The ASEAN Charter provides that all Member States shall take turns in acting as Chair of the ASEAN. The chairmanship of ASEAN rotates annually, based on the alphabetical order of the English names of Member States.
There were instances in the past, however, when Member States switched turns or did not take a turn in the rotation. For instance, Myanmar did not take a turn as ASEAN Chair from 2006 to 2014. It was reported that Myanmar feared Western countries could boycott meetings held there and cause the country to gain bad publicity. In 2011, Indonesia switched places with Brunei because it did not want to be swamped with organizing too many meetings in 2013 as they were scheduled to also host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in the same year.
In 1976, Indonesia became the first Chair of the ASEAN. Malaysia was the previous chair, and Lao PDR took this role in 2016.
What is the role of an ASEAN Chair?
The Chair is expected to maintain coordination among Member States, which is believed to be essential in the goal of regional integration.
The following are the roles of the ASEAN Chair, as mandated by the Charter:
- Hosting high-level meetings of the ASEAN
The Member State who takes up the role of ASEAN Chair is required to host a series of high-level meetings and activities. Many Member States consider this as an opportunity for regional and international visibility since this means being able to host leaders from all over the world.
- Declaring “one major deliverable”
Each Member State, prior to assuming Chairmanship of the ASEAN, will declare a voluntary commitment – a “one major deliverable” during its term. Often, this is no more than a declaration of some sort that is often not followed up.
For example, two key deliverables achieved by Malaysia as Chairman of ASEAN for 2015 were the adoption of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the Establishment of the ASEAN Community and Kuala Lumpur Declaration on ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together.
When Myanmar was Chairman, the major deliverable that was achieved in 2014 was the adoption of the Nay Pyi Taw Declaration on Realisation of the ASEAN Community by 2015 which reiterated ASEAN Member States’ commitment to strengthen efforts to enhance ASEAN integration and narrow development gap.
It is unclear if Lao PDR has already set a list of deliverables it aims to achieve in 2016, but they have announced that they will be focusing on strengthening the ASEAN Community through, for example, the implementation of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025.
- Ensuring the “centrality” of ASEAN
The ASEAN Charter provides that the “centrality” of the ASEAN “will be the primary driving force in the establishment of relations and cooperation between ASEAN and its external partners”. The term “centrality” means that the political, economic and security architecture of the region takes into account the interest of ASEAN. Bringing countries in the region together in a peaceful and non-threatening way is viewed by ASEAN Member States as one manner by which this “centrality” is achieved. This has also been done through enlightened diplomacy and by offering ASEAN’s hand in friendship to all major powers. The maintenance of ASEAN’s centrality is also done by taking an active interest in regional and global affairs and playing a role which is helpful to others – not by force or assertion but by the openness and neutrality of ASEAN’s position and it’s usefulness to others.
- Ensure an effective and timely response to urgent issues or crisis situations affecting ASEAN, including providing its good offices and such other arrangements to immediate address these concerns.
One example of when the ASEAN Chair took an active role during crisis situations affecting the region was in 2008 when Singapore’s Foreign Minister Geoerge Yeo convened a meeting in Singapore to help defuse the Prear Vihear crisis. This effort however proved unsuccessful. In 2009, Indonesia also took a leadership role in settling this dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.
- Representing ASEAN in strengthening and promoting closer relations with external partners.
External partners are those countries that are not part of the ASEAN. The Chair of the ASEAN is tasked to develop friendly relations with these countries, develop common positions and pursue joint actions. An external party can be conferred formal status or be invited to ASEAN meetings or cooperative activities without the conferment of any formal status. Non-ASEAN member states and relevant inter-governmental organizations may also appoint and accredit Ambassadors to ASEAN, a decision that will be decided by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting.
In the 2015 Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-oriented, People-centred ASEAN, the ASEAN Member States explained that external cooperation is understood as the enhancement of ASEAN cooperation with its dialogue partners and relevant external parties within the framework of ASEAN-led mechanisms in all three pillars of the ASEAN Community that would complement regional efforts to strengthen a people-oriented, people-centred and rules-based ASEAN.
- Carry out such other tasks and functions as may be mandated
One of these tasks is to assist in the facilitation of the annual regional civil society forum — the ASEAN People’s Forum or the ASEAN Civil Society Conference (APF/ACSC). The Government of Lao PDR has already declared that it will not be hosting the APF/ACSC in 2016. The decision not to host the APF/ACSC is being seen by civil society groups as not only an additional threat to the already shrinking space for civil society in the country, but it is also viewed as setting a negative tone in the ASEAN in terms of human rights promotion and protection as Lao PDR takes on the Chair in 2016.
The year 2016 would be a particularly important year – the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will be formally launched at the end of 2015. Lao PDR, as the Chair of ASEAN in 2016, will have the important role in coordinating, implementing and monitoring the first year of the community’s integration plans.
With the AEC in place, there is the need for the Chair to also monitor and respond to the various challenges, implications and consequences that will arise from the full implementation of the AEC, e.g., liberalization of trade and movement could cause cross-border migration and security concerns, such as trafficking, displacements and pollution. ASEAN, particularly the Chair, should be prepared to take the lead and respond to such impacts (particularly those with implications on human rights promotion and protection) that emerge with the creation of regional integration.