On its 50th anniversary, ASEAN needs to recalibrate its centrality

By Xue Li Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/4 18:43:40

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A series of conferences took place in Manila in early August to commemorate its achievements over the past 50 years. They also focused on the future of the group and two issues of key concern: What should ASEAN do next? How can ASEAN maintain its centrality in Asia-Pacific regional cooperation?

Historically, ASEAN has made tremendous achievements. ASEAN countries have formed a clear regional identity, and all but eradicated the possibility of large-scale wars occurring between members. ASEAN established its Economic Community (AEC) at the end of 2015 and is committed to building the Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) and Political-Security Community (APSC). Frameworks for Asia-Pacific cooperation have been built based on ASEAN, such as East Asia Summit, which was unimaginable 50 years ago.

But ASEAN is also confronted with challenges. Its member countries struggle with imbalanced development, regional trade dependence is only about 25 percent, and its economic aggregate accounts for only a quarter of that of China. Culturally, it is difficult for a population of 600 million people from different cultures to form a deep identity as people tend to have stronger national identity than a regional one.

In terms of security, some members are closer to countries outside the region, while other members may harbor distrust or be embroiled in territorial disputes with neighbors.

ASEAN needs sufficiently strong impetus for further integration. Economically developed Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are the most active in promoting the ASEAN integration process so as to have a full play of their comparative advantages in a bigger market. The three most populous countries - Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam - lack a similar passion for integration. The strategic contraction by the US has weakened ASEAN's integration, while China has begun to build a self-centered regional economy.

What should ASEAN do next? Emphasis should still be placed on economic integration. With many ASEAN members regarding their counterparts as trade competitors, more focus should be placed on promoting economic cooperation under the AEC, despite fears over devolving economic sovereignty.

Culturally, at the meeting some delegates advocated the ASEAN identity should be strengthened at the expense of national identity. But the fact is, as many ASEAN countries are still involved in consolidating their nations, it's hard for them to implement policies that may weaken their citizen's national identity.

On security issues, it is hard for ASEAN to break its tradition of not interfering in members' internal affairs. The dependence of some members on extra-regional countries for security can't be changed overnight. ASEAN countries can only make a concerted voice selectively, and are unlikely to abide by the stance of ASEAN as a whole when it comes to issues of major national interest.

ASEAN gained its centrality by developing regional cooperation frameworks and from the recommendation of major countries that appreciate the bloc's relatively hands-off stance. In other words, ASEAN can only play the role of a coordinator among major powers, and will be unable to promote change in its major-country relationships. Thus, if major countries make major changes to their policy, ASEAN's centrality will inevitably be weakened, or even lost.

To be more specific, the US is poised to offer less support to ASEAN, while China focuses more on the Belt and Road initiative. India, Russia, Australia and South Korea have interests in cooperation with ASEAN, but they may not be willing to obey its leadership. Take the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) led by ASEAN. It is hard to imagine that Japan, India and China will sign free trade agreements in the next few years. Even if ASEAN plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand sign the RCEP one day, ASEAN is hardly likely to maintain its centrality given its size.

After 50 years' development, ASEAN members are entering the deep-water zone of their integration and the bloc will face more difficulties in maintaining its centrality in Asia-Pacific cooperation. It might be better if ASEAN refrains from dwelling on its centrality, prudently promotes the development of the ASCC and APSC, and allows its members to focus on their own development.

In doing so, ASEAN can better stress its role of coordinator and dilute its message of centrality. After all, as the balance of power changes, the integration of the Asia-Pacific region will depend on multiple drivers, and every member nation will be expected to take a leading role on certain issues. Through this, ASEAN can help maintain its guiding role.

The author is director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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