The recent ASEAN-Gulf Cooperation Council summit underscores a joint goal to link the two dynamic regions. The key is to keep the bloc-to-bloc interactions going.
Amidst the geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East, leaders of ASEAN and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in Riyadh on Friday (20 Oct) — the highest level of engagement following the establishment of relations in 1990. The inaugural summit between ASEAN and the GCC cannot be more timely in building cross-regional linkages, and to tap into the growth opportunities and dynamism of the two regions. Founded in 1981, the GCC comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The summit also underscores the political will of the two regional groupings to go beyond bilateral relations to build greater strategic alignment at the region-to-region level. This will not only allow greater strategic space to create new partnerships among members of the two sides but also allow ASEAN and the GCC to support each other’s central roles in their respective regions.
For the first time in the relations, a new five-year Framework of Cooperation 2024-2028 was adopted to elevate relations to a higher level through a wide spectrum of practical cooperation. The action plan allows the two regional groupings to go beyond religious and economic exchanges to include cooperation in areas such as countering terrorism and violent extremisms, food security, renewable energy, climate change adaptation and innovation.
Although the GCC has pivoted to Asia in the past 20 years, it has focused mainly on China, Japan, and India. As such, bilateral trade between ASEAN and GCC countries has only increased marginally from US$77.9 billion in 2010 to US$85.2 billion in 2021. GCC investment in ASEAN amounted to over US$13.4 billion in the period 2016-2021 but it is not equally spread out with the majority share coming from the UAE. The elevation of relations would provide a greater boost for the two blocs to enter a new phase of economic partnership that would benefit all members instead of a few active ones such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The GCC-Singapore FTA provides a template for the way forward. The agreement, which was the first such deal between an ASEAN country and the GCC, entered into force in 2013. It has resulted in over US$43 billion in trade in the last six years. This could pave the way for other ASEAN countries to follow suit, including the possibility of a region-to-region framework arrangement on economic, trade, technical, and investment cooperation.
Both sides would need to ensure that bloc-to-bloc relations do not slip back into the tepid state as witnessed in the last 30 years when foreign ministers of the two organisations met occasionally at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
A study on the potential of trade and investment between ASEAN and the GCC noted that their economic relations are moving away from a foundation of trading in crude oil (from the GCC) and electronics and machinery (from ASEAN) into other strategic and high-growth sectors such as food, financial services and e-commerce. Large Muslim-majority markets in ASEAN such as Indonesia and Malaysia are expected to deliver more halal products to GCC countries, including harmonising halal certification processes and standards. Similarly, Singapore is sharing the know-how on fintech innovation, and technologies such as blockchain with regulators in GCC markets such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Riyadh.
On the energy front, a reliable supply of oil amidst economic and geopolitical instabilities can help mitigate oil prices in ASEAN markets, which could reduce inflation in many countries. It is not surprising therefore that energy cooperation was a matter of priority during the summit. Leaders including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised the importance of energy transition including the development of low-carbon and clean energy technologies which is an important priority for ASEAN. GCC could also potentially support ASEAN’s vision for a regional power grid.
Both sides would need to ensure that bloc-to-bloc relations do not slip back into the tepid state as witnessed in the last 30 years when foreign ministers of the two organisations met occasionally at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Malaysia’s announcement to host the next ASEAN-GCC Summit in 2025 is thus a welcoming commitment. The newly adopted Framework of Cooperation should also be actively pursued with resources put aside for its implementation.
Both regions have certainly applauded the slew of newly announced cooperation. However, equally important to the leaders is the ability of both regions to ensure peace and stability, which is the foundation for economic prosperity. The accession of all GCC member states to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia is a positive assurance of the grouping’s commitment towards universal principles of peaceful coexistence and friendly cooperation.
As the summit took place, the conflict between Israel and Hamas was high on the agenda of the leaders. Though seemingly far away, developments in the region can have a strong impact on the domestic politics and stability of Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia. As such, Indonesia as the ASEAN Chair and Malaysia as the coordinator of ASEAN-GCC relations have a vested interest in ensuring that the outcomes of the Summit included a Joint Statement on developments in Gaza that will befit the gathering of two regional groupings at the highest level.
However, forging a common position on the issue has not been an easy task. Prior to the Summit, individual ASEAN countries issued their own statements in reaction to the evolving situation in Gaza. Singapore has strongly condemned Hamas’ attacks on Israel from Gaza. Indonesia and Malaysia expressed solidarity with the Palestinians, with the latter calling Israel the occupier that practices apartheid. The Philippines, which has a diplomatic mission in Israel and is an ally of the US underscored Israel’s right of self-defence (Manila also recognises Palestine). Other ASEAN countries have put up rather muted statements without condemning either side.
To Indonesia’s credit, some level of consensus was possible despite the diverse views. An ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement and a Joint Statement with the GCC on developments in Gaza were issued. The statements are pedestrian, but at least there are common views on the importance of international humanitarian law such as the protection of civilians, and that a two-state solution should be realised. Interestingly, ASEAN’s statement pointed to the respective national statements made, suggesting that diversity in views was not bridged.
The ASEAN-GCC Summit has no doubt been a defining moment for the two regional blocs, bringing regionalism to a new level. However, the operational challenge remains the attainment of the goals detailed in the joint statement, which may be derailed by geopolitical developments.
Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.