Eight challenges Asean must overcome
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Eight challenges Asean must overcome

Exactly 48 years ago, the foreign ministers of the five Founding Members of Asean gathered here in Lamtaen, Bang Saen to chart a new course for this region.

Mr S. Rajaratnam of Singapore upon his arrival in Bangkok said:  " ... if our political independence is to have any kind of reality, there must be a countermeasure of economic strength."

Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia stated: " ... we cannot survive for long as independent but isolated peoples unless we also think and act together and unless we prove by deeds that we belong to a family of Southeast Asian nations."

Mr. Narciso Ramos of the Philippines told the press: " ... a new organisation is needed that offers higher potential for success than those that have gone before and that provides for closer contact."

Dr Thanat Khoman, the host of the event, declared: "What millions of men and women in our part of the world want is to erase the old and obsolete concept of domination and subjection of the past, and to replace it with a new spirit of give and take, of equality and partnership."

Dr. Adam Malik of Indonesia came up with the acronym of "Asean", since for him institutions, unions or organisations were for strangers and it was only family and friends who 'associate' together.

Those were the Founding Fathers of Asean whose memory we honour today.  Of the five, only Dr Thanat Khoman at the age of 101 years old, is still with us today.  But the candle of Asean friendship and solidarity that was lit almost half a century ago continues to burn brightly.  

Here at Laemtan, Bang Saen it was said that the Founding Fathers and their senior officials, whenever they agreed on something, would take a break and play golf.  And when they could not agree on something -- they would also take a break and play golf.  This the story I like to tell people whenever they ask me -- what is the Asean Way?  The golf story reflects a camaraderie born of mutual respect, a culture of doing things consensually, in an informal atmosphere of abiding friendship, and with a sense of hope and optimism.

Much water has passed under the bridge since those times.  Asean has gone from five to ten member states.  I believe it should become eleven, with the inclusion of Timor-Leste, sooner rather than later, perhaps with some special transitional provisions, in order to complete the geographical coverage of our association.

With a population of 620 million and a combined GDP worth over 2.4 trillion US dollars, Asean has grown into a strong and resilient entity that continues to aspire to achieve more.  It has become a natural habit for our leaders, ministers, and senior officials, as well as civil societies to meet and consult.  Last year alone, ASEAN had more meetings than in its first 20 years combined.

But the successful Asean we all want to see built and that we all aspire to is still a work in progress. 

The advent of the Asean Economic Community at the beginning of next year, provides an opportune time for stocktaking and perhaps some adjustments.


 There are eight main challenges that Asean still has to overcome.

First, Southeast Asia has incredible diversity in terms of religion, language, ethnicity, and culture.  There are several forms of government, there are also different interpretations of what human rights means, and what is the proper relationship between the individual and the state. Indeed there are different understandings of what are natural and what are man-made disasters.  It is nothing short of remarkable that ten states of such vast differences could have achieved all that they have, can cooperate as much as they have, and have been growing economically as much as they have. 

But until we can achieve a better understanding of what the differences are, how they can be lessened, and what are the commonalities that we can hope to achieve, our diversity will be a weakness, not a strength.

Second, implementation of agreements reached is still at a minimum.  A recent survey reveals that only 30% of commitments made among the Asean member states are ever implemented.  There is no central mechanism to enforce compliance.  In addition, there is no properly functioning dispute settlement mechanism, whether it be in the economic or political spheres.  The Asean  Secretariat is far from becoming a supranational body.  There are perhaps good reasons for this. 

Nevertheless, the rate of compliance will have to be improved.  Otherwise the many Asean meetings and resolutions will increasingly not be justifiable.

Third, there must be greater attention paid to SMEs, small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs if the Asean Economic Community is to succeed.  More information and technical assistance should be provided to them.

Fourth, there must be more connectivity between the AEC and the other two pillars, namely the Political-Security Community and the Socio-Cultural Community.  At present, the emphasis appears to be on the AEC, but such an economic community can not be sustained without a strong political-security framework, and a robust socio-cultural underpinning.

