Asean’s bold new agenda

Region needs to be a more engaged player on the world stage, but first its members must build a stronger community, says Indonesia’s foreign minister.

Asean members need to move beyond their focus on the “centrality” of the 10-country alliance and assert themselves more on the world stage if the region wants to remain relevant in the future, says Indonesia’s foreign minister.

Addressing a meeting of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand last week, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa noted that major world players are competing for influence in Southeast Asia, and said Asean should play a role that acts as “balancing the interests of various powers”.

“I believe and Indonesia believes that it is not good enough for countries in Asean to simply remain inactive and to be in denial of these development, to simply cite the mantra of Asean centrality and assume everyone will respect and follow that principle. We must actually be shaping and molding developments,” R.M. Marty Natalegawa said in a speech in Bangkok late last week.

It was no longer good enough for Asean members to remain quiet on many of the global issues that have implications for the region, he stressed.

“Staying put and remaining inactive is a recipe for allowing things to get out or hand and therefore becoming simply responsive and not being able to control developments.”

Larger world powers are competing for influence in Southeast Asia, and Asean needs to position itself carefully, said Mr Marty. The group can be neutral while still playing a role that acts as “balancing the interests of various powers”.

The region’s economies have come a long way in recent years but now they must pick up the pace of development to achieve the goal of the Asean Economic Community by 2015.

“First and foremost in terms of response, I believe Asean must continue on script, on message in pushing for the Asean community by 2015,” said Mr Marty. “We are now only two years away from this project and we must not slow down the pace of our efforts.

“But a community cannot be legislated; it cannot be created overnight simply by adopting declarations, by ratifying agreements. It must be actually in action. It must actually be implemented; there must be a sense of ownership, a sense of participation before and after. Before the Asean community, this is how things were, and then this is how things will become after 2015.”

At the same time, he said, Asean members have to look at their future in the wider world.

“Beyond our own internal housekeeping and Asean community-building efforts, we must be a bit more proactive than that. We must have an extra-Asean, an extra-Southeast Asian vision, and here is where Indonesia would like to see a little bit more thinking outside the box, a little bit more ambition ... in setting the targets that we wish to set,” he said.

After more than four decades of existence, Asean has enough experience and has made enough progress to be able to project itself on the wider East Asian and Asia Pacific stage, he added.

Prior to the formation of Asean, Mr Marty noted, the region was riven with conflict; during the Cold War there were in effect two Southeast Asias. Other events, such as the disintegration of Cambodia, posed huge diplomatic challenges to members.

However, in recent years member countries have been reaping the benefits of the “Asean Dividend”, which has helped people focus on peace and economic development.

“Yet at the same time, as I’m sure you are all in full recognition, our region is not without potential for risks and challenges,” he said.

One concern is the Korean peninsula where “the nuclear genie is out of the bottle” and there should be a role that Asean can play to help bring about peace in Asia overall, he said.

The second cluster of issues involves territorial disputes closer to home, which are a fact of political life in this part of the world, he said. The South China Sea is the most immediate concern since four Asean members as well as China and Taiwan have claims, but the East China Sea also bears watching because of tensions between China and Japan.

Bilateral issues also need monitoring. The Thai-Cambodian border dispute has flared up in recent years but Mr Marty said the region was now happy to see that it was at least being managed.

The third type of challenge involves developments that are purely internal but with regional ramifications. He gave as a recent example the communal tensions and persecution of Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Because Myanmar is attempting a dramatic democratic transformation, how it manages sectarian conflict is of concern both internally and externally, he said.

Looking at the longer term, Mr Marty said Asean needed to develop a vision that goes beyond 2015. That vision first and foremost must be consolidation of the Asean community.

“The Asean community is not an event that will simply conclude in 2015, it is a process that we must continue to consolidate, enhance and develop over the many years ahead, so that must be made our continued responsibility,” he said.

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Writer: Nithi Kaveevivitchai and Jurgen Gabel