Thein Sein: ASEAN is at a Critical Juncture

Khmer Times, Thursday, 15 May 2014; News by Chheang Vannarith

In his opening remarks at the 24th ASEAN Summit in Nay Pyi Taw on May 11, 2014, President Thein Sein stated, “Today, we are a critical juncture and we need to make sure that all necessary steps in the community building are taken in a timely manner for realisation of the ASEAN Community.” He stressed the promotion of good governance, protection of migrant workers, narrowing development gap, poverty reduction, promoting inclusive growth, enhancing productivity, competitiveness, and innovation. He called for deepening cooperation and coordination to address both traditional and non-traditional security issues. He urged for stronger partnership among different stakeholders to address the issues of climate change and natural disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.

ASEAN has embarked on a long journey full of turbulences, difficulties, opportunities, and potentials. ASEAN will celebrate its 47th birthday on August 8, 2014. The original objectives of ASEAN were to solve regional disputes, build regional peace and stability, and contain the spread of communism in South East Asia. After the end of the Cold War, it has gradually developed into a full-fledged regional institution covering a wide range of issues from security to economic and socio-cultural dimensions.

ASEAN is under time and expectation pressures to complete its community building by the end of 2015. Under the three pillars of its community building, to date, ASEAN has achieved roughly 80 percent of it’s economic community blueprint. However, there is slow progress in implementing the other two pillars: political-security and socio-cultural blueprints. Without a simultaneous implementation and progress of these pillars, the ASEAN community is incomplete.

The political-security pillar envisages three characteristics: a rules-based community of shared values and norms, a cohesive, peaceful, stable and resilient region with shared responsibility for comprehensive security, and a dynamic region and outward-looking region in an increasingly integrated and interdependent world. The socio-cultural community focuses on people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN.

It was the first time Myanmar chairs ASEAN since it gained official membership in 1997. This provides a great opportunity for President Thein Sein and his administration to raise and assert the image and role of Myanmar on the international stage after opening up three years ago. Hope and expectations are high that Myanmar can accelerate ASEAN regional integration and community building process. The summit was a significant milestone towards  realisation of the ASEAN community.

However, it was also a severe test for ASEAN unity and the neutral and responsible role of Myanmar as the ASEAN chair. Myanmar is under multiple pressures stemming from increasing tensions and complexities in the South China Sea especially after the recent clashes between China and Vietnam following the installation of drilling rig Ocean 981 by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and between China and the Philippines over the apprehension of Chinese fishing boat. In response to such tension, ASEAN issued a statement urging “all parties concerned…to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area; and resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat of use of force.” It also “called on all parties to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) to undertake full and effective implementation of the DOC in order to create an environment of mutual trust and confidence. They emphasised the need to expeditiously work towards an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).”

However, China has its own view. In a press conference on May 12, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded, “The issue of South China Sea is not one between China and ASEAN. There is consensus between China and ASEAN countries on jointly safeguarding peace and stability in South China Sea. China stands with ASEAN countries to continue to work for a full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and wants to steadily move forward the negotiation process of COC. China and ASEAN countries are in close communication on this point. At the same time, we hope relevant ASEAN countries can earnestly respect and implement DOC, make positive efforts along with China to safeguard peace, stability and maritime security of South China Sea and create enabling conditions for COC negotiations.”

On another front, domestic political crisis in Thailand is threatening regional peace and stability and this poses multiple challenges to ASEAN. Without quick and comprehensive solutions to the crisis, Thailand and the region will pay a high security and economic price. Under such mounting pressure, ASEAN has to be flexible in its approach towards the internal issues of its member states. Cambodia requested  ASEAN intervention during its border conflict with Thailand back in 2011 but it was blocked by Thailand based on the principle of non-interference. Now, ASEAN took a bold step in intervening in Thai domestic politics. It is the beginning of a new ASEAN way. In a separate statement at the 24th ASEAN Summit, ASEAN called for “a peaceful resolution to the ongoing challenge in the country through dialogue and in full respect of democratic principles and rule of law.”

The rising tension and unpredictability in the South China Sea, and protracted political crisis in Thailand dominated the discussions at the ASEAN Summit. These two issues will continue to test ASEAN’s capacity and unity. It puts Myanmar into a difficult position. The tensions are disrupting and derailing other areas of regional cooperation and it slows down the overall performance of the ASEAN community blueprints.

Acknowledging the urgency and importance of regional security and political issues, ASEAN needs to strengthen its centrality in shaping regional architecture. ASEAN needs to improve the capacity of its secretariat and develop clear road maps to build a rules-based and ASEAN-centric regional security order. The East Asia Summit should serve as a strategic direction forum. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) should play its role to strengthen structured security dialogue, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM-Plus, and the Extended ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) focus on practical security cooperation.

On the socio-economic development issue, good governance, as highlighted by the Myanmar chair this year, deserves more attention and strategic action plans. It is the linchpin of national development and regional integration. Without efficient, transparent, accountable, and democratic institutions, ASEAN member states cannot realise their potential. Without  strong members, the ASEAN family will not be united, peaceful, and prosperous.

ASEAN should consider establishing its own regional governance index to monitor and assess the quality of institutions in each member states and determine ways and means to assist them to improve and develop good governance. ASEAN Institute of Governance should be created in order to promote research and information sharing among the ASEAN Member States.

At such a critical juncture, ASEAN should at least be able to set a concrete and firm foundation conductive for a long-term peace and stability, robust regional integration that is based on the guiding principles of good governance, inclusive growth, people-centred, and knowledge-based. The post-2015 ASEAN needs to focus more on institution building, new security order construction based on the ASEAN centrality, technological and social innovation, entrepreneurship, and sustainability.

 

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