On October 20, 2023, Riyadh hosted the first Summit level meeting between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The Summit comes at a time when the world is witnessing a number of developments that have already tested the limits of the existing global order. The Summit also took place at a time when West Asia has been embroiled in yet another conflict between the State of Israel and non-state actors, beginning with Hamas.
Apart from the fact that the two regional blocs are meeting at the level of Heads of Government, this Summit encompasses the geographical extremities of the Asiatic continent. This, thus brings into focus a plethora of issues that are not only regionally significant but also have global ramifications.
Genesis of formal contact
However, this Summit is not the first time that ASEAN and GCC are engaging with one another in a structured format. The first official level interactions between the two regional blocs took place in 1990. The then Omani Foreign Minister in his “capacity of Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the GCC, expressed GCC’s desire to establish formal relations with ASEAN”. This initial contact was subsequently followed by the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of both regional blocs on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). In this first meeting of the Foreign Ministers, it was agreed that the UNGA would be a preferred venue for an annual interaction.[i]
In the due course of time, the two regional blocs initiated an institutionalised mechanism to advance their bilateral ties. The first ASEAN-GCC Ministerial Meeting that was held in Bahrain in 2009, which in turn was preceded by the visit of the ASEAN Secretary-General to the GCC Secretariat in April 2007, came out with a Joint Vision statement and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Secretariats of both organisations.
Additionally, it was also agreed that the two regional groupings would also work on deepening economic cooperation and development, and also cooperate on culture, education and information.[ii] Subsequently, in June 2010 in Singapore a Two-Year Action Plan (2010-2012) was adopted to realise what was agreed upon the previous year in Bahrain and also further deepen institutional arrangements. Furthermore, the Second Ministerial Meeting of 2010 took forward institutional engagement with the formation of a consultative mechanism on education, and a working group on food and agriculture. The subsequent engagements during the decade, including at the Ministerial level paved the way for the First ASEAN-GCC Summit in Riyadh on October 20, 2023.
The Joint Statement issued after the Summit covered a number of issues that are also reflected in the Framework of Cooperation 2024-2028. The net outcome was that the two sides agreed to deepen their cooperation at all levels, beginning with political and security dialogue, trade and investment, people-to-people exchanges, education, culture, tourism, media and sports.[iii]
The Joint Statement recognised the delicate situation of the global economy and said that there is a need to promote international trade and commerce as embodied by the World Trade Organization, especially in light of the prevailing environment of uncertainties and disruptions to both global markets and supply chains. In terms of bilateral ties, GCC on its part appreciated the role of the Southeast Asian diaspora in the progress of the former. And to this end, the two blocs would work towards combatting trafficking in persons in relation to recruitment practices. In this context, it was also highlighted that the Saudi Arabia would be hosting the first ASEAN-GCC Economic and Investment Conference in early 2024, with the aim of promoting greater commercial ties, cutting across a range of sectors and industries.
Another area to which attention was paid was the impact of climate change and the response to it. The reference to this issue was underlined by the fact that the next Global Summit on climate change, Conference of Parties (COP), COP28 will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) between 30 November–12 December 2023.
In this regard, ASEAN and GCC identified the need for both blocs to work together to mitigate climate change by adapting to its impacts and to protect the environment by developing low carbon and clean energy technologies. However, what is noteworthy here is that both GCC and ASEAN affirmed “the importance of the underlying principles of the climate agreements, including equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in the light of different national circumstances, approaches, needs, and priorities”.[iv] In the Joint Statement members states of GCC and ASEAN extend their support for the UAE to host COP28 (Conference of Parties) and called for an inclusive outcome that would bring synergy between nature and people, and live and livelihoods.
Political Consultation and Political Concerns
In this era of global turbulence, both regional forums are also grappling with issues of concern nearer home. In this regard both ASEAN and GCC had made some specific references to issues that are of concern to the members states of the respective regional groupings like terrorism and the maritime dispute in the South Chian Sea.
Within the gambit of political consultations, the two sides recognised the need to “explore cooperation and enhance the exchange of experiences and best practices on preventing and countering radicalism and violent extremism that leads to terrorism in all forms and manifestations”[v] and also to “explore cooperation in preventing and combating transnational crime, cybercrime, counterterrorism and extremism”.[vi] While extremism and terrorism has been a universal bane for many years now, the reference to the same in the context of the developments that have come to dominate West Asia gives this issue an added impetus.
