Lao Chairmanship of ASEAN: What Will Be the Main Agenda?

The Khmer Times, 4 January 2016

Laos is the rotating chair of ASEAN this year, after Malaysia, which did a great job in promoting ASEAN Community and setting a vision for post-2015 ASEAN. ASEAN’s international role and image have been strengthened over time, since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
This is a special year for ASEAN. It is the first year, in principle, in which the ASEAN Community is realized, although many obstacles remain. It also marks two commemorative summits – 25 years of ASEAN-China Dialogue Partnership and 20 years of ASEAN-Russia Dialogue Partnership. More importantly, ASEAN and the United States will hold their first milestone summit in Sunnylands in California in mid-February to deepen strategic partnership.
Under the theme “Turning Vision into Reality for a Dynamic ASEAN Community”, Laos is working with other ASEAN member countries and dialogue partners to develop concrete action plans and mobilize resources to realize the ASEAN Vision 2025 adopted last year.
Laos is interested in transforming itself from a land-locked country to a land-linked one through infrastructure development and connections. The main agenda for ASEAN this year will focus on narrowing the development gap within the region, implementing ASEAN connectivity, and strengthening institutional capacity.
Several initiatives on narrowing the development gap have been introduced since the late 1990s such as the Hanoi Plan of Action in 1997, the Initiatives for ASEAN Integration (IAI) in 2000, the Bali Concord II in 2003, and the Vientiane Plan of Action in 2004.
Finalizing the work plan of the IAI Phase III will be critical in realizing an inclusive and equitable ASEAN Economic Community. However, greater political and financial commitment from the more developed ASEAN members and ASEAN’s dialogue partners is needed.
Non-tariff trade barriers such as sanitary and phytosanitary measures, goods standards, and other standard-like measures remain the key challenges for the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) countries to export their products to other ASEAN member countries and trading partners. Hence, technical support for the CLMV countries is necessary to overcome these challenges.
Support mechanisms for the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) such as access to finance or soft loans, capacity building, market information, and business networking and partnership are required to assist SMEs in less developed economies to compete and integrate themselves into regional supply chain or production network.
On their part, the CLMV countries must speed up and broaden their policy reforms, particularly with regards to good governance and accountability, institutional building, education and skill development, labor market and migration governance, and healthcare.
In terms of infrastructure development and connectivity, Laos is working on the post-2015 Agenda for ASEAN Connectivity, which constitutes a key component in the ASEAN Community Vision 2025.  ASEAN needs to link its connectivity plan with the initiatives of the dialogue partners, particularly China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
The Master Plan of ASEAN Connectivity 2011-2015 aims to connect ASEAN through a three-pronged approach: physical infrastructure development, effective institutions, mechanisms and processes, and empowered people. However, the Master Plan has not been fully implemented mainly due to ASEAN’s lack of financial resources.
As a country rich in historical, cultural and natural heritage, Laos has strong interest in promoting sustainable and pro-poor tourism development. Laos may need technical support from international development partners to develop a work plan on a tourism-regional integration nexus.
As a sending country of migrant workers, Laos is also interested in establishing a strong regional mechanism to protect the rights and dignity of migrant workers, promote legal and safe migration, and link migration with regional community building.
Furthermore, the maritime dispute in the South China Sea will be a “hot stone” issue for Laos. As a land-locked country, Laos does not have strong interest in maritime affairs. However, as the chair of ASEAN it needs to plays its role in coordinating different interests among the ASEAN members while taking care of good bilateral relations between ASEAN and China.
Laos is also under strong pressure from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam for its controversial hydropower dam construction projects along the mainstream Mekong River. Integrating water security with energy and food security is critical to sustainable management of the Mekong River. Building a partnership between ASEAN and the Mekong River Commission is critical to promote regional cooperation on trans-boundary water resources management.

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