ASEAN’s Codes and Con­se­quences

We need to build trust in each other and in the in­sti­tu­tions that have the po­ten­tial to be trans­for­ma­tive.

Business World - - OPINION - VIC­TOR C. MANHIT PROF. VIC­TOR ANDRES “DINDO” C. MANHIT is the founder and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Strat­base Group and pres­i­dent of its pol­icy think tank, Al­bert del Rosario In­sti­tute for Strate­gic and International Stud­ies (ADRi). Prof. Manhit is a forme

As the Philip­pines’ host­ing of the ASEAN (As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions) sum­mits comes to an end, ASEAN and China have agreed to open ne­go­ti­a­tions on a Code of Con­duct for the South China Sea. This is a wel­come de­vel­op­ment. It is also one that is worth watch­ing closely to en­sure that the fi­nal doc­u­ment is legally bind­ing, mean­ing­ful on the is­sues, and con­cluded sooner rather than later. De­lays in the con­clu­sion of the Code of Con­duct only fuel the fears that this Code will be used by the large power to ce­ment its un­law­ful gains in the South China Sea.

Tak­ing a step back, how­ever, it does not do to be purely cyn­i­cal about ASEAN. South­east Asia has un­der­gone a re­mark­able trans­for­ma­tion in the last 50 years. One has to won­der whether ASEAN’s found­ing fa­thers en­vi­sioned the level and va­ri­ety of co­op­er­a­tion that now goes on in ASEAN to­day. There is a lot to cel­e­brate, and while we have not shied away from tak­ing crit­i­cal po­si­tions on ASEAN’s dead­locks, par­tic­u­larly on the South China Sea is­sue, we should be mind­ful of how far the ef­forts of our so­ci­eties have brought us.

Nev­er­the­less, the co­hort of ASEAN states must still un­der­take an hon­est as­sess­ment of their per­for­mance in re­cent years.

The ques­tions to ask are: Where could ASEAN do more? Where could ASEAN gain more con­fi­dence? These are the types of ques­tions that I be­lieve can push co­op­er­a­tion for­ward and to new heights.

On the po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity side, the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion con­tin­ues to cope with threats to the sta­bil­ity of in­ter-state re­la­tions and to the wel­fare and ways of life of its peo­ple. For South­east Asia, the chal­lenge in the South China Sea ob­vi­ously per­sists.

While the tenor of the dis­putes may have low­ered in light of the po­lit­i­cal changes in our re­gion, the un­der­ly­ing prob­lems need to be solved lest they risk wear­ing out any present or fu­ture good­will on the part of our lead­ers.

More­over, by in­tro­duc­ing com­pli­ca­tions into the re­la­tion­ships among the South­east Asian coun­tries, and their in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive re­la­tions with coun­tries like China and the United States, the dis­putes con­tinue to weaken the se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment in South­east Asia.

What is the con­se­quence of this?

By de­grad­ing trust be­tween na­tions, it may be­come more dif­fi­cult in the fu­ture for the mem­bers of the re­gion and our part­ners to co­op­er­ate on even non-tra­di­tional se­cu­rity threats. For this rea­son, the claims and dis­putes must be con­tin­u­ously and care­fully man­aged for them not to un­der­mine our mar­itime se­cu­rity and more gen­eral se­cu­rity over­all.

We can­not for­get that the international tri­bunal’s de­ci­sion on the Philip­pines’ case against China is an es­sen­tial piece of the puzzle in fos­ter­ing the mar­itime se­cu­rity that we de­sire in South­east Asia. The case not only showed that dis­putes can be re­solved with­out re­course to force and in ac­cor­dance with law, it has be­come an ex­am­ple for the re­gion to lean on in un­der­stand­ing their own rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. The bot­tom line is that international law is the foun­da­tion for sta­bil­ity in our re­gion.

This brings us back to ASEAN. The cho­rus of South­east Asian states have worked to pro­tect their cit­i­zens from health emer­gen­cies; par­tic­i­pate in joint ef­forts to ad­dress en­vi­ron­men­tal and mar­itime re­source chal­lenges; tran­si­tion to knowl­edge-based so­ci­eties; and cre­ate a sense of be­long­ing.

Over the years, mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism has shown to pro­vide some of the best ways to re­solve mis­un­der­stand­ings. As plat­forms for our coun­tries to present their con­cerns and pro­mote co­op­er­a­tion, mul­ti­lat­eral in­sti­tu­tions are a valu­able part of con­tem­po­rary international so­ci­ety for a rea­son.

How­ever, there some­times seems to be a gap when it comes to ex­e­cut­ing the ASEAN agenda. In a re­gion com­posed of sev­eral dif­fer­ent cul­tures, re­li­gions, and lan­guages, co­op­er­a­tion among mem­ber states can be chal­leng­ing. There is also a lack of aware­ness about ASEAN and a lack in peo­ple’s di­rect par­tic­i­pa­tion.

To sus­tain our co­op­er­a­tion, we need to un­der­stand our neigh­bors and build trust among them. We need to build trust in each other and in the in­sti­tu­tions that have been or have the po­ten­tial to be trans­for­ma­tive.

Fi­nally, although global trade is ex­pected to re­bound from its tepid per­for­mance in 2016, the fu­ture con­tours of global trade are still hazy. ASEAN’s Re­gional Com­pre­hen­sive Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship, some­times con­sid­ered the last ac­tive hope for greater international eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion, has been de­layed sev­eral times. Of course, poor con­nec­tiv­ity re­mains an ob­sta­cle to im­prov­ing trade flows. In the long run, the strength of our econ­omy will also boost the strength of our international po­si­tion. The Philip­pines’ in­spir­ing eco­nomic story thus far has a way to go to fully up­lift our peo­ple. As we hope for the suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion and man­age­ment of all our dis­putes, we must also place our hopes in the en­gines of this coun­try’s growth, in the vi­sion of re­gion’s heads of state, and in our international part­ners to en­sure that more in our coun­try and our re­gion are lifted into more pros­per­ous fu­tures.

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