Thai chair and new branding of Asean
Now the election has passed and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has been named to head the soon-to-be civilian government. Until the new cabinet is officially named, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai will stay on in his position. With both of them at the helm, the Thai Asean chairmanship will proceed as planned. Nearly six months have elapsed since Thailand became chair, but what it has been able to accomplish over 130 meetings of various committees has gone totally unreported, as the local media was zeroed in on the post-election drama and political brinksmanship manifested by Thailand's 27 parties. Thai bureaucrats are free to prepare for the Asean summit and related meetings.
Over the past weeks, the government has drummed up all kinds of publicity related to the 34th Asean Summit that will be held on June 22-23 at a Bangkok hotel. With the use of all available communication means including a public relations campaign involving the "Wild Boars", the 12 young footballers and their coach who were rescued from Tham Luang cave, the mega event is a far cry from the dark Pattaya days over a decade ago.
However, this time Thailand is facing disruptive challenges from outside. The country chairs Asean at a time of major shifts in the international environment, highlighted by the US-China trade war, rising nationalism, and anti-globalisation. These external factors will impact the region's political and security landscape in unfathomable ways. In particular, the confrontation between the two superpowers, which are the grouping's most powerful dialogue partners, have caused deep concerns and fears among Asean leaders about their ability to remain non-partisan players.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was bold enough to say recently that there could come a time when Asean will have to choose sides, but he hoped it will not be soon. It was a stark warning from the bloc's richest member. Obviously Asean does not have to choose sides if its leaders are all on the same page. Truth be told, judging from Asean's five-decade-long history, any political shift or disunity within the bloc would be the result of political manoeuvring for short-term gains to serve a member's domestic needs and constituency. In other words, though they are on the same page, they toe different lines at different times. However, despite intermittent differences, Asean members eventually come back together, as none wants to be portrayed as an obstacle to Asean solidarity.
With this backdrop, the Thai chair has mustered Asean's wisdom and past experience in maintaining peace and prosperity to draft the Asean Indo-Pacific Outlook, a new framework for comprehensive cooperation between Asean and its dialogue partners. Thanks to Indonesia's foresight and collaborative efforts by the chair and its members, this initiative will serve as an additional strategic safety net for Asean as it faces an unpredictable world and challenges posed by rising powers near and far.
From a Thai perspective, Asean must create a so-called "value-added strategy" to ensure that the region will not be trapped in the US-China strategic competition. The most important element of Asean Indo-Pacific version is to strengthen the Asean-centred regional architecture. With it, the chair hopes that Asean would be able to generate a new strategic equilibrium among competing major powers. The ability to shift and balance itself with all the forces swirling around it would preserve Asean autonomy and centrality, preventing any major power from achieving regional hegemony. At this juncture, it is not wrong to say that the level of strategic trust among Asean members is high.
Four years after its founding, Asean issued a Declaration of Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, or Zopfan in 1971, to protect itself from meddling by external powers. Fresh from decolonisation, the Asean founding members wanted to build their fragile local communities first before they came together. Then, in 1976, as its confidence grew and unity became stronger and more cohesive, Asean came out with another security safety net -- a regional code of conduct known as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) -- to preserve its autonomy trying to curb major powers' assertiveness. Now, the 43-year-old TAC has spread to all geographical areas with 29 signatories including Peru and South Africa, which will accede to the TAC at this year's Asean ministerial meeting.
After over two decades of debate and planning, Asean decided to push for the Treaty of Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, which was signed in 1995 and took effect in 1997. Asean wants to avoid any possible nuclear conflict in the region. Now it is awaiting the Big Five to sign this treaty. This third security safety net has served Asean well in the past five decades, providing the stability and peace needed for economic development and progress.
Today, with increased global uncertainty and unpredictability, it is crucial for Asean to lessen unseen risks by adding new initiatives. It helps to explain why Asean has finally come up with its own blueprint for Asean cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries, despite the reluctance of some Asean members initially. After 16 months of internal discussions, Asean members narrowed the gap and agreed on the overall Indo-Pacific outlook. At this weekend's summit, Asean leaders are expected to approve this outlook, which is considered the grouping's most forward looking endeavors. In early November, it would be further discussed and adopted at the East Asia Summit. At that meeting, Asean leaders will meet with the so-called Big 8 -- the US, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Asean hopes that the outlook would guide the grouping's engagement with its dialogue partners which can pick and choose the projects they wish to cooperate on several platforms under the Asean-led mechanism, both in the economic and political realms. Other Indo-Pacific strategies designed by the US, Japan, Australia and India share commonalities with Asean's. They all respect Asean's centrality, international rule of law, transparency, inclusiveness and good governance. Areas of cooperation in the Asean version include maritime matters, connectivity, sustainability and economic cooperation.
The Asean plan for the Indo-Pacific region is a friendly one which would help dialogue partners to play constructive roles in regional affairs. It would make Asean more nimble.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs