January 11, 2017
ASEAN turns 50 this year
by Chheang Vannarith
This year will be a milestone for ASEAN as it celebrates its 50th anniversary in August.
While some remarkable achievements have been made over the last 50 years, some doubts have been cast on the future relevance and resilience of this regional organization, within the context of rising global and regional uncertainty and geopolitical pressure.
Based on its track record, ASEAN will likely remain a key driver in maintaining regional peace and stability, promoting an inclusive and open regionalism, and ideally, being a role model in building a truly people-centered regional community.
ASEAN, which was created in 1967, managed to survive the Cold War, navigated through the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, gradually enlarged its membership, cultivated trust and built dialogue partnerships will all the major powers and shaped international relations norms based on the ASEAN Way, which is consultation, consensus, peaceful coexistence, sovereign equality and non-interference in domestic affairs.
However, 2017 will be a critical year for ASEAN to prove itself as a relevant institution as the global wave of populist nationalism, protectionism and extremism wobbles liberal international systems from Europe to America.
Brexit and Donald Trump’s America are threatening the very foundations of the liberal economic order created after the end of World War II.
ASEAN leaders must reassure their people and the world that inclusive and open regionalism is the way forward.
ASEAN needs to work harder to narrow the development gaps between and within the member states, strengthen a people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN and improve regional governance. “To further address the social ills confronting our society, inclusive economic growth must be ensured,” wrote Ambassador Enrique Manalo, the Undersecretary for Policy at the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, in ASEAN Focus in December.
As the rotating chair of ASEAN this year, Ambassador Manalo added that the Philippines aims to achieve the betterment of the lives of the ASEAN citizens through “initiatives that significantly impact on their lives; and envisions ASEAN’s greater international engagement to advance common interests.”
ASEAN needs continuous reforms to adapt and stay ahead of the curve of rising global uncertainty and unpredictability and the fast-changing geopolitics, geoeconomics, social transformation and technological revolution.
The dilemma for ASEAN lies in its non-interference principle. On the one hand, a certain agenda by its members is needed to deepen regional integration, but on the other hand ASEAN member states firmly adhere to the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference.
It is necessary for ASEAN to find a middle ground to forge regional consensus and deepen regional integration. ASEAN should not aim to become a supra-national institution, but a functioning inter-governmental organization with greater flexibility in decision-making processes.
One of the expected outputs this year is the completion of the framework of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, which is critical to fostering ASEAN’s unity and centrality and deepening relations between ASEAN and China.
The realization of the COC will prove that ASEAN and China can work together in the spirit of friendship and partnership to manage and resolve their differences on a bilateral and multilateral basis. The ASEAN Charter adopted in 2007 is a benchmark of envisaging a rules-based ASEAN. But it needs to be reviewed to reflect the new realities of ASEAN and the region.
ASEAN needs to emphasize “putting ASEAN people first.” Some principles of the charter have not been effectively implemented or neglected by some ASEAN member states, particularly with regards to human rights, democracy, fundamental freedoms, good governance and the rule of law.
So ASEAN needs to have a more effective enforcement or compliance mechanism. Some elements that need revision are the reduction of the annual ASEAN summit meetings from twice to once, the endorsement of an ASEAN human rights body with specific tasks and responsibilities, adding “people-centered” to “people-oriented” and consensus-based decision-making.
The failure of ASEAN to reach a consensus in dealing with the Cambodia-Thailand border conflict in 2008 and 2011 and the failure of the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh to issue a joint statement in 2012, due to differences over the South China Sea issue, present an urgency for ASEAN leaders to revise ASEAN’s decision-making mechanism.
The ASEAN Minus X formula needs to be adopted where consensus cannot be reached, particularly with regards to complex and sensitive issues.
Flexible decision-making mechanisms will provide room for ASEAN to react and respond more effectively and efficiently to emerging regional issues and challenges of common concern.