The Jakarta Post
Today ASEAN celebrates its 51st anniversary amid various changes both in the region and the world that may affect the grouping’s dream of achieving a peaceful and prosperous community.
Internally, ASEAN member states are still struggling to finish all the work required to reach One Community based on One Vision and One Identity. Compared to the European Union, widely considered to be the holy grail of regional integrity, ASEAN is much more diverse, not only in its cultures but especially the political systems. ASEAN is a melting pot of democracy: democracies in transition, constitutional and absolute monarchies, communist and military regimes.
Cambodia and Malaysia have presented two contrasting examples of a shift in democratic process, while all eyes are now on Thailand over whether the military junta will fulfil its promise to hold a long overdue democratic election. Myanmar still has to do its housekeeping with the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state, where Muslim minority Rohingya were forced to flee their homes.
Meanwhile, a more assertive China, flexing its muscles to become a superpower militarily and economically, combined with a hesitant United States on how to engage the region, have pulled ASEAN thinly stretched on how to deal with the two hegemons. As the Indonesian proverb goes, when two elephants are fighting, the deer is crushed in the middle. Being the deer, ASEAN has to carefully walk between those two giants, or in founding vice president Muhammad Hatta’s words, row between two reefs.
It is not all bleak though, as ASEAN and China launched on Thursday the single draft of the Code of Conduct on the disputed South China Sea during the 51st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Singapore. The single draft will be the basis of future COC negotiations and is considered a breakthrough as previously there were 11 competing drafts of the COC. An agreement can now more conveniently be reached, although all parties refused to set a clear deadline.
China claims most of the South China Sea using the vague Nine-Dash Line, which is not internationally recognized. While Indonesia is a non-claimant and has no territorial water disputes with China, there is indeed an overlapped claim on Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone with China’s traditional fishing ground, which has led to a number of skirmishes.
Indonesia has played the role of an honest broker in the South China Sea dispute to solve it altogether for the good of all parties concerned.
Another work in the making is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which aims to create a free trade agreement involving ASEAN and its six major partners, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia and India.
With so much work to be done, ASEAN could not be blamed for a slightly relaxed day on its birthday, contemplating the past and charting the future to achieve the peaceful and prosperous One Community. Happy birthday ASEAN.
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