Nowhere to go but up: Expectations for ASEAN in its 50th Year

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

The Philippines has consistently played an active role in the growth and development of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), dating back to its birth in 1967. ASEAN has persisted through political and economic crises, from the damages of the Cold War to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Now, as ASEAN celebrates its 50th year, the 10 countries of Southeast Asia again face geopolitical uncertainty abroad and tensions close to home. With the Philippines now seated in the organization’s rotating Chairmanship, the Duterte administration has the task of shepherding a regional agenda for a group facing challenges on multiple fronts.

Last week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a conference on US-ASEAN Relations to explore the group’s path for the decades ahead. Delegates from across Southeast Asia offered their latest thinking and their expectations for the body. Building on their insights, we have two ideas to think about: how ASEAN can craft vision built around what the group is, rather than it isn’t and how the Philippines can use its leadership to help the ASEAN achieve its aspirations this 2017.

ASEAN INTO THE NEXT HALF-CENTURY

At ASEAN’s birth, the organization aimed to provide a third force in the region to combat the effects of great power politics. The relatively small countries of our region banded together to resist the push and pull of major power influence.

For 50 years, ASEAN was defined more by what it wasn’t than by what it stood for: it wasn’t Communist, it wasn’t colonized, and it was neither Chinese, Japanese, American, or Indian.

Now, for better or worse, the countries of Southeast Asia are more tightly bound to each other, as export markets, sources of labor, and even constituent parts of even bigger global supply chains. Otherwise-separate countries are discovering how entwined their economic destinies have become, opening not just risk but truly significant opportunity for their people – whether Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, or Lao – to build better lives for themselves and their families. Thanks in part to its members’ efforts in economic cooperation and integration, ASEAN’s combined GDP would make it the seventh-largest economy in the world today. IHS projects that it will be the fourth-largest by 2050.

What has ASEAN to do with its weight? For ASEAN to emerge as a true third force, its members must not only have something to resist against but also to unite around. Successive ASEAN leaders have attempted to grapple with this challenge, creating an ASEAN Charter, the Vision 2020, and other diplomatic touchstones. However, this vision must reach all ASEAN citizens and go hand in hand with their knowledge of and support for the organization.

THE BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE

Given the promise of the ASEAN project, the Philippines can play a particularly important part in using its current ASEAN Chairmanship. Even as we work to create a more cohesive regional market, we must also ensure that each ASEAN member can deliver security and stability for their citizens.

ASEAN Chairs have a unique institutional power – the right to set the official Agenda for the organization’s meetings and, in doing so, influence the substantive outcomes of these meetings. Previous ASEAN Chairs have reportedly used their position to opt-out of or minimize discussions on controversial subjects. If, as reported, the Philippines chooses to leave landmark award from the Arbitral Tribunal off the ASEAN agenda, the administration would be foregoing the use of one of the country’s important foreign policy levers.

No matter the Philippines’ foreign policy strategy, there is little doubt that the South China Sea disputes, as well as the discussion over a Framework Code of Conduct, will be hanging over the entire chairmanship.

In this context, it is better for the government to encourage the voices of our Southeast Asian partners, even when we do not always agree, than to sideline ASEAN in favor of its newfound relationship with Beijing. The disputes will be settled through the agreement of all those involved. ASEAN’s members, especially the claimants, should be the highlighted voice of this year’s discussions.

Regardless of the final Philippine strategy though, ASEAN should remain a paramount concern for Philippine foreign policy. ASEAN, for all its challenges, remains the best platform for the ten regional countries to settle differences and unite on key issues. The territories of the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea may not be equally important to all ASEAN members, but a polite, active discussion is necessary for ASEAN to live up to its own organizing principle as an independent force for regional stability and to its long-held goal of serving as a rock of peace and pride for the region.

There are tall expectations for an organization that has often been derided as an ineffectual talking shop for most of its history. But after 50 years, expectations have nowhere to go but up.

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