On the other hand, both ASEAN and GCC were clear in identifying the need for greater cooperation in the maritime domain, which is a highway for economic and social progress of the two respective regions. It was with respect to this that the Joint Statement called for “freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce” while also underlining the need for “peaceful resolutions of disputes, in accordance the principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO)”.[vii] This aspect of the statement implicitly denotes the sensitive maritime environment in both Southeast and West Asia.
In the case of ASEAN, raising the issue of maritime security and the pertinent aspects of the international norm-based order is largely to be seen in the context of the situation in the South China Sea dispute and this regional organisation’s desire for an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct on the same. For the GCC nations on the other hand, apart from the need to have secured and uninterrupted maritime commerce and shipping along the sea lanes of communications, there also lies an underpinning of a maritime terrorism. Rocket and missile strike that originate from the conflict-ridden Yemen by Houthi rebels is a pointer.[viii]
Painting a new geopolitical and maritime landscape
By mentioning the importance of oceans and seas, both ASEAN and GCC have underscored the critical nature of maritime security for the member states of their respective regional organisations. The convergence between the two organisations on the maritime domain provide a basis for cooperation in the Indo Pacific region given the geographic space that they occupy. The Joint Statement, therefore envisions “undertake(ing) consultations and explore(ing) cooperation on specific areas of common interest to implement the four priority areas of ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), namely maritime cooperation, connectivity, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and economic and other possible areas of cooperation, where appropriate”.[ix]
Acting as the foundation for this Summit, both GCC and ASEAN have underlined that they are equally concerned about the developments in the Indo-Pacific region. For ASEAN, the centrality of Southeast Asia in this construct is a given. For GCC, their importance stems from a few factors. The first and most obvious is GCC’s economic and commercial interest in the Indo-Pacific region. This region is home to seven of the largest economies of the world. For GCC nations, for whom energy export is critical, four of the five top energy importing nations namely China, India, Japan and South Korea, are in the Indo-Pacific Region and the Indo-Pacific region thus constitute a sensitive market for most GCC nations. And this energy trade is sustained by the sea.
Secondly, for GCC nations that are trying to diversify their economy, the Indo-Pacific Region is crucial. In this regard, ASEAN can be the gateway for GCC, especially to diversify their economic partners as well as their global supply chain partners and for China +1 strategy. This prospective shift is not only limited to economies but also has geo-political connotations.
Thirdly, in the backdrop of the expansion of regional organisation such as BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) where the predominant members China and Russia do not look favourably at the Indo-Pacific construct, it can be said that both ASEAN and GCC are hedging their positions by seeking enhanced cooperations. The Summit shows that the GCC is expanding its geographical outreach with a view to build a link with the Indo-Pacific construct and to contribute to the stability and prosperity of the region.
*Dr. Sripathi Narayanan is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] ASEAN, “Overview of ASEAN-GCC RELATIONS”, October 2023, https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/Overview-of-ASEAN-GCC-Relations-as-of-25-October-2023-for-public-r2.pdf, Accessed on October 24, 2023.
[ii] ASEAN, “Overview of ASEAN-GCC RELATIONS”, October 2023, https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/Overview-of-ASEAN-GCC-Relations-as-of-25-October-2023-for-public-r2.pdf, Accessed on October 24, 2023.
[iii] ASEAN, “Joint Statement Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)”, 20 October 2023 https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/FINAL-ASEAN-GCC-Summit-JS.pdf, Accessed on October 24, 2023.
[iv] ASEAN, “Joint Statement Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)”, 20 October 2023 https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/FINAL-ASEAN-GCC-Summit-JS.pdf, Accessed on October 24, 2023.
[v]ASEAN, “ASEAN-Gulf Cooperation Council Framework of Cooperation 2024-2028”, 20 October 2023, https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/Final-ASEAN-GCC-FOC-2024-2028.pdf, Accessed on October 24, 2023.
[vi] ASEAN, “Joint Statement Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)”, 20 October 2023 https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/FINAL-ASEAN-GCC-Summit-JS.pdf, Accessed on October 24, 2023.
[vii] ASEAN, “Joint Statement Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)”, 20 October 2023, https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/FINAL-ASEAN-GCC-Summit-JS.pdf, Accessed on October 24, 2023.
[viii] Middle East Institute, “The Houthis’ Red Sea missile and drone attack: Drivers and implications”, 20 October, 2023, https://www.mei.edu/publications/houthis-red-sea-missile-and-drone-attack-drivers-and-implications, Accessed on October 24, 2023.
[ix] ASEAN, “Joint Statement Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)”, 20 October 2023 https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/FINAL-ASEAN-GCC-Summit-JS.pdf, Accessed on October 24, 2023.