After almost 47 years of Asean's existence, there are many who are inclined to believe that the region's present peace and prosperity are the natural order of things.
Delivering the 34th Singapore Lecture this week, Brunei Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah noted that the region’s strategic landscape would be influenced by changes in the relationship between emergent major and middle powers. Asean’s challenge would be to find its place in the new configuration.
The power transition in Asia is a reality that Asean must confront if it is not to lose its relevance. The rise of China and India as major powers, and the emergence of Australia, South Korea and Indonesia as middle powers, are complicating the economic, political and military environment of Asia.
The complications are compounded by the continent’s deep structures – memories of historical greatness once enjoyed or historical wrongs once suffered – which are taking the form of nationalist assertiveness bordering on bellicosity. The United States’ presence is a source of stability, but the unipolar moment has passed in contemporary Asian history.
In the circumstances, Asean’s ability to act together on key issues will determine whether extra-regional players take it seriously or treat it as the mascot of a receding era of Southeast Asian stability.
Asean needs to act proactively. It should have institutions in place to position its members to meet change from a common position of strength.
The Asean Community, with its economic, political-security and socio-cultural pillars, is the foremost such mechanism. But the community will be little more than a name in search of a function unless it is underpinned by connectivity – economic, infrastructural and people-to-people connections that make a regional grouping an organic entity.
Although the European model, with its pooling of state sovereignty, is not an ideal that Asean aspires to, there is still much scope for Asean members to draw closer and give meaning to their plans to forge a community.
It is only if Asean’s nations are motivated by a sense of a collective destiny can they meet the evolving challenges of the times. Indeed, they need greater coherence to meet the non-traditional security threats to which US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel drew attention during his recent parley with Asean defence ministers in Hawaii.
The proposal to set up a centre in Singapore which might help coordinate the region’s response to such emergencies is an example of the sensible capacity-building approach needed to make it easier to collaborate.
From climate change to natural disasters and pandemic disease, many threats can overwhelm societies. Asean governments owe it to their people to jointly prepare to meet such threats.