Asean cen­tral­ity needs some teeth

Manila Times - - OPINION - EI SUN OH

AS the East Asia Sum­mit (EAS) is un­der way in the Philip­pines, the world is once again re­minded of the cen­tral­ity of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South East Asian Na­tions (Asean) in re­gional strate­gic and se­cu­rity mat­ters. For the sum­mit is ba­si­cally a gath­er­ing of Asean lead­ers plus their coun­ter­parts from some of the larger pow­ers who show in­ter­est in the re­gion, in­clud­ing those from the United States, China and Rus­sia.

Of course, Asean is no stranger to such heavy mat­ters. Formed at the height of the Viet­nam War, Asean was pre­dom­i­nantly con­cerned with se­cu­rity mat­ters dur­ing its ear­lier years, with the fear of a com­mu­nist domino ef­fect sweep­ing across South­east Asia at the back of Asean lead­ers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers then. It was in­deed strange but also per­haps for­tu­nate that Asean did not evolve into a mil­i­tary al­liance such as the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion (NATO) in the suf­fo­cat­ing mi­lieu that was the Cold War be­tween the East­ern and Western camps, al­though some might ar­gue that the pre­de­ces­sor to Asean, the South­east Asia Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion (Seato), was al­most such a re­gional group­ing. As the Viet­nam War con­cluded years later, Asean also Cam­bo­dian cri­sis still oc­cu­pied its at­ten­tion for many more years.

As Asean mem­bers em­barked upon their var­i­ous eco­nomic booms, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s fo­cus un­der­stand­ably shifted to the eco­nomic front. Var­i­ous eco­nomic and trade mat­ters grad­u­ally took over as main items of dis­cus­sion in Asean meet­ings. One af­ter an­other, free trade agree­ments were con­cluded among Asean mem­ber states as well as be­tween Asean and var­i­ous other eco­nomic pow­er­houses, such as China and Ja­pan, re­duc­ing and re­mov­ing tar­iffs and non-tar­iff bar­ri­ers in fa­vor of free trade. Asean formed an eco­nomic com­mu­nity in 2015, cre­at­ing a com­mon mar­ket and pro­duc­tion base for the whole of Asean, and has just con­cluded a free trade agree­ment with Hong Kong.

But even as Asean has been pre­oc­cu­pied with the eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and co­op­er­a­tion among its mem­ber states, it never lost sight of the im­por­tance of strate­gic and se­cu­rity mat­ters in this part of the world, which strad­dles per­haps the most im­por­tant crossroads be­tween the western and east­ern hemi­sphere, and thus nat­u­rally be­comes a much sought af­ter prize. its col­lec­tive mil­i­tary mus­cle, but rather ef­fec­tu­ates its cen­tral­ity in these weighty sub­ject mat­ters rather sub­tly, through host­ing a se­ries of se­cu­rity and strate­gic fo­rums and di­a­logues, such as the present East Asia Sum­mit and also the Asean De­fense Min­is­ters’ Meet­ings Plus. An Asean coun­try would host such meet­ings, at­tended by lead­ers or rep­re­sen­ta­tives from other Asean coun­tries and also those from out­side the group­ing. Im­por­tant re­gional se­cu­rity and strate­gic is­sues have come to be dis­cussed dur­ing such fo­rums.

As the world’s se­cu­rity and strate­gic out­look evolves into a pe­riod of un­cer­tainty, le­git­i­mate ques­tions can of course be raised as to the rel­e­vance and vi­a­bil­ity of Asean cen­tral­ity. On the one hand, the United States, which has played a tra­di­tion­ally heavy se­cu­rity and strate­gic role, ap­pears to be hes­i­tat­ing in its re­gional com­mit­ments, with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion go­ing all out to pro­mote his “Amer­ica First” pol­icy which is pri­mar­ily US-cen­tric. In fact, Pres­i­dent Trump was said to be ini­tially not in­tend­ing to at­tend the EAS, and only changed his mind later. This per­ceived non­cha­lant US at­ti­tude to­ward the EAS is per­haps com­pounded by the US ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­cent change of its char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the re­gion con­cept to one en­com­pass­ing both Trump praised the “free and open” gen­er­ally be free, but it is at most only half open, es­pe­cially in terms of trade. Much work re­mains to be done in terms of open­ing up re­gional mar­kets, and Asean may or may not be looked upon as the ve­hi­cle to un­der­take the chal­leng­ing job. It did not help that Part­ner­ship af­ter hav­ing taken the lead in pro­mot­ing it for so many years.

I think it is rather ironic and un­seemly that while the world has to be caused by a nu­cle­arized Korean Penin­sula, with North Korea’s con­tin­ued in­tran­si­gence in vi­o­lat­ing United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions to test its mis­siles and nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties, rel­a­tively lit­tle world­wide at­ten­tion has been trained on the grave dangers posed by ter­ror­ism to many South­east Asian coun­tries.

I can­not help in once again draw­ing at­ten­tion to the dan­ger posed by the pi­ratic-ter­ror­is­tic kid­nap­pers in the Sulu Sea, which bor­ders my home state of Sabah. If EAS were to ef­fec­tu­ate a more con­crete work plan in se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion, joint anti-pi­ratic ac­tions in the Sulu Sea would be a good and ur­gent site to start. Asean cen­tral­ity in se­cu­rity and strate­gic mat­ters is still de­sired by most Asean coun­tries, but for it to be main­tained as such, per­haps it is time to put some de­gree of “tooth­ful­ness” in it to ad­dress some ur­gent con­cerns.

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