The fundamentals of Southeast Asian cooperation

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

In the past days President Duterte told Filipinos of his plan to be frank with China in bringing up Philippine and Asean concerns during their meeting at Apec in Vietnam. Specifically, he said he would press the urgency of Asean and China coming up with a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as a means to allay Southeast Asian countries’ concerns over militarization. These are welcome statements from the President, and provide relief to those of us who advocate the completion of a meaningful and legally binding Code of Conduct as soon as possible.

On Nov. 8 Stratbase ADR Institute (ADRi) held a conference, “Asean leadership amid a new world order,” which allowed us to ask distinguished experts: Where could Asean do more? Where could Asean gain more confidence? What does Asean need to do to achieve its aims?

After all, although Southeast Asia has undergone remarkable transformation in the last 50 years, and there is much to celebrate, an anniversary year should be marked with serious introspection. The demand for meaningful cooperation in Asean is ever increasing, as the 10 countries continue to find that challenges cannot be contained within their borders.

The best known of these challenges involves political-security concerns. Obviously, and as the President’s recent statements affirm, the challenge in the South China Sea persists. Apart from China, the concerns of the countries surrounding the South China Sea, not having been satisfactorily addressed, contribute to a degrading security environment. Thus, the claims and disputes must be continuously and carefully managed so that these do not undermine our maritime security as well as overall security.

The government should reconsider not raising the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Asean meetings; at the very least, it should define a short-term timeline for doing so. International law is, after all, the foundation and bedrock of stability in our region. As we continue to stress at ADRi, by upholding international law the region will also be securing peace.

The chorus of Southeast Asian states has worked to protect their citizens’ interests in terms of health, the environment and maritime resources, employment, and even the cross-region sense of belonging. Multilateralism has been shown to provide some of the best ways to resolve misunderstandings. As platforms for our countries to present their concerns and promote cooperation, multilateral institutions are a valuable part of contemporary international society for a reason.

Yet, to sustain cooperation, we need to understand our neighbors and build trust with them. Building trust in multilateralism requires these institutions to prove themselves effective, representative, and transparent in promoting Asean’s principles and shared objectives.

In our view, if Asean’s principled and persistent calls should translate to action, then it will secure for itself a place at the center of regional cooperation.

In a letter to visiting leaders, Ambassador Albert del Rosario, ADRi chair, said: “[T]he challenges that we presently face may be attributed to a lack of emphasis on the importance of international law. Without this emphasis, we have a disjointed reality between the statements that we make and the practices that prevail on the ground. These practices, with militarization chiefly among them, add to confusion and subtract from enduring trust.

“The farthest alternative to our system of rules is a system of pure dominance, using a combination of economic and military means. The annals of world history have shown us that this arrangement is not sustainable, and that it persists only until the balance of power changes again.

“What is needed, therefore, is less resort to coercion and brute strength and greater resort to the paths that are not only peaceful, but [also] acceptable and legitimate to all.”

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