Fifth, there is still lacking a sense of ownership of Asean among our populations. Our citizens do not as yet identify themselves as Asean, unlike the citizens of the EU who increasingly identify themselves as Europeans first and their national identities second. The peoples of Asean still do not participate in the decision-making process of Asean. Asean is still regarded as a forum for policy-makers and bureaucrats.

Asean has no common foreign policy, no common economic policy, nor does it have a common security policy.  This is perhaps understandable given the history of Asean and the diversified political culture of Asean countries. While the lack of common policy may lead to a lack of a sense of ownership of Asean, it is perhaps the lack of common policy that has made Asean a strong, progressive and relatively cohesive association for the past 48 years.  It is this perceived weakness of Asean that perhaps is the strength of Asean. 

Nevertheless,  although a lack of enforced common policies can be seen as a welcome "non-rigidity" within the organization, it does indicate that there is a lack of putting the interests of the collective Asean ahead of the interests of individual member states.  This in my view, is the sixth weak point of Asean. There is no principle of "Asean affairs come first."  There is no shared feeling of Asean peoples that "we are Asean, and Asean is us." 

In politics and security, this translates into a deficit in trust. Policymakers seek independence over interdependence. This limits Asean's ability to encourage cooperation--even in areas that should not be controversial, such as disaster relief and other issues of human security.

Seventh, knowledge about each other is still not high among the Asean countries.  There are certainly more people in Asean who know the name of the American President than those who know the name of the Vietnamese President, for example.  International mass media based outside the region continues to be our main source of information not only about the world, but indeed about one another.  The efforts we are making in schools to add more knowledge about other Asean states must be supplemented by more space and coverage in our local media.

Eighth,  there is a continuing tension between a rules-based community which is implicit in the efforts to achieve the Asean Economic Community, and that of the Asean Way of doing things.

Overall,  Southeast Asia is still very much about states, borders and governments. It is not just that the interests of individual states usually come first, but it is that the state often dominates at the expense of Asean.

Granted, this is not wholly unjustified. Many of Asean's member states face significant domestic challenges. It is understandable that states feel the need to get their own houses in order before turning their attention to the region. This is compounded by economic and political differences among member states. It is compounded by geopolitical interests and great power rivalries. It is compounded by social and cultural issues. 

But a focus on domestic politics has overshadowed an important reality: that Asean and the Asean Community are about giving and receiving. By putting more into it, a state gets more out of it- it's a value added and we all benefit together. Any "zero-sum" mentality towards Asean must be cast away.

Part of this lack of prioritization of Asean by national governments comes from a lack of awareness and knowledge--both of Asean itself, and of other Asean states among the citizenry.  People do not readily see how Asean impacts their lives, nor do they realize what potential it has to affect their lives for the better.

This could partially be because Asean has not communicated or marketed itself well enough to its citizens, but it is also because Asean itself has not focused on people as much as states. The establishment of the Asean Socio-Cultural Community would be a great step forward, but it must be given as much attention as the Economic Community pillar.

The lack of knowledge of other Asean peoples is an even bigger obstacle to building a real Asean community.  Old prejudices and misconceptions still swirl around our collective memories. Grudges against neighbors for perceived wrongdoings 20, 100, 500 years ago still shape many of our interactions. These old biases breed distrust, they breed chauvinism, and they prevent a united Asean from meeting its full potential.

How can we overcome the deeply held, resentful misconceptions? We have to meet each other. 

The citizens of Asean need to travel within and around Southeast Asia, absorb the diverse cultures, religions, languages, ethnicities of the region. Our youths need to cross borders. Our businesses have to be able to trade freely. We need to learn each other's languages. We need to talk, trade and come together as one to break down old barriers and build trust.

Asean is building a foundation for this already. The Asean Socio-Cultural Community which will come into being at the beginning of next year, has pushed for greater people-to-people linkages, as well narrowing the human and social development divisions. Visa restrictions are slowly being eased; just last month Myanmar and Thailand finalised visa-free travel between our countries. The Asean Single Aviation Market and Open Skies policies have made it easier to fly across the region. 

