The Philippines had chaired the ASEAN four times since its inception with 2017 being its latest assumption, while Singapore had chaired three times before this year. The chairmanship of the ASEAN is based on a rotating basis with one year allocated for each chairman. With Singapore’s fourth time as ASEAN chairperson this year, what is in store for a regional grouping with big accomplishments but with even bigger aspirations?

At the onset, the fundamental question that must be asked however is: what of a chairpersonship position for a regional block that makes all decisions in consultation and consensually with one another, and that values non-interference above all? Hierarchical structures and legalistic punitive mechanisms similar to the European Union (EU) barely exist at least formally. In other words, what is the role of the ASEAN Chair aside from a glorified event organizer?

Under the Philippine chairpersonship, the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has not achieved substantial progress while the Trans-Transpacific Partnership (now CPTPP), has moved past the withdrawal of the United States under Trump to have the document signed next month. The Philippine chairmanship had promised the “substantial conclusion” of the RCEP in 2017 as one of its priorities. Aside from the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the RCEP is another trade deal but is different because it involves external partners. Because of this profile, the RCEP may thus help re-assert ASEAN Centrality despite being a vehicle for China to rival the CPTPP. While talks have begun for the long-delayed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, the ASEAN as a collective has not moved beyond its tightlipped treatment on the disputed islands. On top of this, the issue of the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar was almost ignored.

More importantly, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is projected to increase Singapore’s GDP alone by 9.5%, according to HSBC. It has thus an interest in ensuring the achievement of several short term goals on deck for the AEC. Perhaps this economic outlook may carry-over to the conclusion of the RCEP: ASEAN’s ticket to get onboard one of the largest, if not the largest, and the fastest speeding commercial train in the whole world. When signed, which will most likely happen in 2018 after six years of negotiation, RCEP will represent almost one third of the world’s population and almost half of the world GDP. Precisely, RCEP is a free trade agreement with all of ASEAN’s ten states and its six FTA partners – China, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.

If Singapore concludes the RCEP under its watch, it would compensate for its non-alignment with China in the security front. RCEP is a trade deal which would benefit China because it is not included in the rival mega-trade deal: the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that will be concluded next month in Chile. If this is Singapore’s intention, it would have handled China-ASEAN relations astutely. Mr. Chan Chun Sing, Singapore’s Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, has expressed their aspirations for setting “high standards to inspire the world’s economic system to reach that level of an open trading system where everybody can benefit” by [closely] working with Beijing, along with the other ASEAN states as well as its external partners.

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Image credit: ASEAN Briefing