Asean at 50: The way forward
In fifty years, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have emerged from their colonial past to collectively assume control of their own destiny and play a central role in setting the security and economic agenda for Southeast Asia.
Today, ASEAN faces new challenges in a world that may be at its most uncertain in the last twenty-five years. These challenges include geopolitical tensions among external powers, a more difficult economic environment, fracturing social cohesion in the face of globalization, the transnational consequences of climate change and the disruptive impact of technology. The region must rise to its collective challenges.
ASEAN must lead in its corner of the world and provide an example for the rest of Asia. To do so, ASEAN Leaders should seek out and pursue opportunities to act in concert. The ASEAN-led regional system of dialogue and consultations on security must be strengthened and employed to reduce tensions and avoid conflict in the region including in the Korean Peninsula. ASEAN should prepare for further cross-border challenges, spanning the Mekong River to the South China Sea. Moreover, there is now an unprecedented risk of tensions between the major powers, which could test ASEAN’s centrality and create pressures within ASEAN-led mechanisms. The maritime space that connects our countries and delivers our trade must be cherished and actively protected. The framework for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that is being finalized and the eventual Code of Conduct to be negotiated must be in keeping with international law and be binding. The peaceful resolution of any disputes must follow the same principle.
On the economic side, the direction of its future must lie in deepening economic integration in ASEAN with the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and wider with its partners under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). ASEAN should accelerate the creation of the AEC by continuing to lower the traditional barriers to trade and investment in goods and services, facilitate flows of trade and people, as well as ensure a conducive business climate. At the same time, ASEAN must begin to address the new challenges due to technological disruptions which are changing the way we produce and trade. ASEAN must also play a central role in ensuring the swift conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as it will serve to send a strong signal during these uncertain times to check protectionism and provide certainty in the direction of trade policy. Most importantly, RCEP will benefit ASEAN economies by expanding their opportunities and build immediate confidence in ASEAN as an integral part of global value chains and destination for investment.
ASEAN members have sustained 50 years of cooperation through the ASEAN Way, a consensus-driven style that has helped the organization deal with potentially divisive issues together. While consensus should continue to be the preferred mode of decision-making, ASEAN should consider utilizing the “ASEAN Minus X” principle or supermajority voting at levels below the ASEAN Summit. This is to ensure timely decisions are made while keeping in mind the need to encourage cohesion.
ASEAN must also deliver on its vision of a people-centered ASEAN so that ASEAN is not largely a governmentto-government process. Numerous surveys still show that while people know about ASEAN, they do not necessarily know what it does or what the benefits are. It can no longer be business as usual in ASEAN’s ability to involve the participation of the people, especially the youth wherein lies our future, in ensuring that what ASEAN achieves is relevant for the people.
Southeast Asia is a vast, diverse, and complex region, and ASEAN comprises a market of 600 million different people governed in ten different ways. The political, economic, and social upheaval occurring across the world will test ASEAN’s principles, cohesion, institutions, and vitality. With all these developments threatening ASEAN’s relevancy in regional and global affairs and control over its destiny, it cannot be business as usual. We urge Leaders to remain steadfast to ASEAN’s founding principles and to be bold as they chart ASEAN’s future course through this turbulent time of change and uncertainty.
Roberto R Romulo
Carlos P Romulo Foundation
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Albert del Rosario
Stratbase ADRI Institute