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Commentary: Where ASEAN can do more in the new world order

Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana, right, shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim during a conference on "ASEAN Leadership amid a New World Order" in Makati, metropolitan Manila, Philippines, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. Lorenzana says President Rodrigo Duterte has stopped construction work on a newly formed sandbar in the disputed South China Sea after a protest from Beijing. AP/Aaron Favila

(First published on November 9) The emerging global alignments and new realities, risks and opportunities in the ASEAN was the focus of Stratbase ADRi’s recently concluded summit, “ASEAN Leadership amid a New World Order” where valuable perspectives from leaders in security, economics and international affairs were shared in a special international gathering of top minds.

Southeast Asia has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last 50 years. One has to wonder whether ASEAN’s founding fathers envisioned the level and variety of cooperation that now goes on in ASEAN today. There is a lot to celebrate, and even as we take critical positions on some of the developments in ASEAN, I believe that we should be mindful of how far the efforts of our societies have brought us.

Nevertheless, there cannot be an anniversary year without performing an honest assessment. Where could ASEAN do more? Where could ASEAN gain more confidence? These are the kinds of questions that I believe can push cooperation forward and to new heights. This is an important exercise this year, as the association has decided to highlight itself as a model of regionalism for the globe.

Today, the demand for meaningful cooperation in ASEAN is ever-increasing. In a more integrated world, the Philippines and its neighbors share their challenges, whose political, economic and socio-cultural aspects transcend country borders and link together 600 million people. As Southeast Asia more closely integrates with the rest of East Asia and the broader Asia-Pacific region, the causes and consequences of our countries’ actions have also broadened.

On the political and security side, the Asia-Pacific region continues to cope with threats to the stability of inter-state relations and to the welfare and ways of life of its people. For Southeast Asia, the challenge in the South China Sea persists. As we’ve heard today, difficulties in the relationships among Southeast Asian countries, as well as their individual and collective relations with countries like China and the United States, only serve to weaken the security environment in Southeast Asia. Governments should always strive for, at the minimum, a proactive but careful solution to ongoing disputes regarding maritime and general security. Otherwise, it may become more difficult in the future for the members of the region and our partners to cooperate on even non-traditional security threats.

As I have stressed in the past, this is where the international tribunal’s decision on the Philippines’ case against China becomes an essential piece of the puzzle in fostering the maritime security that we desire in Southeast Asia. The case not only showed that disputes can be resolved without recourse to force and in accordance with law, it has become an example for the region to lean on in understanding their own rights and responsibilities.

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International law is the bedrock on which our regional stability rests. Above and beyond the protection of each of our nation’s interests, by upholding international law, all the states would have contributed to securing peace. Beyond discussions, we need to take concrete action, in accordance with law, to prevent conflicts, build confidence, and peacefully settle our disputes. One of the most important actions is for countries to exercise self-restraint and focus on peaceful means in resolving the disputes. A few examples brought up today, such as the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea and a legally-binding ASEAN Code of Conduct, could give our governments the ease they need to work past our differences and boost all of our security.

This brings us back to ASEAN. The chorus of Southeast Asian states have worked to protect their citizens from health emergencies; participate in joint efforts to address environmental and maritime resource challenges; transition to knowledge-based societies; and create a sense of belonging. Over the years, multilateralism has shown to provide some of the best ways to resolve misunderstandings. As platforms for our countries to present their concerns and promote cooperation, multilateral institutions are critical in contemporary international society for a reason.

However, there sometimes seems to be a gap when it comes to executing the ASEAN agenda. In a region composed of several different cultures, religions and languages, cooperation among member states can be challenging. There is also a lack of awareness about ASEAN and a lack in people’s direct participation. To sustain our cooperation, we need to understand our neighbors and build trust among them. Trust in each other and in the institutions that have been or have the potential to be transformative. To be worthy of such trust, these institutions must in turn prove themselves to be effective, representative and transparent about how they represent the region’s principles and shared objectives.

Today, ASEAN is striving to a rules-based and people-oriented community, to strengthen its centrality in the regional architecture and actively contribute to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. Throughout this year, ASEAN members have worked with other to address common challenges, and this is a commendable goal. If its principled calls should translate into action, and ASEAN should persist in these calls, then it will continue to secure for itself a place at the center of our region’s cooperation.

Finally, although global trade is expected to rebound from its tepid performance in 2016, the future contours of global trade are still hazy. ASEAN’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, sometimes considered the last active hope for greater international economic cooperation, has been delayed several times. Of course, poor connectivity remains an obstacle to improving trade flows.

In the long run, the strength of our economy will also boost the strength of our international position. The Philippines’ inspiring economic story thus far has a way to go to fully uplift our people. As we hope for the successful conclusion and management of all our disputes, we must also place our hopes in the engines of this country’s growth, in the vision of region’s heads of state, and in our international partners to ensure that more in our country and our region are lifted into more prosperous futures.

 

Dindo Manhit is the president of think tank Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, a partner of Philstar.com.

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