During the latest Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit, the list of pressing issues facing the region was overwhelming.
The reflex response of sceptics was to predict the weakening of the organisation. However, these fears are dictated by a misreading of the players and nature of the challenges at hand. I am confident that not only will Asean survive the demands and obstacles thrust into it, but will ably balance the interests of the big powers and effectively manage pressures from them.
This is not a wishful expression of faith. It is a judgement based on evidence and an objective analysis:
The Rohingya crisis: Myanmar welcomes the assistance offered by Asean because of the latter’s successful humanitarian mission after the Storm Nargis disaster in 2008. Asean and its dialogue partners realise the greater perils to the whole region that would result if the Rohingya problem gets out of hand.
The stakes of actors in the region: China and the United States have a common interest in safeguarding freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea and in preventing an outbreak of war. They also favour the eventual conclusion of the Asean Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The chairman’s statement from the latest summit was forthright in alluding to the South China Sea, expressing “concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region”. The member-states reaffirmed the need to pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China and the United States share an interest in maintaining close economic cooperation in the long run. While they have competing frameworks in dominating international trade and security (China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy), Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and US Vice President Mike Pence both expressed in the last summit their countries’ appreciation of the value of maximising the benefits from their partnership with the Asean.
Japan, Australia and South Korea, despite their alliance with the United States, are leading trade partners of China. They are part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, along with India, New Zealand and the 10 Asean member states.
Denuclearisation of North Korea: Member states would like to see Asean playing a mediating role in resolving the Korean Peninsula crisis. Since the 1999 Asean Informal Summit, Asean has been the convener of meetings among East Asian countries. This meeting in Manila led to the framework, “Asean Plus Three” (China, Japan and South Korea).
We cannot underestimate the fraternal ties that bind the Korean peoples. The longing for reunification was further fortified between the leaders of South Korea and North Korea when they met at the inter-Korean peace summits and signed the Panmunjom Declaration and other agreements in April, May and September 2018. There is no turning back.
The formidable composition of Asean: In evaluating the future of Asean, the strength, resilience and perseverance of its member states cannot be overlooked. Southeast Asia is the melting pot of world religions, ideologies and civilisations. It is made up of countries that have stood up to centuries of foreign domination. They resolved their internecine conflicts dating back to pre-colonial times. At the end of the Vietnam War, the founding states of the regional bloc embraced the other countries of Southeast Asia and brought them to the fold of Asean. Faced with an economic crisis in 1997-1999, Asean is now the fastest-growing economic region in the world.
For these reasons, we should not fear for the future of Asean. In its 51st year, we should be grateful for the indomitable spirit of our peoples who brought the region to where we are now.
Wilfrido V Villacorta was Asean deputy secretary general and Philippine
ambassador and permanent representative to the Asean.