ASEAN’s internal issues are paramount
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ASEAN has just celebrated its 45th anniversary. It has been a long, transformative journey for the association.
When ASEAN began in 1967, Southeast Asia was comprised of less developed, agricultural-based economies. Today, the region boasts ultra-modern metropolises with competitive industries and economic growth rates that are among the highest in the world.
ASEAN’s expansion, too, has been markedly visible. ASEAN took all 10 Southeast Asian states into its fold by 1999. This was a key accomplishment, directly linked to its raison d’être. Outside member states, 64 ambassadors are currently accredited to the association.
The courteous, consultative and consensual decision making that has been the hallmark of ASEAN diplomacy has won praise. ASEAN-led forums are now important venues for promoting confidence-building measures and for discussing items on the political and security agenda for the region.
Another grand achievement is in the pipeline. ASEAN is poised to realize its long-cherished dream of a people-centered ASEAN Community in 2015. An integrated Southeast Asia with one identity and one vision as its core values will become a new reality in the global community of nations.
ASEAN’s successes have fueled expectations. The “ASEAN Way” has been so successful that our harmony has been taken for granted.
This explains why many were aghast when ASEAN’s foreign ministers failed for the first time to produce their customary joint communiqué at the latest ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in July.
The absence of a communiqué was especially glaring as the root cause was related to competing territorial claims in South China Sea. Recent posturing in the area was provocative and heightened tensions surrounding an already complex situation.
The problem was not the tensions per se; overlapping territorial claims are always a protracted and sensitive issue. Discord between ASEAN member nations, especially vis-à-vis China, prevented issuance of the communiqué.
Quick action by the indefatigable Marty Natalegawa, Foreign Minister of Indonesia, a non-claimant country, salvaged the situation.
Thanks to Marty’s post-meeting shuttle diplomacy, a face-saving statement outlining ASEAN’s principles on the South China Sea was crafted in lieu of the communiqué.
The fiasco was unprecedented and left ASEAN to face a barrage of questions. Is ASEAN susceptible to influence by the big powers? Is ASEAN unity in peril?
The answer to both questions is a clear “no”. External powers are a part of Southeast Asian geopolitical realities. They are permanent, non-removable variables in the equation.
The very success of ASEAN hinges on its ability to encourage those powers to abide by ASEAN’s cardinal principles of respecting sovereignty and non-interference. Thus ASEAN must court both the eagle and the dragon.
There are a number of flash points in ASEAN’s backyard, however. Some involve big-power interests, such as the Korean peninsula. Intra-ASEAN incidents, too, occasionally flare up, such the recent diplomatic row between Cambodia and the Philippines.
These are perpetual challenges that exemplify the politico-security dynamics of the region. ASEAN will continue to be under pressure not because of a lack of initiatives and engagement, but due to expectations of its ability to diffuse and preempt problems, and to do so in perfect harmony.
The Phnom Penh episode might have tarnished ASEAN’s image. But it accorded ASEAN a valuable lesson to reconcile and reaffirm a common position amidst a rift. Altogether, ASEAN unity was resealed.
There are no guarantees that ASEAN will not stumble again in the future, however. This underlines the need to consolidate ASEAN further.
ASEAN conveyed such intent through the Bali Concord III, issued at the November 2011 ASEAN Summit. Then, ASEAN leaders declared that they would establish a unified ASEAN position in the global community of nations by 2022, i.e., 10 years from now.
The fissure in Phnom Penh suggests that ASEAN should accelerate that timetable. A unified ASEAN position should be an integral package of the ASEAN Community endeavor, not an appendix.
ASEAN has to attend to equally urgent priorities as well. This includes reviewing rules of procedures governing intra-ASEAN discord.
No one doubts the competence and compassion of Marty as he tidied up loose ends of the Phnom Penh meeting. But, what rules guided his action?
Indonesia is not a claimant in the dispute, but it is also not currently the ASEAN chair. Shouldn’t the member states entrust such a mandate to the secretary-general?
This brings to fore the point of strengthening the Secretariat. ASEAN has a lot of homework to do. The bottom-line is that a people-centered ASEAN is needed.
This means the secretariat should have the resources to connect with the more than the 600 million citizens of Southeast Asia.
The secretariat should not be confined to servicing meetings of ASEAN officials only.
To date, the intent of empowering the secretariat has not translated to support for adequate staffing and resources.
These cases illustrate that the current ASEAN challenges and priorities are not about big power relations. ASEAN external relations are fluid and will remain so in the foreseeable future. With a 45-year track record, ASEAN will find comfort and confidence in the ASEAN Way and ASEAN-led forums.
It is ASEAN’s internal and organizational challenges that are more pressing. ASEAN is close to five decades in age, but it is at early stage of its transformation into a rules-based organization.
Unlike the ASEAN Way, which has evolved since the time of inception, the ASEAN Charter came into force only recently, at the end of 2008.
Teething problems do occur. ASEAN needs to define clearer mandates, establish closer coordination, and mobilize greater resources. These are real requirements, not mere expectations.
ASEAN will need to redouble efforts and exert ample political will to unify the hearts and minds of all stakeholders to realize these visions. Herein lays the true test of community building.
The writer is the director of the Japan ASEAN Integration Fund (JAIF) Management Team at the ASEAN Secretariat. The views expressed here are his own.