Are we ready for an ASEAN Identity?

— an inside look and a youth perspective.

Earlier today, I have gotten the chance to join a closed-door discussion on “Defining ASEAN Identity”. The discussion is organized by the initiative of Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the discussion, Universitas Gadjah Mada’s (UGM) scholars and research centers were invited, especially those with the background related to International Relations, ASEAN, and Southeast Asia.

The objective of the discussion is to formulate an academician’s perspective of ASEAN Identity. Since a very long time ago, ASEAN Identity has been used in many ASEAN documents, however there is no single and solid definition of what is called as the ASEAN Identity.

I was also very honored to be given a chance to voice out a youth’s perspective on ASEAN Identity, thanks to Dr. I Made Andi Arsana, the Head of UGM’s Office of International Affairs (OIA), who has given me the opportunity to join the discussion.

There are several points that I would like to point out. First, about what kind of “ASEAN Identity” that Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs would like to craft. Second is about common challenges. Third is about our objective(s). And fourth is about youth’s perspective.

Whose “ASEAN Identity”?

When drafting or formulating an “ASEAN Identity” to be proposed to ASEAN, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to ask one fundamental question. Whose “ASEAN Identity”? Does Indonesia’s MoFA want to propose an ASEAN’s “ASEAN Identity” or does Indonesia’s MoFA want to propose an “ASEAN Identity with Indonesian Characteristics”?

If the answer is the former, then inclusion of ideas from scholars across the region should be taken into account. Kishore Mahbubhani and Amitav Acharya are two among International Relations leading scholars in ASEAN and Southeast Asian affairs, to name a few. This idea, therefore, should also welcome cooperation not only in national level to construct an ASEAN Identity, but also in ASEAN level. For instance by inviting scholars from ASEAN-Institutes of Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS). Leading think tanks in the region, such as that of ISEAS in NUS, LKYSPP of NUS, and RSIS of NTU are some of the potential partners in formulating this proposal.

Common Challenges

ASEAN was built on, at least, two foundations: common challenges and common objectives. And along the way, ASEAN has maintain one thing that Kishore Mahbubhani calls as the “ASEAN Miracle”.

Our region was known as the Balkans of Asia. And look, for the past 50 years, ASEAN has successfully brought peace from the region by avoiding major conflicts among the countries in the region.

Stability is a keyword in building ASEAN Identity, in my opinion.

Besides that, we also have to acknowledge that although we face a lot of challenges, ASEAN has been chosen by many other actors in International Relations as their partners for peace.

Challenges arising in the 21st century include the power shift between the United States (unipolar) to Asia, but primarily China — and maybe in India in the years to come (multipolar), among other things.

This alone has created so many shifts in the region. To name a few, China’s five year old Belt and Road Initiative, US’s counter strategy of Indo-Pacific region, India’s Act East Policy, heating situation in East and South China Seas, and the list goes on.

One of the speakers earlier in the morning presented an idea by David Kang (2007) that he outlined in his book, China Rising. And that speaker proposed an interesting question to other participants, “Is Asia only heading to a post-modern structure stabilization?”.

Whether it is or it is not, we have seen so many times that ASEAN is chosen as the foundation of the greater geopolitical architecture. Although now ASEAN is the center of ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit, many has proposed that ASEAN has to maintain ASEAN centrality in the newly constructed Indo-Pacific regional architecture.

Coming back to the point that I briefly mentioned earlier, ASEAN has been chosen by many actors in International Relations as a partner of peace. Mainly due to its centrality factor as the foundation of the bigger geopolitical architecture. We have seen Australia, India, Korea, Japan, China, and many other countries in a marathon to win ASEAN’s heart.

This can be seen from Japanese or Korean sponsored facilities in ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta alone. Invitation to ASEAN leaders to Australia and India respectively for separate summits also reflect this trend and interest.

ASEAN, or in this case, Indonesia, should never forget this — ASEAN strategic position in the region.

Common Objectives

This leads to another point. ASEAN needs something to guide it in the years to come.

I pointed out as well, in the discussion, that ASEAN Identity should be guided by what we want people to identify ASEAN with in the years to come.

We should not see only five or ten years ahead, but further. Twenty or even thirty years ahead. This will lead to my fourth point later on.

If we cannot identify what we want to achieve through ASEAN in the first place, it is impossible to formulate our identity.

Do we want to achieve respect to human rights? If we do, then we surely want to be identified as an advocate of human rights before the international community. That can serve as the foundation of our identity. This is only one example.

If we want to achieve sustainability in environment, for instance, then we can forge an identity revolving environment protection.

Another speaker pointed out that before Indonesia chaired the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Indonesia has not yet ratified a number of conventions related human rights. After Indonesia’s chairmanship, Indonesia ratified many of them. This is primarily because of the “moral duty” as a key player there in the UNHRC. This can work well, too, for this case.

Taking the case of the EU. It is easy to name what is EU’s values: respect to democracy, human rights, and other liberal values. It is because they have successfully forged their identity. ASEAN can definitely learn this from EU’s experience.

One thing to note is that ASEAN will face numerous challenges in the years to come. And our objectives should revolve around facing those challenges and solving problems together.

A Youth’s Perspective

It is impossible to get a youth’s perspective on ASEAN Identity without actually asking the young generation about it. In order to achieve that, Indonesia’s MoFA can be more active in inviting young people’s participation in this kind of discussions.

If the MoFA sees that the responsibility is too big, the MoFA can partner with ASEAN Studies Centers or universities across the country or region to make it happen.

One thing for sure, the challenges for today’s youth and future generation is that the world is changing so fast, especially due to technology disruption. This should be borne in mind amidst other challenges that arise.

Although I am an advocate of traditional security issues such as that of South China Sea, Indo-Pacific region, or China’s 21st century strategy, I definitely acknowledge the importance of noting the direness of environment, climate issues, refugee issues, human rights, democracy, and so on.

Conclusion

Of course no effort is flawless. This one, too, is not perfect. But one thing for sure, we now know that we are one step closer to defining an ASEAN Identity.

This process does not have to be fast. This process should be a comprehensive and inclusive one, noting that ASEAN does not only deal with one problem, but many.

I would definitely advocate for an identity that will preserve stability in the region, an identity with strong geopolitical dimension. But I would not mind if ASEAN Identity also incorporates other aspects such as rapid technology advancement, environment issues, human rights, and even democracy.

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