ASEAN’S toughest challenge is to maintain its unity and centrality, otherwise the Southeast Asian region could become another proxy ground for major powers.
No one believed that Asean would survive for 50 years. There was much pessimism about Asean for many reasons. Almost every member country has its story of conflicts with one another. This is a region of diversity: There are differences in economic progress, political systems, ideology, culture, geographical size and religions.
Some even predicted that because of its diversity, Southeast Asia would become the “Balkans of Asia”. This prediction has not materialised. Instead, Asean has become an engine of peace and stability in Southeast Asia.
The question is: What makes this positive story possible?
First, Asean has its own way of thinking or, as we like to call it, the Asean way. Asean has adopted a habit of dialogue, consensus, inclusivity, informality, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in the internal affairs of one another, peaceful settlement of disputes and the non-use of force. Many quarters criticised that the Asean way was not progressive. This might be right, but what is the benefit of being very progressive if it will only end up with factions, conflicts and war?
Second, following the Asean way, Asean was able to develop institutions that emphasise the maintenance of peace, security and stability, such as the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), the Asean Charter and the Asean Community.
Asean always tries to avoid the use of megaphone diplomacy. We also avoid the use of a “sanction approach”. We believe in dialogue and diplomacy.
This culture is not only developed within Asean, it also goes further. Asean provides a platform for major powers and key partners to meet and discuss current issues through Asean-led mechanisms, such as the Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and Asean+1.
Third, Asean is able to create a culture of equality. Asean manages to develop a sense of “brotherhood” and “sisterhood”, a sense of community.
Fourth, Asean is able to develop the association as a rules-based organisation. Through the promotion of Asean fundamental principles, shared values, and principles of international law governing peaceful conduct among states, we harness respect for the rights of others, allowing Asean to contribute to world peace.
The success story continues in the economic field.
Asean has transformed itself into an open and integrated economy. Intra trade is now 24 per cent of total Asean trade. With the Asean Economic Community (AEC), Asean is the third largest economy in Asia (after China and India) and the seventh largest economy in the world, with collective gross domestic product (GDP) growth projected to continue to outpace global growth. With the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), economic integration will be deepened. RCEP will create a modern, comprehensive, high quality and mutually beneficial partnership.
To continue to prosper and contribute more to world peace and prosperity, Asean must address the following challenges. First is how Asean can cope with geopolitical rivalries. One of the hot issues is the situation in the South China Sea.
China is certainly Asean’s most important partner in managing the sea. Almost half of Asean member countries have overlapping claims with China in the maritime region. Therefore, working together with China is a must, but on the basis of international law. Based on the Bali draft, Indonesia welcomes the conclusion of the Framework of Code of Conduct (CoC) by Asean and China. I do hope that this framework will be adopted in August 2017.
But this is just the beginning. Asean and China must have a strong commitment to expediting the conclusion of the CoC. At the same time, a full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties is a must.
Second is how Asean addresses transnational organised crimes like terrorism in Marawi in the Philippines.
Threats of terrorism, security in Sulu waters, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and illegal unreported and unregulated fishing are among the most obvious challenges in Southeast Asia.
The recent attack and occupation of Marawi city is a wakeup call for us all as its shows the regionalisation of terror of the Islamic State group and the affiliation of local groups with international terrorism. We cannot stay silent, but must unite in countering the threat of terrorism. Recently, Indonesia initiated a trilateral meeting with Malaysia and the Philippines in Manila on June 22. In enhancing the subregional cooperation, Indonesia will host a meeting in Manado on July 29, with the participation of Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei Darussalam.
However, more actions still need to be taken to make sure incidents similar to that of the Marawi occupation do not occur in other regions. There is urgency for Asean to pool its resources and institutionalise common efforts in combating terrorism to enable a joint, rapid response against terrorist attacks. It also needs to facilitate cooperation in information-sharing and preventing terrorist financing, as well as driving the soft-power approach of deradicalisation, strengthening moderation and spreading the values of tolerance.
Third is to ensure all people enjoy Asean’s prosperity. Ensuring a people-centred Asean and reducing the welfare gap is a very important element in developing the “we feeling ” of Asean.
One way to achieve this is to promote micro, small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Right now, SMEs account for 88.8 to 99.9 per cent of the total businesses in Asean member states, creating 51.7 to 97.2 per cent of total jobs.
The Asean middle class, projected to grow to 400 million by 2020, should be able to spur the development of SMEs. In 50 years’ time, SMEs will remain the backbone of Asean’s economy, which is essential toward sustainable, long-term economic growth and narrowing the development gap.
In this context, there are at least three important points that Asean nations should ensure.
Asean member countries must continue to deregulate and carry out economic reform to ensure a competitive environment that welcomes foreign direct investment, facilitates innovations and supports entrepreneurship.
Asean must also embrace information and communication technology and the digital marketplace to allow producers, suppliers and merchants from all corners of Asean to meet and enable business matching of Asean businesses with potential foreign partners.
Asean should continue to implement the Asean Connectivity Masterplan 2025, strengthen infrastructure development, and improve linkages between areas, countries and regions to benefit all economic actors while ensuring equitable economic growth of Asean.
Finally, a challenge for Asean is to maintain its unity and centrality. If Asean fails to maintain unity and diversity, Southeast Asia could become another proxy ground for major powers.
Unity and centrality is not given, it must be nurtured.
The writer is Indonesian foreign
minister. The article is abridged from her keynote speech at the international conference “Strengthening Cooperation and Inclusiveness” jointly held by The Jakarta Post, Bank Indonesia and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies on July 19.