Asean needs to evolve as true regional bloc

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IF the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) really wants to achieve its true potential as a powerhouse of immense economic and geopolitical influence, each of the 10-member states must look and grow beyond the notions of national thinking and espouse a truly regional mindset.

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Cohesion within Asean is vital to attaining the true potential of the Asean Community 2020, the pursuit of which it adopted in the annual meetings in Cebu in 2012, proclaiming with bells and whistles in the Cebu Declaration of 2012 the vision for an integrated economic region cultivating its collective identity and strength to engage with the larger global economic community.

The Asean potential cannot easily be dismissed, and dominant global powers like China and the United States recognize this potential but from the point of view of vested interests in the region.

The US-Asean Business Council noted with unwavering belief the region’s “geostrategic importance … home to critical global sea lanes located at the center of the world’s strongest economic growth area.” Citing data from the State Department and the US Energy information administration, the council also noted that $5.3 trillion of global trade passes through Asean waters each year, of which around $1.2 trillion is US trade. In the Malacca Strait, an important waterway connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, running between the coastal regions of Sumatra and Malaysia and southern Thailand, 15 million barrels of oil transit daily.

In his penetrating analysis of China’s strategy in the South China Sea, diplomat and Brookings Institution fellow Barry Desker noted that there is no consensus among Asean member states regarding Beijing’s creeping moves to establish de facto control of the South China Sea region.

“One consequence of the Chinese strategy has been to increase the centrifugal tendencies within Asean on South China Sea issues,” Desker noted.

That is why there is a pressing need for Asean to be more cohesive in addressing issues hounding the region, foremost of which is the South China Sea dispute involving members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam and non-members China and Taiwan. The point is to de-escalate regional tensions, especially now when there is a strong drive and motivation to complete the Code of Conduct that will govern the the settlement of territorial disputes.

The original intent of Asean was to reconcile prevailing issues among the three of its founding members—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines—when it was formed in 1967, together with Singapore and Thailand. But there can be no genuine reconciliation of relations as long as the now 10-member bloc espouses differing attitudes in settling the sea dispute, and laying the groundwork for strengthening its geopolitical influence, so that no global power can bully any individual member in economic and military terms.

A glimpse of what is happening in the European Union, the Brexit negotiations, is an important lesson Asean must learn: a community of nations operating within the bounds of a single market and production base cannot withstand the tensions of nationalistic rumblings of disunity.

The Asean has withstood the rigors of time—50 solid years—since its inception in 1967, but it has not yet achieved a true mindset of regional consciousness that is vital in sustaining the community towards its 100th anniversary by 2067.

Right now, the region is made up of more than 625 million people and is the third largest economy in Asia, after China and Japan, with an annual gross domestic product of more than $2.4 trillion. The potential is tremendous, but Asean leaders must stick to the vision of chasing that potential to fruition and make the community a true model of regionalism.

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