Opinion

ASEAN anniversary: The
challenge of creating unity

ASEAN celebrates its 45th anniversary today, Aug. 8, having made tangible and significant progress, not only for the region but also the grouping’s respective members.

We believe ASEAN has contributed positively to the people of the region, particularly in creating regional stability, which has provided a favorable climate for the business activities the region needs to propel economic growth.

ASEAN has its own challenges to deal with, regarding its own unique historical past, current problems and the future.

The biggest internal and external challenges facing the regional grouping lie in creating unity in
diversity.

The problems of creating unity do not exist only in our past but also in our future. The same applies to consensus-making efforts.

However, it does not necessarily mean a unionization of ASEAN as a United States of ASEAN, but integration within a pluralistic community which needs strength to create unity and consensus.

Harmonization is not only beneficial in bridging various national economic regulations, but is also relevant in forging political unity.

How can ASEAN live in a sublimely managed political consensus within the plural relationships it maintains with its bilateral partners such as China, India, the US, Russia and Japan?

Is ASEAN unity no longer important once the bilateral economic progress has been maximally achieved?

The fact of ASEAN’s complex diversity is unavoidable, which leads to a tendency to believe that bilateral interests are more urgent than ASEAN commitments.

The Phnom Penh incident, as Kavi Chongkittavorn said of the ASEAN failure to reach consensus on the South China Sea’s Joint Communique at the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Cambodia, is one of the clearest examples.

The international media reported negatively the shameful fact that no ASEAN joint communique on the South China Sea had been issued.

Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister launched a diplomatic initiative to unite ASEAN and Indonesia succeeded in creating a new platform for ASEAN consensus on the South China Sea after 36 hours of shuttle diplomacy to Manila, Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Singapore.

Prof. Donald K Emmerson, an ASEAN expert from the US commented that Indonesia saved ASEAN’s face.

“It took him just two days of emergency shuttle diplomacy to hammer out six points of agreement that Hor Namhong would read out on behalf of himself and his fellow ministers regarding the South China Sea” said Emmerson (Asia Times, July 27).

Prof. Emmerson is to a large extent right when it comes to the simple fact that Indonesia saved ASEAN’s face.

The statement of ASEAN foreign ministers on ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea emphasized that ASEAN foreign ministers reiterate and reaffirm the commitment of ASEAN Member States to: 1) the full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (2002); 2) the Guidelines for the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (2011); 3) the early conclusion of a Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea; 4) the full respect of the universally recognized principles of International Law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); 5) the continued exercise of self-restraint and non-use of force by all parties; and 6) the peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with universally recognized principles of International Law, including UNCLOS.

Those words were not so difficult to formulate but the question is, why was Cambodia not able to draw them up? For ASEAN, leadership and credibility are absolutely important but neutrality and impartiality are also necessary to facilitate initiative, consensus and support.

Forty five years of ASEAN’s existence is more than enough to learn that unity and consensus remain relevant for ASEAN’s complex diversity and progress.

It is ironic that the peoples of ASEAN understand their need to unite but their leaders display disunity by making contradictory arguments.

The peoples of ASEAN will hardly accept the fact that while they intensively connect with each other daily through social media and online communications, their leaders simply disconnect from them because of their own political agendas and misunderstanding.

ASEAN’s future is and must be determined by their people for their own benefit.

The writer is a graduate from school of political and social sciences, University of Indonesia, Depok, West Java

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