‘Asean way’: Still the way to go?
Philippine Daily Inquirer
November 14, 2017 at 5:10 am

Speaking at the opening of the 31st Asean Summit on Monday, President Duterte made specific mention of three things against which he urged the members of the Association of Southeast Nations to unite: extremism, piracy and illegal drugs.

“Terrorism and violent extremism endanger the peace, stability and security of our region because these threats know no boundaries,” he said. “The menace of the illegal drug trade continues to endanger the very fabric of our societies,” while piracy and armed robbery “put a dent on our growth and disrupt the stability of both regional and global commerce.”

No doubt all three are valid, urgent issues, but their very mention highlights the one great issue that was not brought up, deliberately or otherwise: the continuing aggressive expansionism by China in the South China Sea, which most international observers agree is at or nearing flashpoint levels, and constitutes the biggest security concern threatening both the Asean region and the international community.

As Paul Dibb, professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Australian National University, wrote in a July 2017 article for the think tank East Asia Forum, “The lack of decision-making by Asean and the ARF (Asean Regional Forum) comes at a time when the regional security outlook is looking ominous, particularly in Northeast Asia. Asean itself risks being side-lined as China militarizes the South China Sea and ignores territorial claims by Asean countries. There has been little progress over 15 years towards a robust code of conduct for the South China Sea that is legally binding.”

Dibb added: “China will continue to play on the weaknesses that separate the 10 members of Asean. Cambodia and Laos are in the pockets of China, as increasingly so are Thailand, the Philippines and even Malaysia.”

From the start, Asean has been defined by a marked emphasis on a consensual, quiet, nonconfrontational mode of diplomacy between and among the member-countries.

Noninterference was the byword — which, it could be argued, has been the linchpin of the bloc’s success in avoiding conflict among its member-states and turmoil in the larger region.

Despite the multiple crises that have buffeted this part of Asia in the last 50 years — the anticommunist conflicts from Indonesia to Indochina, Thailand’s successive military coups, Cambodia’s civil war, the increasing radicalization of neighboring zones in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, the Asian currency meltdown—Asean has held together, and is even working on further economic and trade integration along the lines of the European Union.

And yet… Asean’s aversion to tackling issues head-on with more transparency and open debate among its members has also exposed its weaknesses.

As the years-long impasse with China has shown, Asean is prone to dither, slow to arrive at a workable consensus — and has no mechanism to monitor and compel the member-states’ compliance with principles and agreements reached among them. The Asean Charter, for instance, commits the members to the pursuit of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

But Asean countries have, of late, “been going backwards in democratization and human rights,” as the publication The Diplomat has noted.

Strong-arm governance is present in Cambodia and Thailand (and, increasingly, the Philippines), Myanmar has been condemned by the world for its military’s brutal campaign against the Rohingya minority, and xenophobia and extremism are rising in Indonesia.

But no official pointed words of concern about these developments have emanated from Asean — the countries’ domestic realities, no matter how potentially destabilizing to the larger region, still officially off-limits to the bloc’s radar.

Is the “Asean way” still the way to go as the region confronts grave new challenges—or is it time for a new approach?

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