Monday, July 24, 2017

ASEAN at 50 needs to shape up

The slogan of ASEAN 2017 under its Philippine chairmanship – Partnership for Changes, Engaging the World – is telling. After five decades of existence, ASEAN continues to do what it has always done best – soul searching.

At the recent ASEAN summit, the familiar regional and international environment in which they have operated was no longer there. The grouping now faces disruptive new challenges at a time when its members are themselves getting stronger economically and becoming more self-confident and assertive.

Such assertiveness can be divisive among the member countries, as witnessed by the group’s response to the territorial and maritime conflict in the South China Sea over the past decade. The lack of a common ASEAN position over the July 12, 2016, ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China’s claims in the region has been portrayed as a sign of ASEAN fragility.

The Philippines, despite the favorable ruling, decided not to continue to press China. President Rodrigo Duterte instead adopted a softer tone towards Beijing than his predecessors, a move which ironically has reduced the overall tension. As the current ASEAN chair, Manila’s position will certainly be reflected in the association’s final statement.

The increased political assertiveness of some ASEAN members, both within the grouping itself and the wider international arena, has given the impression they are going their separate ways.

The South China Sea dispute aside, the opposite is largely true. As ASEAN turns 50, the international strategic landscape has changed so dramatically that it is prompting the members to take a hard look at the grouping’s strengths and weaknesses. The election of US President Donald Trump has increased the level of unpredictability around the globe. In the past four months, the international community, ASEAN included, has been kept in suspense about US intentions, struggling to respond to the ever-changing positions of the world’s most powerful country. It has now become clear that only actions speak, and any prior US comment or commitment is now irrelevant.

Another 50 years?

This is the new context that ASEAN has to deal with. To ensure that it will be able to survive another 50 years, it is imperative that the 10 member countries set out new priorities. Firstly ASEAN must adjust the way it makes decisions. Since the enactment of 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, ASEAN has relied on consensus as the foundation of its decision-making. This process has served the body well over the past four decades.

In the past, ASEAN had the luxury of time, as the conflicts and tensions in the region were not as volatile as in the Middle East or Africa. But with the current air of global uncertainty and high level of unpredictability, crisis can break out without warning.

ASEAN needs a better way to reach decisions. Until now, any association member, even one with no direct interest in a particular regional dispute, still had the power to veto the decisions made by conflicting parties.

In the future, only member countries that are directly involved or engaged in specific issues or disputes should be given power to make the relevant decisions.

Secondly, ASEAN must speak with one voice on issues impacting regional and global peace and security. This is more easily said than done. But the grouping has proved over the years that when push comes to shove, members will compromise in order to secure their own survival amid imminent dangers. The grouping is already adopting more common positions on key international issues such as counter-terrorism, climate change and human trafficking, among others.

Code of conduct

One of the latest examples of this increased unity of purpose is its position on a new United Nations effort to completely ban the use of nuclear weapons. All ASEAN members back the current negotiations on the treaty, which began last month. In addition, the bloc wants to expand the application of its four-decade-old regional code of conduct beyond Southeast Asia, covering the broader international community, especially the major powers. ASEAN wants to use its code of conduct as a building block for a regional architecture.

To do so, ASEAN has to update its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation to keep up with the fluid international environment. The review should be done with care.Ways must also be identified to use the body’s High Council as a conflict settlement mechanism among members. In order to do so, the trust factor among member countries and the powers of the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat and role of the secretary general must be enhanced.

Finally, ASEAN needs to come up with a long-term strategy to engage with key dialogue partners, especially the US and China, to enhance the regional strategic environment. ASEAN has always been passive and tended to respond to crisis or issues at hand as they arise. Since each member has its own national priorities, a common strategy would allow each member to outline both national and group interests in a broader ASEAN context, instead of responding to each crisis in a fragmented way.

ASEAN will survive for another 50 years only if each member can keep its national and regional interests in balance. That requires a certain level of give and take. Beyond rapport between individual leaders, increased mutual trust and shared norms would enable ASEAN to overcome the disruptive challenges it faces.