53 Years On, What’s Next for ASEAN?

The year 2020 is somewhat a consequential year for ASEAN. In 2020, ASEAN turns 53. The year 2020 has also been designated as the Year of ASEAN Identity. Some other monumental agreements were also set to be agreed upon by this year — like that of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as well as the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (COC) — of which, the progress has fallen short. The conclusion of those agreements will need to wait another year or two. So, 53 years on, what is next for ASEAN?

The year 2020 is designated as the Year of ASEAN Identity.

ASEAN was established back in 1967 against the backdrop of the Cold War by five original members — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. As of now, ASEAN has expanded its membership to include 10 Southeast Asian countries.

The regional organization now seeks to build the “ASEAN Community” with its three pillars — the ASEAN Political Security Community (APSC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and ASEAN Socio Cultural Community (ASCC).

Half century into its establishment, ASEAN has now also started to mull its identity over — hence the designation of this year as the Year of ASEAN Identity.

So far, it has been open for young people, academia, and civil society organizations — should they be interested to share their views as to how they want ASEAN to evolve in the next decade or two: what kind of ASEAN do they want to see in the future?

Critics remain. The whole process of ASEAN Identity building has been dubbed by critics as being too exclusive, involving only government officials of ASEAN countries.

Call from the ASEAN Secretariat to young people on their aspirations for ASEAN.

The youth has begged to differ. This year, we see numerous young people’s initiatives — as well as the ASEAN Secretariat themselves — trying to get the attention of more young people to be more participative in ASEAN processes, such as that of ASEAN Identity building, or simply saying their hopes and wishes for ASEAN at 53 out loud.

The idea of an “Indo-Pacific” cooperation has been around in the discourse of International Relations since the midst of 2000s. The idea didn’t survive.

Fast forward to 2017, the idea was somehow “revived” by the US President Donald Trump. He announced America’s Indo-Pacific idea of cooperation (Indo-Pacific Strategy) during his visit to Danang, Vietnam to attend the APEC Summit 2017.

The idea was not a lone effort of the US. Japan, Australia, and India — who have been vying to exert their own views on Indo-Pacific — were quick to respond to America’s call to revive the Indo-Pacific idea. Now all of the four countries have somewhat revived their Indo-Pacific views, despite some differences in one definition to others. Now the four have also revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — a security dialogue of democratic nations, as they call it, that encircles Asia Pacific.

This Indo-Pacific strategy was seen as America’s effort to counter-balance China’s Belt and Road Initiative — a Chinese initiative to connect Asia and the world with better connectivity and infrastructure.

Some International Relations scholars argue that ASEAN will be forced to pick side — and to choose allegiance either to the US or to China.

ASEAN doesn’t seem to agree.

Last year, during ASEAN’s 34th Summit in 2019, the organization adopted the ASEAN Outlook on Indo Pacific (AOIP). Despite criticism by scholars that AOIP does not really say much about the tangible steps that ASEAN will take vis-a-vis the Indo-Pacific, the AOIP has been arguably (more or less) successful in articulating ASEAN’s position in the great power rivalry between the US and China.

In the next five to ten years, ASEAN’s number one challenge would be to keep itself relevant. How can ASEAN maintain its relevance?

First, ASEAN would need to continue to present itself as a reliable partner. That is where the “ASEAN Centrality” comes in. ASEAN should not pick either the US or China in the great power rivalry. ASEAN needs to maintain its unity. This could not be done internally in ASEAN. ASEAN’s partners should understand this, and should respect ASEAN’s unity and its centrality. Therefore, it is in America’s and China’s best interest not to push ASEAN to pick side — and consequently push ASEAN to the brink of its break-up. ASEAN has provided the broader Asia-Pacific region ecosystem with a sense of unity among its most fragile countries, such as those in the Indochina peninsula.

Second, ASEAN should uphold international law, respect international agreements, become the champion in international institutions. ASEAN’s most immediate political security lies on its heart — the South China Sea. The core issue of the South China Sea lies on the fact that the very international law that governs the International Relations at sea is not fully understood by its claimant states. ASEAN should continue to uphold the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as the by-products that it entails — such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling. ASEAN should also push for the conclusion on the COC negotiation.

Third, ASEAN should explore the unraveled potentials of minilateral, plurilateral, and “middle-lateral” cooperation. ASEAN should also consider the importance of inter-regionalism. The RCEP, that is based on ASEAN+6 cooperation, needs the push from ASEAN to be concluded, amidst the uncertainty in global trade. In addition to that, the “failure” of WTO in mediating negotiation among developed nations and developing nations on a global trade agreement could be offset by regional agreements like RCEP. Here, I also mention about “middle-lateral”. What I meant by “middle-lateral” is multilateral cooperation among middle powers. Besides that, ASEAN’s cooperation with the EU, Mercosur, and Pacific Alliance could present the region with benefits that it has never seen before.

Fifty-three years after its establishment, ASEAN has grown into a robust institution. As Prof. Kishore Mahbubani writes in The ASEAN Miracle (2017) ASEAN is known to have hundreds (or countless) of meetings each year; and that is the very thread of ASEAN cooperation — the cooperation that is facilitated by people-to-people exchange. In order for ASEAN to be relevant, ASEAN should keep an eye on what opportunities and roles it can play in our changing world.

International Relations enthusiast