was then the Asean chair, decided not to issue a joint group communique at the annual summit due to internal Asean disagreements over the South China Sea territorial dispute with China. With shades of what might be in store in the future, Asean defence ministers also recently failed to issue a joint statement over security issues in the South China Sea after meeting dialogue partners in Kuala Lumpur.
Laos could be subject to close scrutiny throughout its year-long tenure as Asean chair, which coincides with the opening phase of the Asean Community as well as summits and other meetings with key powers. Within the next nine months, Laos has to chair three special Asean summits with the US, Russia and China, not to mention attend the G-20 meeting. Asean leaders are scheduled to hold a special summit with US President Barack Obama at his invitation at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California, on February 16-17. At the top of the agenda will be the Korean peninsula, South China Sea dispute and economic issues.
This will be followed by an Asean-Russia summit in Sochi on May 19-20 to mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Moscow. The summit’s agenda has yet to be worked out. Asean and China will also hold a special summit to celebrate the 25th anniversary of relations. This meeting will be held back-to-back with the Asean summit in Vientiane in September to conform to the schedules of the Asean leaders. China will host the G-20 summit on September 4-5 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.
The new Asean vision, with its action plans that were adopted in December for closer cooperation over the next 10 years, clearly stipulates that Asean should play a stronger central role in the evolving regional architecture. Most importantly, Asean pledged to “play a responsible and constructive role globally based on an Asean common platform in international issues.” As the current chair, Laos has a responsibility to counter growing concerns – whether real or imagined – among its fellow member states about Vientiane’s capacity and willingness to promote Asean unity and cohesion. It should demonstrate its leadership at the earliest possible moment.
(This article first appeared in Nikkei Asian Review online version)