Asean’s role in the Trump-Kim summit

opinion May 15, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

PM Prayut’s ill-chosen words notwithstanding, the choice of Singapore to host the event was a triumph for all in this region



The choice of Singapore to host an historical summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim jong-un next month should not be cause for envy in other Southeast Asian capitals. On the contrary, because the city-state holds the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, its fellow members should be fully supportive. Singapore’s role, however passive it is in relation to the negotiations, will do much to show the world how central the region is to global affairs.

President Trump revealed last week that he would meet his North Korean counterpart in Singapore on June 12 after the White House deemed the city-state neutral and amply secure to host the event. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha interpreted the announcement somewhat differently. Rather than congratulating Singapore’s premier, he told reporters the city-state was chosen over Thailand because it is peaceful and people there respect the law. It was hardly the message he should have been conveying.

Regardless of earlier speculation that Bangkok might get to host the summit, Prayut’s comments showed ill sprit and further debased his administration. Is he so obsessed with his own problems that he fails to understand the global context and Thailand’s place in it? Foremost in his mind should have been the fact that Singapore is Asean chair this year, and second, that Singapore’s selection gives Asean a more significant role in resolving the problem on the Korea Peninsula. This was a role it collectively coveted and that Trump actively promoted.

As well, Thailand chaired the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in 2000, when North Korea was accepted as a member. Other than the United Nations, the ARF is the only international forum that gives both the US and North Korea the opportunity to discuss security matters, including Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea’s distance from Southeast Asia has never diminished our region’s interest in engaging with it and assisting where it can. North Korea’s problems are our problems. We have strong business ties – and we allow its defectors to come here on their way to other countries. 

With the Trump-Kim meeting a month away, Asean leaders should be discussing ways to help Singapore not just facilitate the summit but also ensure that it yields positive results. If peace and prosperity are the outcomes, they will spread from the Korean Peninsula across all of Asia and beyond. While Kim and Trump conduct their talks according to their own tactics and respective national interests, Asean as the host needs to help make the summit proceed as smoothly as possible. 

The meeting cannot be oversimplified as a bilateral matter. Seoul is naturally deeply interested, and previously as many as six countries have been involved in efforts to ease tensions between the Koreas, the others being China, Russia and Japan. Those nations are still keen to help find a solution. Kim has already met with Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Xi Jinping of China and will likely also wish to sit down with Shinzo Abe of Japan.

In the meantime Asean, through Singapore, is already in the thick of the latest thrust, and its choice as the locale does the bloc great credit. Asean has a broader dream – to sit at the core of Asia’s security architecture. Now we have a window of opportunity for the group to realise that goal.