The Future of ASEAN: Challenges and Opportunities

CISS Commentary, February 10, 2016

Chheang Vannarith

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, which has done remarkable achievements in maintaining peace and stability in the region, promoting regional economic development, and has become one of the main regional actors in shaping the evolving regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific.

Will ASEAN remain an active and relevant actor on the international stage? Will ASEAN become a global actor in the next fifty years? With cautious optimism, regional observers hold that ASEAN will remain relevant with the conditions that ASEAN strengthens its institutions and leadership, promotes public-private-people partnership for sustainable and inclusive development, and protects democratic values and human rights.

ASEAN is facing emerging strategic and security challenges stemming from major powers competition. Will ASEAN stays relevant and resilient in adapting to changing global and regional environment? ASEAN’s unity and centrality is therefore vital to the survival and relevance of ASEAN.

An emerging multipolar World Order is under construction. Major power politics will define the nature, rules, and norms of this evolving new World Order and largely determine the regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific. China and US are believed to be the two main actors in the Asia-Pacific while India, Russia, Japan, Australia, and Indonesia are emerging to play more significant roles in the region. ASEAN needs to know how to collectively manoeuver major power relationship.

The long-lasting key issues and constraints of promoting an integrated ASEAN are the strict interpretation and implementation of national sovereignty and non-interference principles, the lack of implementation of regional policy agenda, and weak democratic institutions in some member states of ASEAN. Hence, ASEAN needs to speed up institutional reforms at both regional and national levels and promote constructive engagement.

National interests and threat perception define state’s foreign policy and are the catalyst for regional cooperation. The ASEAN member states share common national interests, which are peace and economic development. They focus on regional economic integration and connectivity, identity construction, and build a community of opportunities and a people-centered ASEAN.

ASEAN’s shared threat perception focuses on non-traditional security issues such as climate change, maritime security, water resources security, terrorism and extremism, natural disasters, and pandemic diseases. The convergence of shared national interests and threat perception helps unify ASEAN. Regional cooperation and partnership are vital to address common regional issues and to realize common regional interests.

The main root causes of future regional insecurity derive from climate change, resources insecurity, and natural disasters. ASEAN member states have to address these issues effectively or lose legitimacy and popular support. In the worse case scenario, these issues will lead to regional conflicts and tensions. Moreover, major power competition may lead to a fragmented ASEAN. The optimistic scenario is that ASEAN is resilient, is able to mitigate the differences and promote institutionalized regime, and has capacity to harness technology to address non-traditional security issues.

Governance, political leadership, and social networks are crucial in promoting a people-centered ASEAN. Corruption, lack of transparency, lack of people’s participation, weak public institutions, and weak social networks are some of the main issues and challenges in the region. ASEAN needs to develop regional network of knowledge, regional network of policy enforcement or policy implementation, and regional governance index.

Inter-governmental organizations are not flexible enough in addressing emerging complex social, economic, and political issues. A network approach of regional cooperation and integration therefore performs better in solving pressing social needs and issues. Social normative dimension of governance and regional community building is essential. We need to move from stakeholders approach to rights-holders approach in order to enhance participatory regionalism.

The roles of private sector and civil society groups are vital to a people-centered ASEAN. So far the private sector and civil society have not been invited to effectively get involved in regional community building. A networked ASEAN plus inclusive consultative mechanism are required to promote participatory regionalism. ASEAN should aim to become a hybrid of networked and inter-governmental regional institution. The concept of a responsible ASEAN should be promoted in order to accelerate the implementation of regional policy agenda.

The core issues for ASEAN in the next five decades are related to people movement and labor mobility, technological innovation and capacity to harness technology, education and skills development, climate change, natural disasters, and racial or religious fundamentalism. The political map of Southeast Asia may be changed if there is no effective policy and mechanism in place to promote multiculturalism and social harmony.

In terms of economic development, the ASEAN member states need to radically reform their fiscal policy to collect more taxes and revenues to fund education, skills development, and research and innovation. There are six imperatives for ASEAN to work on in the next decade: connectivity and innovation, regulatory cooperation and coherence, human capital investment and labor mobility, social protection, social innovation, and building a community of shared destiny and a community of opportunities.

Socio-cultural pillar deserves more attention and investment if ASEAN wishes to realize its people-centered community. ASEAN needs to double its efforts in narrowing the development gaps, giving more opportunities to the less developed countries, promoting good governance, strengthening democratic institutions, reviewing the ASEAN Charter and genuinely implementing the charter, promoting ASEAN identity, branding ASEAN on global stage, and preserving and promoting cultural and historical heritages of ASEAN.

The future of ASEAN hangs in the balance of its external relations with major powers, the promotion of regional unity and solidarity, the advancement of continued and robust institutional reforms, the promotion of good governance and democratic consolidation, environmental protection, the preservation of cultural and historical heritages and diversity, and human resources development.

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