By Victor Andres “Dindo” Manhit —
The Philippines has consistently played an active role in the growth and development of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), dating back to its birth in 1967. ASEAN has persisted through political and economic crises, from the challenges of the Cold War to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
Now, as ASEAN celebrates its 50th year, the 10 countries of Southeast Asia again face geopolitical uncertainty abroad and tensions close to home. With the Philippines now seated in the organization’s rotating chairmanship, the Duterte administration has the task of shepherding a regional agenda for a group facing challenges on multiple fronts.
On March 1 and 2, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in cooperation with the Stratbase ADR Institute hosted a conference in Manila on U.S.-ASEAN relations to explore the group’s path for the decades ahead. Delegates from across Southeast Asia offered their latest thinking and their expectations for the body. Building on their insights, we have two ideas to think about: how can ASEAN craft a vision built around what the group is, rather than what it is not, and how can the Philippines use its leadership to help ASEAN achieve its aspirations in 2017.
ASEAN into the Next Half-Century
At ASEAN’s birth, the organization aimed to provide a third force in the region to combat the effects of great power politics. The relatively small countries of our region banded together to resist the push and pull of major power influence.
For 50 years, ASEAN was defined more by what it was not than by what it stood for: it was not communist, it was not colonized, and it was neither Chinese, Japanese, American, nor Indian.
Now, for better or worse, the countries of Southeast Asia are more tightly bound to each other, as export markets, sources of labor, and constituent parts of ever bigger global supply chains. Otherwise-separate countries are discovering how entwined their economic destinies have become, opening not just risk but truly significant opportunities for their people – whether Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, or Lao – to build better lives for themselves and their families. Thanks in part to its members’ efforts at economic cooperation and integration, ASEAN’s combined gross domestic product make it the seventh-largest economy in the world today. Some economists project that it will be the fourth-largest by 2050.
What is ASEAN to do with its weight? For ASEAN to emerge as a true third force, its members must not only have something to resist against but also to unite around. Successive ASEAN leaders have attempted to grapple with this challenge, creating an ASEAN charter, Vision 2020, and other diplomatic touchstones. However, this vision must reach all ASEAN citizens and go hand in hand with their knowledge of and support for the organization.
The Best Seat in the House
Given the promise of ASEAN, the Philippines can play a particularly important role in using its current ASEAN chairmanship. Even as ASEAN works to create a more cohesive regional market, it must also ensure that each ASEAN member can deliver security and stability for its citizens.
ASEAN chairs have unique institutional power – the right to set the official agenda for the organization’s meetings and, in doing so, influence the substantive outcomes of these meetings. Previous ASEAN chairs have used their position to opt-out of or minimize discussions on controversial subjects. If, as reported, the Philippines chooses to leave the landmark award from the Arbitral Tribunal on the South China Sea off the ASEAN agenda, the government would be foregoing the use of one of the country’s important foreign policy levers.
Regardless of the Philippines’ foreign policy strategy, there is little doubt that the South China Sea dispute, as well as discussion over a Framework Code of Conduct, will be hanging over the entire chairmanship. In this context, it is better for the government to encourage the voices of our Southeast Asian partners, even when we do not always agree, than to sideline ASEAN in favor of its newfound friendship with Beijing. The disputes will be settled through the agreement of all those involved. ASEAN’s members, especially the claimants, should be the highlighted voice of this year’s discussions.
Regardless of the final Philippine strategy though, ASEAN should remain a paramount concern for Philippine foreign policy. ASEAN, for all its challenges, remains the best platform for the 10 regional countries to settle differences and unite on key issues. The territories of the South China Sea may not be equally important to all ASEAN members, but a polite, active discussion is necessary for ASEAN to live up to its own organizing principle as an independent force for regional stability and to its long-held goal of serving as a rock of peace and pride for the region.
There are tall expectations for an organization that has often been derided as an ineffectual talk shop for most of its history. But after 50 years, expectations have nowhere to go but up.