Can ASEAN be the driving force for the Asian century? |

Can ASEAN be the driving force for the Asian century?

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No other region in the world can match the religious and political diversity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). And at a time when many believe that different civilisations cannot live side-by-side in peace, ASEAN countries have proven them wrong, said Prof Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), kicking off a panel discussion on ASEAN’s future role in Asia.

ASEAN’s role in the South China Sea territorial dispute dominated the first segment of the discussion, which was on security and geopolitics. The panellists – Indonesian economist and former politician Mari Pangetsu, Asian studies expert Takashi Shiraishi and diplomats Surin Pitsuwan and Ong Keng Yong – were in agreement that sovereignty issues would have to be taken up bilaterally between each of the four ASEAN claimant states (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) and China.

Nonetheless, they said, ASEAN had an interest in freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, and in the peaceful resolution of disputes in the region. Mindful of this, ASEAN has played an important, if low-key, role in maintaining peace by hosting meetings that allowed leaders to meet informally, noted Dr Surin. He argued that this face-saving mechanism has helped avoid the further escalation of tensions in the South China Sea.

According to Ambassador Ong and Dr Pangetsu, it was critical for ASEAN and China to adopt a legally-binding code of conduct that all parties would abide by while the dispute was being resolved. This should build on the non-binding 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Dr Takashi cautioned, however, that the time spent achieving an agreement on the code of conduct could be used by China to continue its building programme in the South China Sea, which could alter the facts on the ground before the issue of sovereignty had been settled.

In the second segment of the discussion, on economic, social and cultural cooperation, a recurring theme was how ASEAN countries were benefitting from competition between the major global powers for greater integration with ASEAN. For example, Mr Takashi shared that China’s conclusion of a free trade agreement (FTA) with ASEAN had helped Japan overcome the objections of its agriculture sector and push forward on its own FTA with ASEAN.

At the same time, the major powers were finding ways to engage with various ASEAN countries individually, bypassing ASEAN as a bloc. Dr Pangetsu pointed out that the ASEAN members of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) granted more concessions under TPP than under the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

Similarly, the China-led One Belt One Road (OBOR) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) could undermine ASEAN centrality if not managed carefully. ASEAN, she argued, should collaborate to propose projects under OBOR and AIIB that would increase ASEAN integration, reduce inequities within ASEAN, and benefit ASEAN by employing ASEAN workers and equipment.

Asked about how ASEAN could improve, panellists were unequivocal that ASEAN needed to get better at delivering on its commitments. One way could be to make it costly for member states not to carry out their promises, suggested Ambassador Ong. He also mooted having an ASEAN institutional presence in each member country to increase the awareness of ASEAN, as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation had done in South Asia.

Dr Pangetsu agreed, saying it was important to be able to monitor members states’ implementation of the AEC blueprint. There should at least be transparency about where each member state had fallen short, to allow peer pressure to operate, she suggested.

One limitation though is that the ASEAN secretariat is too small, and too short of money, to achieve much, Dr Takashi pointed out. Agreeing, Dr Surin said that in addition to more resources, the ASEAN secretariat needs to have the space and authority to enforce agreements.

Reflecting on their own experience in ASEAN meetings, both Dr Surin and Dr Pangetsu expressed the wish that more ASEAN meetings would revert to their earlier informal-retreat style, to give the leaders of the ASEAN nations opportunities to engage directly and candidly with each other.

The panel addressed the fundamental and discuss pragmatic ways forward.


On 12 Jan 2016, Prof Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the LKY School, chaired a panel on whether ASEAN can be the driving force for the Asian Century. On the panel were Dr Mari Pangetsu, Indonesia’s Minister of Trade from 2004 to 2011 and an internationally-renowned economist and Dr Takashi Shiraishi, an Asian studies expert whose research focuses on the influence of major world powers on Indonesia. The panel also included two former Secretaries-General of ASEAN: Dr Surin Pitsuwan, who was also Thailand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1997 to 2001, and Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Ambassador-at-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The event was co-hosted by LKYSPP and NHK World, the English-language channel of Japan’s public broadcaster NHK. The discussion will be broadcast on NHK WORLD’s GLOBAL AGENDA.

Written by the External Affairs department

Date:
Tuesday, 12 January 2016

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