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The Future of Asia 2017

ASEAN at 50: Carry on soul searching?

The bloc must streamline decision-making as global tensions rise

The slogan of ASEAN 2017 under its Philippine chairmanship -- "Partnership for Changes, Engaging the World" -- is telling. After five decades of existence, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations continues to do what it has always done best -- soul searching.

But as the 10 leaders of ASEAN countries prepare for their 30th summit in Manila on April 29, the familiar regional and international environment in which they have operated is undergoing radical change. The grouping faces disruptive new challenges at a time when its members are themselves growing stronger economically and becoming more self-confident and assertive in their international dealings.

Such assertiveness can cause division among the member countries, as witnessed by the group's response to the territorial and maritime conflict in the South China Sea over the past decade. The lack of a common ASEAN position over the July 12, 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China's claims in the region has been portrayed as a sign of ASEAN fragility.

The Philippines, despite the favorable ruling, decided not to continue to press China. President Rodrigo Duterte instead adopted a softer tone toward Beijing than his predecessors, a move that reduced overall tensions. As the current ASEAN chair, Manila's position will almost certainly be reflected in the association's final statement.

Signs of growing political assertiveness among some ASEAN members, both within the group and in the wider international arena, have given the impression they are going their different ways. Their position on China is one example. While ties at the ASEAN-China level are cordial, individual members have different levels of intimacy and interaction with Beijing. Relations between Singapore and China, for instance, have become strained, although this has yet to affect China's relationship with ASEAN as a whole.

Whether ASEAN's collective relationship with China can remain immune to friction between Beijing and individual member states is a key question. The cooling of relations between Singapore and China must be closely monitored, especially as the city-state will take over as next year's ASEAN chairman while continuing to serve as the group's country coordinator for ASEAN-China ties until next year.

As the South China Sea dispute vividly highlights, the international strategic landscape has changed so dramatically that it is prompting ASEAN, in its 50th year, to take a hard look at the grouping's strengths and weaknesses. The election of U.S. President Donald Trump has increased the level of uncertainty around the globe. In the past four months, the international community, ASEAN included, has been in suspense about U.S. intentions, struggling to respond to constantly changing signals from the world's superpower. It is clearer now, however, that only Washington's actions speak, and any prior U.S. comment or commitment on any particular issue is irrelevant.

Another 50 years?

This is the new context that ASEAN must deal with. To ensure that it will be able to survive another 50 years, it is imperative that the 10-member countries set out new priorities. First, ASEAN must adjust the way it makes decisions. Since enactment of its 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, ASEAN has relied on consensus as the foundation of the group's decision-making. This process has served the body well over the past four decades.

In the past, ASEAN had the luxury of time, as the conflicts and tensions in the region were not as volatile as in the Middle East or Africa. But with the current air of global uncertainty and high level of unpredictability, crisis can break out without warning.

ASEAN needs a better way to reach decisions. Until now, any association member, even one with no direct interest in a particular regional dispute, still had the power to veto decisions made by conflicting parties.

In future, only member countries that are directly involved or engaged in specific issues or disputes should be given powers to make the relevant decisions.

Second, ASEAN must speak with one voice on issues impacting regional and global security. On some issues, the group has already demonstrated unity. On Friday, for example, ASEAN foreign ministers issued their latest joint statement, expressing strong concern over growing tensions on the Korean peninsula. In other areas -- such as the outbreak of violence against minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar late last year -- consensus has proven more elusive. The divergent attitudes within ASEAN over the Rohingya issue showed up deep seated religious and social differences within the group.

Overall, however, ASEAN has proven over the years that when push comes to shove, members will compromise in order to secure their own survival amid imminent dangers. The association is already adopting more common positions on key international issues such as counter-terrorism, climate change and human trafficking, among others.

Code of conduct

One of the latest examples of this increased unity of purpose is ASEAN's position on a new United Nations effort to impose a total ban on the use of nuclear weapons. All the group's members backed the latest negotiations over the treaty, which began in March. In addition, the bloc has said it wants to expand the application of its four decade-old regional code of conduct beyond Southeast Asia, covering the broader international community, especially the major powers. ASEAN leaders have indicated they want to use the code as a building block for a new style of regional architecture.

To do so, ASEAN has to update its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation to keep up with the fluid international environment. The review of the treaty should be done with care. Ways must also be identified to use ASEAN's High Council as a conflict settlement mechanism among members. In order to do so, the trust factor among member countries, and the powers of the Jakarta-based ASEAN secretariat as well as the role of the group's secretary-general must be enhanced.

Finally, ASEAN must come up with a long-term strategy to engage with key dialogue partners, especially the U.S. and China, that can enhance the regional strategic environment. ASEAN has always been passive and tended to respond to crises or issues at hand as they arise. Since each member has its own national priorities, a common strategy would allow each member to outline both national and group interests in a broader ASEAN context, instead of responding to each crisis in a fragmented way.

ASEAN will survive for another 50 years only if each member can keep its national and regional interests in equilibrium. That will require a certain level of give and take. Beyond rapport between individual leaders, increased mutual trust and shared norms would enable ASEAN to overcome the disruptive challenges it faces.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a Thai journalist and senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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