Commentaries

ASEAN at 50: Celebrating the Achievements and Confronting the Challenges

Photo from PCOO.gov.ph

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was established in 1967, driven by the desire of states to cooperate in various fields, and to promote regional peace and stability. In the last fifty years, ASEAN achieved much and fostered cooperation between member-states in free trade agreements, agriculture, trade, tourism, energy and culture; promoting human rights, anti-trafficking of persons and cybersecurity; protecting the environment, disaster management, emergency response; as well as in science and technology. Still, the next steps on ASEAN’s path – represented by its 2025 Vision - are rife with challenges.

As it marked its 50th year, ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship was delegated to the Philippines. The Duterte government was kept busy year-round organizing vital meetings for the organization and its dialogue partners. Powerful leaders around the region stretching from India to the Pacific flew to Manila to take part in different events concerning ASEAN and East Asia. Logistics-wise, the chairmanship was considered a tremendous success by the Philippines. The year of ASEAN chairmanship involved organizing and hosting the 30th and 31st ASEAN Summits, the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, vital Ministerial Meetings, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Leaders’ Summit, meetings between ASEAN and its dialogue partners, etc. Such meetings normally include a comprehensive report of where the involved parties stand with respect to certain issues, the progress they have made, and proposals on how they can move forward.

More importantly, analysts -- and critics, especially -- were keenly watching if the discussions would tackle certain major issues that affect the organization and the region. On the economic side, these issues include US-China confrontation over trade amidst China’s increasing economic influence, and the progress of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP as the alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump had rejected. In security matters, the focus has been on the South China Sea Issue, the Rohingya Crisis, North Korea’s missile tests, and the changing role of the United States in the Asia Pacific.

Achievements

This year’s ASEAN Summit and celebration of its 50th year undoubtedly had its share of accomplishments. Significant achievements that were most lauded include agreement on the Framework on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (jumpstarting China-ASEAN negotiations for the fine print), and the signing of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

The ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crimes (AMMTC) also addressed cooperation against transnational crimes, especially terrorism and drugs, which were a priority of the Duterte administration. The recent East Asia Summit, APEC Summit and the 30th ASEAN Summit also became venues for discussion of the North Korean crisis, resulting in a unified ASEAN stance last November expressing grave concern over DRPK’s threatening and provocative actions.

The agreement on the Framework on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, while considered to be an important milestone, is not the only achievement during this year’s summit and meetings. As defense analyst Galang notes, the 11th ADMM made some progress in developing crisis management mechanisms, adopted guidelines for maritime interaction and created a working group to develop guidelines for air encounters between military aircraft. These agreements can complement existing crisis management mechanisms which aim to prevent or deescalate tensions at sea. Galang also mentions that the ADMM has decided to strengthen dialogue and cooperation platforms by annualizing its meeting with the ADMM Plus countries (Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States).

ASEAN’s more measurable successes can often be seen in less contentious matters like trade and investments. Although the organization is still a long way from achieving its goal of an integrated economic community, this year’s set of meetings offered opportunities that yielded enhanced trade, upgraded free trade agreements (among the ASEAN states, Japan, and even China), and restated commitments to move forward and operationalize the China-led RCEP.

US President Donald Trump’s participation in the Summit – along with his visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines – were also judged positively. He demonstrated his administration’s desire and commitment to remain engaged in the region. The visits symbolically reaffirmed bilateral ties between US and these countries, and were intended as well to assure America’s allies and new security partners, even if only superficially.

Photo from PCOO.gov.ph 

Challenges

On the other hand, we should also look at the possible impact of the developments and issues that ASEAN failed to tackle. For instance, even though we welcome the development of mechanisms for the de-escalation of tensions and start of negotiations regarding the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, there is still no transparency in the process and no certainty of fairness, equality or successful implementation. China is still perceived as stalling or biding its time until it can be certain of having a COC that is favorable to its interests. Some ASEAN claimant states remain cautious about getting excessively entangled with China economically, for fear that this would affect future policy autonomy.

Trump’s visit, while symbolizing the continuation and strengthening of US relations with its regional partners, remained superficial, with the lack of initiatives for cooperation even on established policies. In Vietnam, the US President made an offer to mediate in the South China Sea disputes, which is highly unlikely to happen given China’s adamant and consistent position for the U.S. to stay out of the issue.

Human rights and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar were largely pushed to the side during this year’s Summit. ASEAN and its partners were a huge disappointment when it came to collective action to address the current plight of the Rohingyas. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was moreover the only leader to publicly mention the extrajudicial killings associated with Duterte’s infamous war on drugs. The ASEAN Way, including the non-interference principle and consensus decision-making, may have prevented discussion of sensitive domestic issues. If ASEAN as an organization cannot unite to ensure protection of human rights, how can people at the grassroots feel ASEAN’s impact in making their lives better? How will ASEAN achieve its ambition for a people-centered community?

The ASEAN plays a significant role in geopolitics as well as economic relations not only among the Southeast Asian states but with their dialogue partners as well. Both the great powers and middle powers appreciate Southeast Asia’s strategic value more and more. ASEAN’s relations with these powers can greatly affect regional stability and may direct the future not only of the region but perhaps of the world as well. With the ever evolving challenges in the region, ASEAN’s accomplishments for the past 50 years are indeed deserving of praise and commendation. However, its true success can only be determined by the test of time, and whether its own leaders can put ASEAN first by prioritizing and committing to its 2025 vision for a politically cohesive, economically integrated, and socially responsible ASEAN.