World leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and its ally countries will start arriving today, Saturday, in the Philippines to put their heads together in a summit to tackle the biggest challenges ever faced by the regional bloc in 50 years.
The Philippines as the incumbent chair of the regional bloc has the chance to host the 31st Asean Summit next week, on the sidelines of which President Rodrigo Duterte is expecting to hold a bilateral meeting with US President Donald Trump.
Duterte is also scheduled to hold bilateral talks with a few others among the more than 21 other leaders of government expected to attend the event.
When the Asean delegates open the plenary session on Monday they will have to deal with not just the usual issues about strengthening economic ties, trade and investment, but also the difficult realities that have emerged over recent years and now threaten peace and stability in the region.
Four such areas of risk have risen to the top of the region’s concerns: the North Korean nuclear crisis, the radicalization and violent extremism in the region, the Rohingya persecution and refugee problem, and the unsettled South China sea disputes.
Despite diplomatic pleas and other forms of pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to hold back his government’s nuclear posturing against the US and Japan, the threat continues to cast a pall of fear over Asean about the potential catastrophe it could inflict on the region.
While Trump has urged Asia to “stand united in declaring that every single step the North Korean regime takes toward more weapons is a step it takes into greater and greater danger,” Washington seems to keep the path of diplomacy open.
However, the North Korean media was reported to have reiterated that Pyongyang would not put its nuclear weapons up for negotiation, calling such suggestions a “foolish daydream” and Trump a “war maniac,” according to an Agence France-Presse report.
The Asean, therefore, appears to have to continue wrestling with the North Korean nuclear problem, even as it carries forward its own internal commitment among its 10 member states from the previous Asean summit to keep the region free of nuclear weapons. That was clearly stated in its declaration from the previous Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ), reiterating its “commitment to preserve the Southeast Asian region as a region free from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”
Another threat that Asean needs to address is that of terrorism, radicalization and violent extremism in the region. The region’s leaders need to look at the risk posed by surviving jihadists and their families who have returned from the wars in Iraq and Syria, and the recruitment and training of their children for a possible launch of new attacks on target countries to build new caliphates there.
From the previous Asean summit, the 10 member states declared they looked forward to the review and revision of the Asean Comprehensive Plan of FINAL 7 Action on Counter-Terrorism to adapt to the new trends. “We also looked forward to the convening of the Second Special Asean Ministerial Meeting on the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism in Manila later.”
Meanwhile, the region may not afford to ignore the growing Rohingya refugee problem outside of Myanmar. As hundreds of thousands of members of the tribe continue to look for shelter as they escape persecution back home, neighbor countries will have to soon find a mutually reasonable solution to end this humanitarian crisis.
And while the South China Sea territorial disputes continue to simmer, the Asean leaders will have to find long-term solutions, if not an ultimate settlement of the issue of sovereignty. It is imperative to find a practical arrangement for the countries involved to share the resources of the sea for their people for now and keep another war at bay.
After the battles in Marawi, Mosul and Raqqa have subsided, this is a time no country can afford to wage another costly war.