August 8 is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Asean. Cleary, Asean deserves to have a huge celebration.
The people of Asean should be proud of the achievements of the regional group. But we should not be complacent and we should stand ready to face all the emerging challenges and risks.
In August 1967, amid heightened tensions in the Cold War and the spread of communism in the region, five Southeast Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – came together to forge their collective will and efforts to counter communism.
The Bangkok Declaration was issued with the desire to “establish a firm foundation for common action to promote regional cooperation in Southeast Asia in the spirit of equality and partnership and thereby contribute towards peace, progress and prosperity in the region”.
The declaration states: “The association represents the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity.”
In the past five decades, Asean has been instrumental in maintaining peace and stability through promoting regional dialogue, trust building and socialisation of norms, particularly the “Asean way”, which refers to consultation and consensus and the non-interference principle.
Asean has earned the title of a “convening power” as it has been recognised as an honest regional broker and facilitator, providing a platform for trust building and conflict prevention. But Asean needs to take a step further by projecting itself to be a “normative power”, which refers to rules-based and value-driven international cooperation.
Asean has faced unprecedented strategic and security challenges since the end of the Cold War. Unless collective will and capacity are enhanced, Asean will not be able to navigate through the uncertain and volatile world ahead.
Rising major power rivalry between China and the US is posing serious security threats to the Asia Pacific region. Peace or conflict depends very much on how China and the US mutually adjust to and accommodate each other’s core national interests and co-facilitate regional cooperation in addressing common security threats.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes are threatening regional peace and stability. Asean foreign ministers have “strongly urged” North Korea to “immediately comply fully with its obligations under all relevant UN Security Council Resolutions”.
Asean’s centrality in shaping the evolving regional security and economic architecture is critical to regional peace and development. But that centrality role needs to be earned.
Centrality cannot be realised without unity and neutrality, shared interests and responsibility, collective wisdom and effort.
If Asean is divided by some major powers, it will lose its regional role and relevance. The break-up of Asean would be a tragedy for the whole region. So it is necessary for Asean to build a common security identity based on international law and multilateralism.
Every state, regardless of its size and power, shares a responsibility in maintaining peace and stability. International law and rules-based international relations need to be strictly observed.
Asean should act as a role model in advancing a rules-based regional order.
Upholding and enforcing a rules-based order would help Asean better manage major power relations and transform Asean to become a normative power based on international laws/rules.
Asean needs to effectively implement and enforce the Asean Charter and strengthen rules-based Asean community building.
To adapt to intensifying power competition between China and the US, Asean member states and Asean as a regional institution must implement a robust collective and comprehensive hedging strategy by combining security and strategic measures with economic, socio-cultural and diplomatic measures.
A collective and comprehensive hedging strategy will contribute to the realisation of a stable balance of power or dynamic equilibrium.
Asean needs to build a common vision and strengthen regional unity on certain sensitive security issues, particularly the South China Sea issue and the Mekong water resource security issue.
These two issues should be integrated into one basket to forge a common Asean position on a rules-based approach towards both maritime and water security issues.
The adoption of the framework agreement on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea signifies a critical step towards realising the COC, which is expected to be legally binding. The COC will not only serve as a tool for regional trust building, but also set a concrete foundation for long-term peace and stability in the region.
Inspired by the COC in the South China Sea, the Mekong riparian countries – Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – should also explore developing a legally-binding code of conduct for the Mekong River management.
The construction of a series of hydropower dams along the mainstream of the river is threatening food security and biodiversity in the Mekong basin.
Asean must develop simultaneously confidence building measures and preventive diplomacy, while strengthening the confliction resolution mechanism. Given the complexity of the regional security environment, Asean should promote multi-stakeholder dialogue on conflict management and conflict resolution.
Promoting common understanding on the root causes of security threats and exploring common acceptable solutions to the threats will help create a common security identity.
Asean should further align its security agenda with those of the United Nations, such as building an Asean-UN alliance on climate change, on implementing the UN sustainable development goals.
Moreover, Asean should aim to establish an Asean Peacekeeping Force working under the UN framework to maintain international peace and stability. These will boost Asean’s global role and image.
Chheang Vannarith is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.