AS the East Asia Summit (EAS) is under way in the Philippines, the world is once again reminded of the centrality of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) in regional strategic and security matters. For the summit is basically a gathering of Asean leaders plus their counterparts from some of the larger powers who show interest in the region, including those from the United States, China and Russia.
Of course, Asean is no stranger to such heavy matters. Formed at the height of the Vietnam War, Asean was predominantly concerned with security matters during its earlier years, with the fear of a communist domino effect sweeping across Southeast Asia at the back of Asean leaders and policymakers then. It was indeed strange but also perhaps fortunate that Asean did not evolve into a military alliance such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the suffocating milieu that was the Cold War between the Eastern and Western camps, although some might argue that the predecessor to Asean, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (Seato), was almost such a regional grouping. As the Vietnam War concluded years later, Asean also diversified its focus, although the Cambodian crisis still occupied its attention for many more years.
As Asean members embarked upon their various economic booms, the organization’s focus understandably shifted to the economic front. Various economic and trade matters gradually took over as main items of discussion in Asean meetings. One after another, free trade agreements were concluded among Asean member states as well as between Asean and various other economic powerhouses, such as China and Japan, reducing and removing tariffs and non-tariff barriers in favor of free trade. Asean formed an economic community in 2015, creating a common market and production base for the whole of Asean, and has just concluded a free trade agreement with Hong Kong.
But even as Asean has been preoccupied with the economic development and cooperation among its member states, it never lost sight of the importance of strategic and security matters in this part of the world, which straddles perhaps the most important crossroads between the western and eastern hemisphere, and thus naturally becomes a much sought after prize. In the process, Asean did not flex its collective military muscle, but rather effectuates its centrality in these weighty subject matters rather subtly, through hosting a series of security and strategic forums and dialogues, such as the present East Asia Summit and also the Asean Defense Ministers’ Meetings Plus. An Asean country would host such meetings, attended by leaders or representatives from other Asean countries and also those from outside the grouping. Important regional security and strategic issues have come to be discussed during such forums.
As the world’s security and strategic outlook evolves into a period of uncertainty, legitimate questions can of course be raised as to the relevance and viability of Asean centrality. On the one hand, the United States, which has played a traditionally heavy security and strategic role, appears to be hesitating in its regional commitments, with the Trump administration going all out to promote his “America First” policy which is primarily US-centric. In fact, President Trump was said to be initially not intending to attend the EAS, and only changed his mind later. This perceived nonchalant US attitude toward the EAS is perhaps compounded by the US administration’s recent change of its characterization of the region from “Asia Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific,” ostensibly shifting from a Pacific Rim concept to one encompassing both the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. Trump praised the “free and open” Indo-Pacific. Well, Indo-Pacific may generally be free, but it is at most only half open, especially in terms of trade. Much work remains to be done in terms of opening up regional markets, and Asean may or may not be looked upon as the vehicle to undertake the challenging job. It did not help that the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership after having taken the lead in promoting it for so many years.
I think it is rather ironic and unseemly that while the world has been fixated on the potential harm to be caused by a nuclearized Korean Peninsula, with North Korea’s continued intransigence in violating United Nations Security Council resolutions to test its missiles and nuclear capabilities, relatively little worldwide attention has been trained on the grave dangers posed by terrorism to many Southeast Asian countries.
I cannot help in once again drawing attention to the danger posed by the piratic-terroristic kidnappers in the Sulu Sea, which borders my home state of Sabah. If EAS were to effectuate a more concrete work plan in security cooperation, joint anti-piratic actions in the Sulu Sea would be a good and urgent site to start. Asean centrality in security and strategic matters is still desired by most Asean countries, but for it to be maintained as such, perhaps it is time to put some degree of “toothfulness” in it to address some urgent concerns.