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Tuesday, May 16, 2017, 07:28 (GMT+7)
Challenges ASEAN has to face at 50

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will celebrate its 50th founding anniversary this August (1967-2017). This important event takes place when the situation regionally and worldwide has extremely complex developments that pose potentially unstable and unpredictable risks and great challenges to the Association.

The 30th ASEAN Summit held in Manila, the Philippines (photo: VNA)

1. On ASEAN’s central role in regional architectures

After its 50 years, ASEAN is seen as an organization that has effective integration and plays a central role in the architecture of the Asia-Pacific Region. ASEAN’s centrality is formed by various elements in which the economic one performs the main role. That is proved when the bloc economy develops more quickly and robustly than the political and security elements, with a large number of economic and trade agreement among regional countries, such as bilateral free-trade agreements, financial and monetary agreements. Meanwhile, political and military interaction and cooperation in security have just commenced recently.

However, there is a challenge that ASEAN’s central role must be made official in cooperation areas with the existing forums and institutions as well as the new institutions to be built. In comparison with the integration of the European Union (EU), that of ASEAN is partly looser. Regarding architecture, ASEAN integration is basically not compulsory. It is just based on standards, norms and real plans, not legal treaties of a superstate. Thus, it is very hard for ASEAN to come to a concerted effort to resolve differences within itself by consensus mechanism only. It has been clearly shown when most of the member states agreed on a measure for settling a very important issue, but a member state did not agree, that measure became invalid.

2. The Philippines and its chairmanship of ASEAN 2017

Right in the year ASEAN is celebrating its 50th founding anniversary, ASEAN Chairmanship is handed over to the Philippines. Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office, he has adopted foreign and domestic policies much different from those of his predecessors. For example, some regional countries felt insecure when President Duterte announced his separation from the U.S. - a traditional and important ally of the Philippines; while expressing a wish to align this country with China and potentially even Russia."If China and Russia will decide to create a new order, I will be the first to join”, said he. His statement accidentally goes against one of the ASEAN fundamental principles. Those enable ASEAN to gain prestige within the international community on the basis of foreign guideline of independence and self-reliance and maintain mutually beneficial cooperative relationships with major powers. However, its strategy could be threatened when Philippine President Duterte is holding the Chairmanship of ASEAN.

3. US policy toward Southeast Asia

In the process of ASEAN formation and development, the U.S. has played a very important role in economic, political and security changes in  Southeast Asia. It is thought that in 2017 President Trump’s administration will make significant adjustments in its policy toward the region. However, since taking office, President Trump has introduced no policy toward Southeast Asia, not to mention the US-ASEAN relationship. That has made Ministers of Foreign Affairs of ASEAN Member States puzzled. ASEAN leaders have yet to know whether President Trump would continue to pursue the “rebalance” policy laid down by his predecessor. This has been the first time since the last three decades ASEAN could not identify the US foreign policy.

4. The rise of populism

In 2017, ASEAN Member States  are experiencing impacts made by the populist wave in a number of countries and worldwide. This movement has brought about geopolitical changes all over the world, especially in the Europe with the UK leaving the EU (known as Brexit). Populism is also the main agent for the historic transfer of power in the US. In that context, ASEAN has to answer the question: How will Brexit impact ASEAN when some of its member states have considered EU as a “perfect model” to follow so far?. Moreover, ASEAN has to deal with strong protests against globalization in Western countries. Once the “America First” movement and the rise of populism of the Europe spread across the Southeast Asia, they will make great impacts on ASEAN’s economic integration.

5. Uneven growth within ASEAN

There is a fact that uneven growth, particularly the gap between the rich and the poor, is one of the main reasons for the wave of immigration to the Europe which has caused a job crisis and increased inequality. As for ASEAN, uneven growth and the gap between the rich and the poor are possibly worse than EU. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar who joined ASEAN later than the others would find it hard to catch up with more developed member states, especially after the establishment of ASEAN Economic Community. There had appeared a concern among Indonesian people before the ASEAN Economic Community came into being that there would be a large labour force from neighbouring countries pouring into Indonesia due to the “movement of natural persons” article. This is a big challenge to ASEAN when there has been no solution to the immigration crisis in Europe yet. That challenge requires ASEAN Member States to ensure that economic benefits gained from the ASEAN Economic Community be shared equally and available for the peoples in all member states.

6. Unlikely to reach an agreement on Code of Conduct for  the East Sea in 2017

On March 8th 2017, in an annual press conference, Minister of Foreign Affairs of China Wang Yi revealed that talks held in February 2017 between Beijing and ASEAN Member States  made progress, and that the two sides agreed on a first draft Code of Conduct. Earlier, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay Jr also announced Manila wished COC would be completed in middle 2017. However, experts in international relations believe that China and ASEAN could hardly reach COC in 2017 for the following reasons:

First, although COC doesn’t mention the specific settlement of territorial  disputes, there still exist profound differences among the parties in various issues, particularly disputes over territory in the East Sea.

Second, due to the impact of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the East Sea Arbitration (The Republic of the Philippines v. the People’s Republic of China), which has outlined several legal principles to handle disputes in this sea. Accordingly, a number of Southeast Asian countries are expecting to reserve those principles in COC; meanwhile other countries have opposite opinions. Therefore, parties could barely come to a common understanding immediately.

Third, unpredictable developments of the world situation in 2017 have also posed obstacles to the COC negotiation process, especially unclear policy of Donald Trump’s administration toward the region. If President Trump takes a belligerent attitude towards the issue of the East Sea in case China doesn’t make trade concession, the regional situation will definitely become too intense for the parties to conduct negotiations. Moreover, the complicated situation in the Northeast Asia, particularly in the Korean Peninsula is casting a shadow over the whole region, which also affects the COC process.

After 50 years, ASEAN is faced with extremely enormous challenges which should be overcome quickly. That requires each member state to strengthen faith, consensus, solidarity within the bloc, and cooperation in all areas, maintain the prestige of ASEAN in the region and the international arena.

Senior Colonel Le The Mau

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