SINGAPORE – All 10 member countries of Asean take turns to chair the regional grouping, and 2018 is Singapore’s turn.

Singapore will have its hands full seeking to maintain Asean’s unity and central political role in the region, given how some Asean members may be swayed by big powers.

Events like the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state may also spark public disagreements between members of Asean.

This week’s Insight looks at the challenges that may get in the way of a united Asean.

1.The Myanmar refugee crisis

Rohingya refugees at a refugee camp at no-man’s land at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Jan 12, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

More than 650,000 minority Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar in the past few months, amid violence and a military campaign in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

But while Asean wants a stop to the violence, experts say that it will be difficult for the grouping to find a common position on the issue.

At one end of the spectrum, Myanmar refuses to even let the word “Rohingya” be mentioned in any official documents.

At the other end, Malaysia and Indonesia – both countries with large Muslim populations – have taken tough stances against the violence. Malaysia even publicly disavowed a statement by the Asean chairman on the issue last September.

2. South China Sea

This aerial view of the city of Sansha on an island in the disputed Paracel chain. PHOTO: AFP

The disputed waters of the South China Sea may be calmer, but Asean and China now have to negotiate what goes into the code of conduct both sides agreed to come up with.

Formal talks will start early this year but are unlikely to end anytime soon – it took 15 years to get from the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to this point.

Some issues may also be contentious. For instance, countries may have to clearly define the exact waters in the South China Sea which the code will cover.

But this is complicated, as it cuts to the competing territorial claims at the heart of the dispute.

3. Foreign power influence

Flags of the Asean member states in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei on April
25, 2013. PHOTO: ST FILE

Complicating matters, experts and diplomats have also noted how some Asean countries are closer to China than others would like.

Cambodia is China’s closest ally in the grouping, and has blocked an Asean consensus over the South China Sea twice before.

The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte is also much friendlier with China now, say experts.

Some of Asean’s leaders have voiced their concerns that if countries are swayed, the bloc will be unable to speak with one voice and will lose its power and position on the world’s stage.

But Asean countries are also adept at balancing the demands of great powers with their commitments to Asean, say experts, with S Rajaratnam School of International Studies associate professor Alan Chong calling this “playing the Asean card”.

Read the full Insight feature here.

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