TODAY marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on August 8, 1967. This was doubtless the reason why the Philippines sought to host the body’s annual meetings this year – to ensure a fitting commemoration and then to bid the region and the world to look at our archipelago and our nation today.
This is a moment of national pride, topping off a year of change, challenge and crisis for our people and our country.
The 51st Asean foreign ministers meeting opened on Friday, August 4, with high hopes of forging a breakthrough in the longstanding problems and disputes facing the community. Now, it is certain to become one of the most eventful and historic in Asean history, as the ministers’ meeting was matched by major international developments and critical decisions.
Among these developments are:
Sanctions against North Korea
1. The UN Security Council approved tough new sanctions on North Korea which could cost Pyongyang $1 billion a year. Council members voted unanimously (15-0) for a partial ban on exports aimed at slashing Pyongyang’s foreign revenue by a third. Top diplomats from the key powers in the dispute, the United States and China, will meet in Manila for the Asean regional security forum.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was encouraged by the vote, but officials warned that Washington would closely watch China—North Korea’s biggest trade partner—to ensure sanctions are enforced.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his North Korean counterpart Ri Hong-Yo in Manila before the start of the regional forum. He urged North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
Tillerson met with Wang and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday, seeking to intensify Kim Jong-Un’s diplomatic isolation and reduce the risk of renewed conflict.
Saturday’s UN resolution banned exports of coal, iron and iron ore, lead and lead ore as well as fish and seafood by the cash-starved state.
If fully implemented it would strip North Korea of a third of its export earnings—estimated to total $3 billion per year despite successive rounds of sanctions since the state’s first nuclear test in 2006.
Asean foreign ministers released a statement urging Pyongyang to stop its nuclear program and comply immediately and fully with its obligations under relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions.
2. Asean released on Sunday, August 6, the joint communique of the Asean foreign ministers meeting, which had been delayed by wrangling among the member states over their differences on the South China Sea issue.
Vietnam had insisted that tough language be inserted in the statement, expressing concern over “land reclamation,” a reference to an explosion in recent years of Chinese artificial island-building in the contested waters. Cambodia, one of China’s strongest allies within Asean, firmly resisted. The Philippines as chair brokered the compromise language to end the stand-off.
The communique, in its final form, showed a significant movement forward by the association.
It announced that the meeting discussed extensively the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area.
It reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea.
It reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.
It emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states.
3. Asean and China, during the Asean-China meeting, adopted a framework for negotiating a code of conduct (COC) to defuse tensions in the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China agreed to start the formal COC consultations if “the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and if there is no major disruption from outside parties.”
The DOC was signed in 2002 between China and Asean as a non-binding pact to reduce the tensions in the region and prevent claimant-countries China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan from aggressively pursuing their claims.
The Code of Conduct, on the other hand, is a more binding pact that was enshrined in the DOC. It hopes to further promote peace and stability in the economically vital sea lane.
4. Tillerson signifies continuing US interest in the region. The US pivot to Asia is gone. Asians are wondering whether Obama has left behind a hollowed-out US presence in the region.
To show abiding US strategic interest in the Asia Pacific, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has come to Manila to address the Asean foreign ministers meeting, attend the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), and engage in some face-to-face talks with key ministers. This is markedly different from the more important summit of leaders in November. Then, President Trump himself will come to Manila.
So far, Tillerson has already addressed the Asean foreign ministers meeting.
Second, Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have sat down in Manila. The meeting is significant because it follows the passage by the US Congress of sanctions against Russia, and the expulsion of 270 US diplomatic staff from Russia.
Today, Tillerson will take part in the ARF, the Asean-led forum to promote regional security dialogue and cooperation.
Asean and China
Asean 50 has highlighted more than ever the importance of Southeast Asia and Asean to the international community.
On the South China Sea, Asean has a failed record in balancing the interests of rival claimants and the interest of states aligned with China.
Critics of China have accused it of dividing Asean with strong-arm tactics and checkbook diplomacy, enticing smaller countries in the bloc to support its agenda.
The Philippines, under former President Benigno Aquino 3rd, was one of the most vocal critics of China; it filed a case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. In a decision last year, the tribunal ruled that China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea have no legal basis.
Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), China has ignored the ruling and has continued its militarization of the artificial islands.
The Philippines, under President Duterte, has tilted toward China, by deciding to play down the verdict in favor of pursuing warmer ties with Beijing. It has gotten in return an offer of billions of dollars in investments or aid from China.
Some contend that Beijing’s agenda has become easier with the Philippines holding the chair of Asean this year.
A redoubtable record
On this day of commemoration, it’s fitting to remember how much Asean has grown in half a century, and how it has become arguably the most vital regional community, exceeded only by the European Union (EU).
Since its formation in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, Asean has expanded to include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.
Asean covers a land area of 4.4 million square kilometers, three percent of the total land area of the Earth. Asean territorial waters cover an area about three times larger than its land counterpart. Member countries have a combined population of approximately 625 million people, 8.8 percent of the world’s population. In 2015, the organization’s combined nominal GDP had grown to more than $2.8 trillion. If Asean were a single entity, it would rank as the sixth largest economy in the world, behind the US, China, Japan, India and Germany.
Asean has established itself as a platform for Asian integration and cooperation, working with other Asian nations to promote unity, prosperity, development and sustainability of the region, as well as working on solutions to resolve disputes and problems in the region.
By any measure, it’s a redoubtable record for our Asean community. The world has now begun to ensure that the next half century will be even more eventful and memorable.