South China Sea, Free Trade Deal to Feature at Asian Leaders Summit

Negotiations on a sweeping 16-nation free trade deal and a code of conduct for the hotly contested South China Sea are expected to take center stage at a summit of Asian leaders in Bangkok next month.

The leaders of all 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are due to attend the bloc's regular year-end summit on Nov. 2-4, along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva are also expected.

Meetings related to the summit begin Thursday.

RCEP a big deal

As this year's chair of ASEAN, Thailand is hoping to end its run with negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) all but done. In the works since 2012, the deal is seen by some as China's retort to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiations for which excluded China and fell apart when the US pulled out.

Taking in all 10 ASEAN countries and six others — Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea — it would cover 45 percent of the world's population and a third of global GDP.

With India and China still at loggerheads over market access, "signing of the RCEP deal seems unlikely" at the summit, said Peter Mumford, head of Southeast Asia coverage for political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

"But ASEAN hopes to at least be able to announce that substantial progress has been made, to ensure momentum is sustained," he added.

Prapat Thepchatree, who heads the ASEAN Studies Center at Thammasat University, said Thailand was keen to show progress under its watch, especially in the face of the rising tide of protectionism, not least from the US-China trade war.

Once in place, the RCEP will have "a big impact in terms of financial terms and also in terms of psychological terms. It will give a big push ... for all regional countries in this part of the world to hope that we still have a chance to support a liberal economic order, " he said.

With specific tariff negotiations on 80 percent of goods and services complete, and on most others nearly so, the countries could come very close to wrapping up a deal this year, said Piti Srisangnam, director of academic affairs for the ASEAN Studies Center at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University.

Order in the South China Sea

At its last leader's summit in June, ASEAN said it also hoped to finish the year with the negotiating draft of a code of conduct for the South China Sea ready for a first reading. The code would set the rules for settling disputes in the busy sea lane, where China has competing claims with several bloc members to teeming fishing grounds and a seabed potentially rich in oil and gas.

Piti said he was hopeful the bloc would announce that the draft was ready for a first reading during the summit, adding that China has raised few complaints with the document of late.

"I am expecting...good news," he said. "There are some good signals from both [sides]."

Independence from both China and the US

At the last summit, the bloc also adopted the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, a policy plan that aims to give its members a lead role in tying the Indian and Pacific oceans together while resisting the pull of China and the US to fall wholly into either's orbit.

"I think this document will put big powers in a difficult position to reject it, and in practice ... they will have to accept it as a regional principle, and that will [allow] ASEAN to play an important role," Prapat said. "For the November summit, the task is for ASEAN to convince other big powers to agree to accept this document."

As part of the balancing act, he said ASEAN will use the summit to try to further link its infrastructure plans with China's Belt and Road Initiative while urging the US, Japan and other powers as well to invest in more projects across the bloc. Thailand has used its latest term as bloc chair to push for connecting the region digitally as well, he added.

Will President Trump attend?

It remains to be seen whether they will get the chance to make their case to US President Donald Trump himself. Neither the US Embassy in Bangkok nor the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry, which is organizing the summit, would comment on whether he would attend.

Should Trump choose to stay away, Prapat said it would further embolden China to assert its will over the region.

While his absence has already been factored into expectations, Mumford said, it could still "reinforce the view of some countries in the region that this US administration is less engaged" in Southeast Asia.

Piti said the US president may have a strong bearing on the summit either way — by spurring on those who do attend to see the RCEP through.

"If they conclude the RCEP by this summit, they should thank Donald Trump ... because of his trade war policy," he said.

by via Voice of America - English