But what is still missing is the necessary physical infrastructure, roads, bridges and rail, for business and travelers to move through the region.  This demand for infrastructure and greater connectivity in Asean is real and urgent.

China's initiatives such as the China-Asean Investment Cooperation Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) together with their commitment to support infrastructure development in Asean must be welcomed. 

For China, building roads and railways in mainland Southeast Asia is an extension of their own contiguous landmass, building ports and opening the Maritime Silk Road is important to its maritime trade. 

Japan too has pledged 110 billion dollars for infrastructure in Asean over the next decade. 

These are strategic moves by Japan and China, but Asean, its people and its businesses will benefit from them immensely.

As the physical and policy barriers get increasingly lower, as travel in the region gets easier, and people-to-people links get established, our psychological barriers and old prejudices will start to dissipate. 

Through construction of the hardware - infrastructure, roads and rails - combined with improved software -- lowering of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, improved customs procedures and removal of visa restrictions - will make trade within Asean and the AEC much easier, and profitable, and allow firms to build better knowledge and understanding of neighboring markets.


Despite its shortcomings, Asean can build on solid foundations and past successes.  First, let us look at what Asean is. It is made up of ten states and more than 620 million people. Asean is blessed by its geography; we are at the maritime and mainland gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. We are the buffer between the region's two resident superpowers and most populous countries, China and India. Asean's economic growth will come from our own drive and dynamism, but also its ability to connect to these large neighboring markets as well as other regions of the world.

Indeed, Asean and its member states are critical and highly desired partners for each of the world's major political and economic powers. Not just China, India, and the US -- but also middle powers such as the EU, Japan, Australia, Russia and South Korea which are treating Asean as a focal point for their foreign policies. 

Asean, for its part, has balanced these often-competing interests very skillfully.

Not only are Asean and its member states part of most international organizations, but the world wants to be a part of Asean's institutions.  Asean has an unparalleled convening power.

Asean has extended its own multilateral practices to gather in other states, welcoming them to enter into dialogue and to find consensus. It does this through the East Asia Summit, Asean+1, Asean+3, the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting, the Asean Regional Forum, Asean Post-Ministerial Meeting or the PMCs and so forth.

Asean is not just a consensus-builder, but an agenda-setter.

Attempts to construct security and economic architectures in East Asia are almost entirely centered around Asean, if not lead by it. This has all served to deepen Asean's credibility, trust, and ability to increase other states' levels of comfort. The result is that Asean is seen internationally as an opportunity -- never a threat.

Whatever complaints one may have about the way Asean does things, the reality is that Asean is at the core of the emerging regional architecture of the 21st Century. Many of the rules of the game are set by Asean.  Asean centrality has emerged as the status quo for 21st Century Asia-Pacific regionalism. 

How has it achieved this centrality?  The diversity of Southeast Asia is enriching in and of itself -- and it is likely this very aspect is what has enabled Asean to become the consensus-builder that it is.  Faced with the undeniable logic of the benefits of cooperation, putting aside differences has become an absolute necessity. 

This also extends into politics.  Just as the peoples of Asean are of great variation, so too are its national governments.  While many assume that states cooperate only if they are of the same regime type, Asean is clear proof to the contrary. 

Asean upholds the principles of democracy, but it has also shown its capability and willingness to accommodate states of different stages and shades of democracy. 

Myanmar is a case in point.  Myanmar has been closed off from the rest of the world for more than half a century, and despite reservations about its development path and human rights records, it entered Asean in 1997.  In November this year, the country will hold its first fully free election in 25 years, and there is every chance for peaceful transition in Myanmar through election.  This would have been unimaginable a few years ago. 

Asean has been an avenue through which domestic difficulties or political transitions can be slowly reconciled and worked through without having the added multiplier of external press or relentless condemnations from neighbours. 

Asean's approach to create a level of comfort within the grouping has allowed and driven cooperation and collaboration.  No state has left because of fear or pressure of regime change.

