As Asean enters its 50th anniversary, it has to overcome quite a few immediate uncertainties to maintain its relevancy. First, it is all about the role of the US in the regional and global order.
For the past 70 years, the US has been the foundation of stability and prosperity since the end of World War II. Now a new US administration will run the country for the next four years; Washington has the potential to upend everything very familiar to the region.
Since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has not made any policy statement toward the Southeast Asian region, let alone focus on US-Asean relations. He and his staffers held phone conversations with some Asean leaders and key officials—mostly pleasantries. Currently, the Asean foreign ministers were perplexed by the lack of policy direction toward Asean from the White House.
Ever since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, US administrations have made extra efforts to inform and assure Asean leaders of the US’ continued engagement and commitment—even though there were different policy approaches by some past administrations. Now with the rise of China, Asean is extremely anxious to know US policy towards the world No. 2 economy - and its overall ties to the grouping.
However, this is the first time in three decades that Asean is being kept in the dark on US diplomatic trends.
Asean leaders were doubtful if the Trump administration would continue his predecessor’s rebalancing policy and other programmes despite tangible contributions to the region in the past eight years.
At the retreat, the Asean ministers quickly agreed to Malaysia’s proposal to call for a special meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss their future relations at the earliest possible date. Kuala Lumpur will make the bid as it is the coordinating country of US-Asean relations, succeeding Myanmar in 2015.
Under the Philippines chair, the Asean leaders will hold their 30th summit later in April and want a head-start to form common strategies in response to US policy. Therefore, the upcoming senior-officials meeting between Asean and the US, its 30th session scheduled in May, would be too late for such a target.
Second, the leadership role of the Philippines chair of Asean, particularly that of President Rodrigo Duterte, is closely linked to the progress of Asean-US relations.
Manila has been working diligently to ensure that Trump comes to the East 12th Asia Summit and 5th Asean-US Summit in early November at the Clark Airbase, where US troops and aircraft used to be stationed. Duterte was the first Asean leader to have a phone conversation with Trump.
Since then the Asean chair held high hopes that Trump, against all odds, would come to the summit by piggy-back, riding on the Asia-Pacific Economic Leaders Meeting in November 10-11 in Danang, Vietnam.
In addition, under the Duterte adminstration, the Philippines has abandoned its hard-line policy towards China and now Manila prefers dialogue. At the same time, Duterte has repeatedly upset the American ally with criticism coupled with threats to downgrade the overall defense ties with Washington. A frequently asked question is whether the Philippines can firmly lead Asean and maintain its centrality in engaging the two superpowers.
Since he came to power last June, Duterte has made several loose comments over these ties. Fortunately, nothing he said was harmful to Asean.
He has to keep in mind that Asean does not choose sides. More importantly, Asean does not make deals—big or small – with any dialogue
Within the Philippines, his controversial anti-drug policy is increasingly under scrutiny and attack. If this trend continues, compounded with external pressure, it could harm his leadership and impact on the Asean chair. That was exactly what happened to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak during his Asean chairmanship in 2015. After much fanfare and a jubilant start from November 2014, Najib placed the Asean agenda high up on his country’s priorities. After all, he was the most knowledgeable leader on Asean affairs. But a few months later, a scandal related to the 1Malaysian Development Bhd erupted which quickly sapped his energy and focus on Asean.
Third, Asean must overcome the anti-globalisation backlash in Western countries.
If ‘America First’ and the rise of Europe’s populist politics arrive in this neighbourhood, they would have a disastrous effect on Asean economic integration.
Asean must remain resolute in deepening economic integration among the 10-members, following the action plans of the Asean Vision 2025 in turning the 645-million people community into one of the world’s top five economic powerhouses. The Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation must be accelerated now that the Trans Pacific Partnership is in coma.
Finally, to overcome all these uncertainties, Asean must protect its centrality at all costs.
Undeniably, as Asean members are more confident and have more economic and political clout, it would be increasingly more difficult for Asean to be cohesive or to forge a common position.
However, as the track record shows, when push comes to shove, each member’s individual strengths and weaknesses all level off within the Asean decision-making mechanism – something that has worked well for the past half century. That is why Asean as a group, albeit its meekness and shortcomings, is a reliable partnership and fast emerging as a global player.