The bloc’s traditional stabilising role becomes more important by the day as old global certainties evaporate
For the past 50 years the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been a reliable partnership for peace and stability in this geopolitically important part of the world. There is no reason why the bloc cannot continue in a role it has performed so well, but ample cause now to do more.
That crucial role should be enough in itself to ward off questions often raised about Asean’s relevancy amid a rapidly shifting global political landscape, and yet the questions keep coming. Geographical metaphors might be useful, given the growing
fluidity among international relations. And the arrival on the scene of Donald Trump as United States president is handily characterised as a tectonic shift. Trump’s election has generated significant uncertainty and unpredictability all around the world. As matters stand three months after his ascension to office, it is not wrong to say that Trump, unexpectedly leading the world’s most powerful nation, could well trigger a new global war at any time.
That grave potential makes it incumbent on Asean, as a regional organisation able to withstand considerable pressure from the major powers, including the US, to make its relevance clear. Southeast Asian leaders are gathering in Manila for their 30th meeting since the bloc’s inauguration, and they will have to address a raft of pressing issues without trepidation if the Asean success story is to continue for another 50 years.
Asean has often served as a stabilising factor in competitions among the major powers. But no one has ever seen the likes of Donald Trump, who seems ready to apply brute force to foreign policy just as he bullied business rivals in his previous incarnation. The intensity of engagement among the major powers and the quality of their relations with smaller powers have changed. With the rise of China, India and other nations undercutting the traditional might of the US and Russia, bilateral relations between those two have reached a historic low point. The rising powers see a window of opportunity to widen their own spheres of influence.
China has benefited most from the presidency of Donald Trump. President Xi Jinping embraces policies that Trump has rejected out of hand, such as free trade and multilateral cooperation. This makes it imperative that Asean continues engaging all of the bigger powers so that no harm befalls its member-nations as the competition elsewhere reaches boiling point.
Asean has the ability to apply collective diplomatic pressure on outside powers. So far it has handled both the US and China well. Now, as a rules-based organisation guided by the charter enacted at the end of 2008, Asean represents a solid moral force in global politics. To influence the existing international order, it must strengthen its own foundations so that decisions can be made better and faster to cope with crises that seem to emerge on a daily basis. Importantly, each member has to find a balance between national and regional interests to avoid undermining the group’s unity and bargaining power.
Luckily, the new international environment is likely to prompt Asean leaders to contrive more ways of protecting the bloc’s interests. That has always been a hallmark of the partnership. When push has come to shove, the leaders act in concert to overcome outside challenges. However, this time around, Asean has to look forward and not rest on its laurels, because what has made it a success in the past might not work in the future.
It is time to show that Asean is still relevant and that its existence shows that regional actors are pivotal in maintaining global peace and stability.