The Khmer Times, 7 February 2017
It started as a humble and loose regional organization five decades ago, but now Asean has proved to be a beacon of regional peace and stability and a fulcrum of regional security and economic architecture in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific.
Through gradually implementing institutional reforms and collective diplomacy, Asean has earned political trust and legitimacy from the international community.
Asean is also widely regarded as a benign de facto regional leader, honest broker and shaper of international relations norms.
Asean has emerged to be one of the core pillars in the evolving multipolar world. The role of Asean in directing regional agenda and moulding regional architecture has been acknowledged.
There is no country in the Asia-Pacific that has as strong a legitimacy as Asean in mediating the differences, preventing major conflicts and anchoring a trust-based, rules-based regional order.
The Asean way of non-interference, consultation and consensus, constructive engagement and peaceful settlement of disputes has proven to be an effective way in securing unity and is the relevant role of Asean.
Asean centrality, regardless of its conceptual vagueness and confusion, has become the key term of Asean. Politically and diplomatically, it refers to the collective leadership and power of Asean in setting regional agenda and shaping regional architecture.
Strategically, it aims to manage major powers’ competition and rivalry. Normatively, it aims to advance Asean values and norms.
Asean centrality cannot be realized without Asean unity, Asean neutrality and the Asean way. Asean’s community building is a process and a journey which requires a shared vision, commitment and responsibility, collective efforts and leadership and inclusive participation from all the stakeholders.
Imbalance and uneven progress of implementing the three pillars – the Asean Economic Community, the Asean Political Security Community and the Asean Socio-Cultural Community – has hampered Asean from realising a true community.
Other issues and challenges faced by Asean are the lack of coordination between the three community councils, a lack of inclusive dialogue among the various stakeholders and a lack of institutional capacity as well as leadership in implementing the community building blueprints.
The people of Asean have not fully participated in and benefitted from the regional integration. Some are left behind, some are neglected. Therefore, an inclusive and people-centred Asean is essential.
The Asean 2025 blueprints have been created to continue deepening regional integration and strengthening the regional community. The main goals of Asean 2025 are to build a united, inclusive, resilient, sustainable and innovative community.
A public and policy driven communication strategy for Asean 2025 is required to further promote a public awareness campaign, academic research and information sharing, institutional capacity building, leadership development and implementation.
Regional and national forums should be established to promote multi-stakeholders’ dialogues and inform the public and policy makers on the progress, obstacles, challenges and prospects of realizing Asean 2025.
Amid the rising global wave of nationalism, populism and protectionism, Asean is under huge pressure to narrow the development gap, reduce socio-economic inequality and promote an inclusive Asean.
To realize an inclusive Asean, we need foremost inclusive dialogue on cross-cutting regional issues by involving relevant stakeholders across the government agencies, legislative, private corporations, international organizations, the academic community and civil society.
The state is responsible in enabling and empowering civil society to take a leadership role in promoting an Asean socio-cultural community, facilitating and supporting the private sector in realizing the Asean economic community blueprint.
Asean needs to invest more in comprehensive innovation, including public sector innovation, technological innovation and social innovation. The state institutions need to be robustly reformed to adapt to and keep pace with social transformations, market dynamics and technological revolution.
Asean-centric regional order needs more articulation. Asean needs to work out its plan to enhance its role as a stabilizing force in the region within the context of soaring geopolitical complexity and uncertainty.
To realize a people-centred Asean, the regional political leaders must genuinely embrace democratic values and provide a safe and constructive space for civil society to effectively get involved in regional dialogues and community building.
Multi-stakeholders’ dialogues and partnerships are necessary to generate social consensus, which is the foundation of realizing a people-centred and inclusive Asean.