ASEAN’s Codes and Consequences

November 21, 2017

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

The Philippines has just successfully concluded its hosting of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit and Related Summits, and some observers argue that the accession of ASEAN and China to kickstart negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea is one of the breakthroughs that deserve some merit. It is in the interest of all parties to ensure that the final document is legally binding, meaningful on the issues, and concluded sooner rather than later. Delays in the conclusion of the Code of Conduct only fuel the fears that this Code will be used by the great power to cement its unlawful gains in the South China Sea.

Taking a step back, however, it does not do to be purely cynical about ASEAN. Southeast Asia has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last 50 years. One has to wonder whether ASEAN’s founding fathers envisioned the level and variety of cooperation that now goes on in ASEAN today. There is a lot to celebrate, and while we have not shied away from taking critical positions on ASEAN’s deadlocks, particularly on the South China Sea issue, we should be mindful of how far the efforts of our societies have brought us.

Nevertheless, the cohort of ASEAN states must still undertake an honest assessment of their performance in recent years.

The questions to ask are: Where could ASEAN do more? Where could ASEAN gain more confidence? These are the types of questions that I believe can push cooperation forward and to new heights.

On the political and security side, the Asia-Pacific region continues to cope with threats to the stability of inter-state relations and to the welfare and ways of life of its people. For Southeast Asia, the challenge in the South China Sea obviously persists.

While the tenor of the disputes may have lowered in light of the political changes in our region, the underlying problems need to be solved lest they risk wearing out any present or future goodwill on the part of our leaders.

Moreover, by introducing complications into the relationships among the Southeast Asian countries, and their individual and collective relations with countries like China and the United States, the disputes continue to weaken the security environment in Southeast Asia.

What is the consequence of this?

By degrading trust between nations, it may become more difficult in the future for the members of the region and our partners to cooperate on even non-traditional security threats. For this reason, the claims and disputes must be continuously and carefully managed for them not to undermine our maritime security and more general security overall.

We cannot forget that the international tribunal’s decision on the Philippines’ case against China is an essential piece of the puzzle in fostering the maritime security that we desire in Southeast Asia. The case not only showed that disputes can be resolved without recourse to force and in accordance with law, it has become an example for the region to lean on in understanding their own rights and responsibilities. The bottom line is that international law is the foundation for stability in our region. However, as the 31st ASEAN Summit Chairman’s statement would show, President Rodrigo Duterte seems to have fallen short in leveraging the country’s success in the Arbitral Tribunal and in pressing China to downscale her militarization of the contested waters and features in the South China Sea.

This brings us back to ASEAN. The chorus of Southeast Asian states have worked to protect their citizens from health emergencies; participate in joint efforts to address environmental and maritime resource challenges; transition to knowledge-based societies; and create a sense of belonging.

Over the years, multilateralism has 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.

However, there sometimes seems to be a gap when it comes to executing the ASEAN agenda. In a region composed of several different cultures, religions, and languages, cooperation among member states can be challenging. There is also a lack of awareness about ASEAN and a lack in people’s direct participation.

To sustain our cooperation, we need to understand our neighbors and build trust among them. We need to build trust in each other and in the institutions that have been or have the potential to be transformative.

Finally, although global trade is expected to rebound from its tepid performance in 2016, the future contours of global trade are still hazy. ASEAN’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, sometimes considered the last active hope for greater international economic cooperation, has been delayed several times. Of course, poor connectivity remains an obstacle to improving trade flows.

In the long run, the strength of our economy will also boost the strength of our international position. The Philippines’ inspiring economic story thus far has a way to go to fully uplift our people.

As we hope for the successful conclusion and management of all our disputes, we must also place our hopes in the engines of this country’s growth, in the vision of region’s heads of state, and in our international partners to ensure that more in our country and our region are lifted into more prosperous futures.

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