The Asean Summit in Singapore draws to a close amid the typical fanfare and self-congratulatory atmosphere. As the chairmanship baton passes on to Thailand in 2019, concerns remain over the relevance of Asean as the proverbial elephant in the room.
Asean’s future as a relevant regional inter-governmental organisation inevitably depends on how successful it is in recalibrating its norms, values and purpose to remain nimble, relevant, and effective in an increasingly uncertain world.
In 1967, the forward-looking leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand recognised that there was much to be gained from the limited pooling of their countries’ sovereignties through Asean. In his memoirs, Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had presciently put forth that “… the unspoken objective of Asean was to gain strength through solidarity ahead of the power vacuum that would come with an impending British and later a possible US withdrawal”.
The geopolitical realities and challenges have evolved since the tumultuous fledgling period, and they continue to evolve 50 years on.
Even if there is no US withdrawal from Southeast Asia, a new China-dominant security and economic order is already in the making and challenging the status quo that Asean has become complacently accustomed to.
China’s status, power, and rise are accompanied by a more assertive and ambitious foreign policy under President Xi Jinping, made abundantly clear at last year’s Communist Party of China National Congress. US President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy posture has inevitably cast grave doubts on American resolve and commitment to the region’s security and interests, which for long has been taken for granted in Southeast Asia.
This seeming waxing and waning of Chinese and American power respectively puts Asean in uncharted territory. How it negotiates the US-China power politics will determine whether Asean is central or peripheral in its own backyard.
The key may lie in the Asean Charter. Promulgated in 2007 in time for Asean’s 40th anniversary, the charter had been hailed as the regional organisation’s constitution that would transform Asean into an effective regional community organisation and remaining relevant.
Closer regional integration, it is argued, will enable Asean to punch above its weight, and ensure that the grouping is more than the sum of its constituent parts.
The Asean Charter commits the collective norms of non-violence in Asean inter-state relations, consultation and consensus, and non-interference as Asean’s operating system. These norms have shaped Asean member-states’ attitudes and identities vis-à-vis each other and towards Asean.
However, the charter’s potential to play an influential role in helping Asean maintain its centrality in the region, remains more apparent than it is real. Its untapped potential lies in its intent to make Asean a rule-based organisation, and the implicit recognition that Asean renews its relevance in a rapidly changing geopolitical and economic environment.
In particular, the charter must recalibrate the understanding of national sovereignty, including the giving up of some national sovereignty. Some degree of pooled sovereignty in regional affairs, especially in regional security matters, can help make for a cohesive and stronger region.
To be sure, the charter must engender trust and confidence among member-states that the giving up of limited sovereignty will benefit not just Asean but the individual member-states as well.
All things considered, the pace of evolution since 2007 runs the risk of rendering the charter more as a constitutional comforter, papering over its lack of traction and internalisation by member-states and giving the impression of progress.
The fundamental question is how the charter and its subsequent evolution can keep Asean firmly in the driver’s seat in Southeast Asia. Its values, norms and practices will have to be reconciled with the normative orders outside Asean. The imperative for collective unity and action is stronger than ever.
Against the backdrop of the global political, security and economic architecture oscillating unpredictably in search of a new equilibrium, Asean’s future and destiny hinges on how adroitly it positions its norms, values and purpose in an increasingly uncertain and rapidly changing world, where an Asia with China as first among equals cannot be foreclosed.
Despite past successes, an irrelevant Asean is not a foregone conclusion. Singapore’s Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam, one of the founding fathers of Asean, had said at Asean’s birth that, “If Asean does not hang together, they shall be hung separately”.
The carefully scripted display of esprit de corps at the various Asean meetings belies the persisting question of Asean’s relevance – to the people and governments of Asean member states and the international community. Asean has its work cut out as it aspires to closer regional integration. Fittingly, the charter also exhorts Asean to promote the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and development in Southeast Asia.
To be nimble, relevant, and effective, Asean member states must resist individual and collective navel gazing, and instead recommit to regional solidarity through being a visionary and cohesive bloc. The charter is that road map but time is of the essence if Asean is to continue to be in the driver’s seat in redefining its norms, values and purpose.
Eugene K B Tan is an associate professor of law at the School of Law, Singapore Management University