Ultimately, Asean is a regional bridge, balancer and a stabiliser. Its integration is deep and broad, but not too much. It includes countries big and small, but no single country dominates. It has its critics and it has its champions, but neither are too loud nor too quiet. It attracts interest from every country on earth, but so far, none has been able to dominate the fluid and dynamic region of Southeast Asia. For nearly half a century, Asean has managed to navigate an ideal balance over just about every dimension.

In a few words, it has been "just about right."  It is just right both for its member states and for the international community, and this the reason for its intense charm and power of attraction. Perhaps, this is something that even the EU could learn from us.

Nevertheless, "The Asean Way," which proclaims the importance of mutual respect, non-intervention in neighbors' domestic affairs, and freedom from external interference can be a double edged sword.

In terms of promoting peace and stability between the countries of Southeast Asia, it has been a stunning success. Early in Asean's history it was a vital tool to mitigate against further conflict within Asean.  It helped to create a comfort level for countries of different backgrounds and conditions.  

Indeed, many believe the Asean Way is the linchpin that has held everything together.

But it has also meant that reaching a consensus is often time-consuming, and on some issues not even attempted. Consensus, when it can be reached, is often compromised to the lowest common denominator.  What is to be done when consensus cannot be built? How can it establish and enforce a rule-of-law, which implies doing things that some of its members would not like?

Since the Asian Financial Crisis, adherence to the principle of non-interference has moderated.

In fact, Asean has become institutionalized to an extent which appears to violate the principles of non-interference. 

There are special institutions such as the Commission on the Status of Women and the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The Asean Community itself is a vehicle for further institutional and aspirational change within ASEAN's member countries, predicated on establishing a stronger normative and rules-based foundation.

These changes represent the growing demands among Southeast Asia's leaders and citizens for Asean to be a vehicle for a better region, to press for improved human rights, democracy and good governance.

Asean has had to deal with new problems which require collective, rather than just cooperative coordination on issues such as cross-border diseases, transnational crimes, terrorism, and non-state actors playing a much larger role in the world at large.

Asean is shifting itself away from an 'association' guided by the Asean Way, to a rules-based 'Community' under the Asean Charter.

This balance between the old and the new will be difficult to pinpoint. It will remain fluid. This fluidity reflects what modern Asean is. It is more than a cooperative balance against the Russians, Chinese and Americans in a Cold War context. It is more than a vehicle for absolute economic gains. It is more than tool to avoid conflict between its members.

Asean has become a major power in its own right. It is an economic leader, and a regional agenda and norm setter. Asean itself is becoming a vehicle for change.

There will always be a fine line between the Asean Way and the advent of a Rule-Based Community. There will be issues where Asean activism succeeds in getting this balance right, there will be other times where its response will seem woefully inadequate.

So far, in the 48 years since the five Founding Fathers met here in Laemtan, Asean has got this balance between Continuity and Change 'just about right'.

Keeping this balance will be no easy task. 

The Asia-Pacific is going through tectonic changes as we speak; we are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation great power transition, and it is happening right on our doorstep.

We are feeling the effects of geographical and maritime disputes, extremist terrorism, transnational crime, climate change and cyber warfare. 

To paraphrase the late premier Lee Kuan Yew, the future is what we make of it ...  Asean must become a haven of tolerance, harmony and progress.

As we enter the era of the Asean Community, its economic, politico-security and socio-cultural pillars will be the vehicles through which we can reach the common goal of fostering a peaceful and stable region under the aspirational theme of  "One vision, One identity and One Community."

It will drive us to greater economic property.  It will be the backbone of an Asean-centric regional architecture.  We must all work harder, and closer, together to bring about its full realisation.  If we succeed, we will live up to the standards set by the Founding Fathers;  and we will be building a strong 'home' to pass on to future generations.

A speech by Dr Surakiart Sathirathai, chairman of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council, former deputy prime minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs at the international conference of the Thai Royal Armed Forces on Aug 7 to mark the 48th anniversary of Asean.

Surakiart Sathirathai

Former deputy prime minister

Dr Surakiart Sathirathai, chairman of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council, former deputy prime minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs at the international conference of the Thai Royal Armed Forces on Aug 7 to mark the 48th anniversary of Asean.

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