ASEAN and a Changing Regional Order

The Khmer Times, 19 June 2017

The international order is under stress, facing high volatility. The world is becoming a multiplex world where state and non-state actors dynamically interact and interplay, while international issues are getting more intertwined and interconnected.


The Asia Pacific region is undergoing a strategic tectonic shift from the US-centric regional order to a regional order driven by multiple actors including Asean.


No country appears to be able to build a regional hegemonic order.


To stay relevant, Asean must continue strengthening its regional role and capacity.


The US is declining, especially under Donald Trump’s presidency. A weakening US leadership has forced some Asean member countries to pivot to China for their long-term survival and interest.


China does not seem to build hub and spoke relations – the ones similar to the US-led alliance system – but exerts its regional leadership and influence through harnessing economic interdependence and dual-track diplomacy – a combination of both bilateral and multilateral mechanisms.


Due to different values and divergent strategic interests, China and the US will not be able to co-lead or co-pilot regional order.


Steadily and certainly, China is going to assume a greater dominant role in Southeast Asia, while the US influence is receding. A Sino-centric regional order is fast evolving.


The power competition and rivalry between China and the US is unavoidable – posing a security dilemma for Asean member states, which are not interested in taking sides.


If the Asean members, in future unforeseen circumstances, are coerced or forced to take sides, it will result in regional division and instability.


It is in no one’s interest to see the collapse of Asean. China’s regional power projection will fail if Asean is divided.


The role of middle powers such as Japan, India, Australia and South Korea is expected to be more strategically robust, to be a new collective force in ensuring regional peace and stability.


No single country is able to resolve complex regional issues ranging from maritime security in the South and East China Seas to water security in the Mekong region. Every state regardless of its size and power has a role to play.


Asean is generally perceived as an honest broker and trust builder in the region. Open and inclusive regional security architecture, now under the leadership of Asean, needs to be strengthened in order to navigate through the uncertain future ahead.


A genuine political will from all major powers is required to maintain the central role of Asean.


The strength of Asean largely depends on the support and partnership that it has galvanised over decades with dialogue partners.


Asean needs support from all dialogue partners to gauge and realise its strategic role as a fulcrum of an evolving regional architecture and a collective force in promoting regional cooperation and partnership building.


Asean’s future lies in its unity and capacity to deliver regional public goods such as peace, prosperity and harmony.


By acknowledging the success of Asean and calling this body the “region’s strategic convener”, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told participants at the Shangri-La Dialogue early this month that Asean has used “its influence over time to support and maintain the rule of law”.


There is a need to build “a region where might is not right, where transparent rules apply to all – the big fish, the little fish and the shrimps,” he added.


Promoting a rules-based regional order is also critical to serving long-term common international interests and the survival of Asean, a grouping of small and medium-sized countries.


A rules-based regional order refers to the respect and enforcement of international laws and rules in governing inter-state relations. Every country regardless of size and power benefits from a rules-based order.


Asean and its member states need to strengthen the institutional capacity at both the regional and national levels to better respond to emerging challenges and issues stemming from the global and regional power transition.


In addition to trust building measures, Asean needs to speed up implementing preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution.


The Asean Charter may need revisions to have a more effective enforcement and decision-making mechanism.


The Secretary General of Asean must be further institutionally empowered in order to have rapid actions in response to regional issues such as natural disasters and international terrorism.

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