SINGAPORE – After a decade, the symbolic gavel of the Asean chairmanship has been turned over again to Thailand from Singapore.
After the handover on Thursday (Nov 15), Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha thanked and congratulated his Singapore counterpart Lee Hsien Loong on “efficiently driving forward a resilient and innovative Asean community” and promised that Thailand will continue the good work.
Thailand last held the post in 2009 after taking over from Singapore.
Mr Prayut, a retired general, unveiled the theme of its chairmanship – Advancing Partnership for Sustainability – at the closing ceremony of the 33rd Asean Summit at the Suntec Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre.
He said: “(Asean’s) role is recognised internationally and it’s at the centre of the regional architecture. However, Asean is also facing a number of challenges such as trade and political competition, disruptive technologies, transnational crime, inequities and transformation in the region’s social structure.”
As the new Asean chair, Thailand’s key priorities include boosting connectivity in infrastructure, rules and regulations and people-to-people links so as to become a seamless Asean, he said. Another focus is on sustainable development in security and economic growth.
Mr Prayut called on all member countries to “collaborate even more closely”, on the foundation of unity and the principles of mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual benefit.
A founding member of Asean, along with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, Thailand has played a crucial role since the grouping’s establishment in Bangkok 51 years ago.
As the incoming chair, Thailand has much on its plate as it walks a tightrope to maintain a balance between regional and international concerns and competing interests.
The Buddhist-majority country will still have to deal with Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis, which has seen more than 700,000 ethnic minority Muslims escape their Rakhine State to Bangladesh over violence and military crackdown.
With the ongoing trade war between the US and China, Thailand also faces the mammoth task of getting leaders to commit to free trade and open markets.
It is expected to help push forward the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an ambitious trade pact involving Asean and six of its key trading partners such as China, India and Japan. This week, leaders agreed to conclude next year the negotiations of what would be the world’s biggest trade pact, covering half of the global population.
Other challenges include managing differences and working together to avoid confrontation and clashes in the disputed South China Sea.
Ms Moe Thuzar, a lead researcher at the Asean Studies Centre of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said Thailand’s chairmanship will see the continuation of important regional initiatives.
On the economic front, the challenge is to help the region navigate uncertainties thrown up by the rise of protectionist and anti-globalisation sentiments, as well as steer negotiations towards a successful conclusion of the RCEP, she said.
She said: “The political-security landscape is where Asean has had to manage and balance big power rivalries in the region, and this is where the role of Asean centrality becomes more important than ever.”
Thailand’s assumption of the Asean chairmanship, rotated annually among 10 member states in alphabetical order, will begin on Jan 1, 2019, and continue until the end of the year. Nearly 200 meetings are expected to be held over the period.
The post is seen as a political boost to Mr Prayut at a time when the country is gearing up for a general election tentatively set for February, which critics hope will return Thailand to civilian rule. The country is still under military control, after a 2014 military coup led by Mr Prayut ousted democratically elected civilian premier Yingluck Shinawatra.
Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Singapore took over from the Philippines as Asean chair in January this year. Vietnam will take over in 2020.