“The world wants ASEAN to succeed,” says Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary General of ASEAN

“The world wants ASEAN to succeed.” This buoyant statement put forth by Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), presented a much cheerier prognosis of the regional bloc’s ability to survive and thrive than most would have expected.

At the recent 3rd ASEAN & Asia Forum, held at The Fullerton Hotel on 6th October 2010, luminaries and representatives from the political, economic, business and civil society sectors gathered to evaluate the challenges ASEAN faces vis-a-vis discourse over various issues – Asia’s role and ASEAN’s relevance within the new world order, internal challenges for ASEAN, energy and environmental interests as well as ASEAN’s future.

Dr. Surin spoke optimistically about the regional bloc’s burgeoning development, the international support it was receiving and current limitations pertaining to its jurisdictional capacity. He addressed concerns ranging from ASEAN’s ability to remain influential in the international community to economic integration.

During the forum, the intense interest afforded to ASEAN by external entities manifested within the conversations and lines of questioning, underscoring the positive sentiment that accompanied Dr. Surin’s rhetoric. With a combined GDP totalling US$1.6 trillion, ASEAN, the 4th largest trade bloc and 9th largest economy, has become a force to be reckoned with on the global econo-political stage.

In a world of constantly-shifting geopolitical fault-lines, the rationale behind the international community’s backing of ASEAN lies in the common pursuit of global stability; when ASEAN matures institutionally, the world will have one less region to fret over.

Historically, Asia has always been associated with rapid economic growth. The region was instrumental in bailing the West out from the 1997 global financial crisis, which although admittedly began in ASEAN, was resolved as a result of the willingness of key member-states to commit to structural adjustments, a feat that was made easier by the Asian ethos of placing emphasis upon the collective good over individual benefit.

It came as no surprise, then, that the world turned to Asia, in the form of ASEAN+3 (comprising the ten member states of ASEAN as well as China, Japan and South Korea), to rescue the global economy from the most recent economic meltdown, highlighting the international community’s dependence upon ASEAN as a prime purveyor of economic growth, development and resuscitation.

On the political front, the regional organisation has been actively, albeit relatively quietly, involved in international diplomacy – it provided consultative advice on the North Korean debacle, enhancing the six-party talks by adding another set of perspectives to the discussion and assuming the roles of moderator and modulator.

Indeed, as elucidated during this year’s Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), which took place in Brussels just before the ASEAN & Asia Forum, there exist clear expectations for ASEAN to engage the international community proactively and respond to world affairs in a manner that reflects ASEAN’s status as a prominent and credible global constituent.

It is this faith in ASEAN that has culminated in numerous bilateral and multilateral free trade agreement (FTA) partnerships between itself and countries such as the United States (US), China, India, Australia, New Zealand and other economic blocs; most predominantly, the European Union (EU).

That said, as favourable as ASEAN’s position in the global arena appears to be, its capability to sustain success as a regional grouping rests on how sensibly the member-states manage to coordinate their agendas and decisions through the administration of the Secretariat.

Achieving unity has frequently proven to be fairly complex and problematic, owing to ASEAN’s unique culture of non-intervention and lack of enforcement mechanisms. The resultant incapacitation to deal effectively with infractions committed by member-states, particularly in the thorny area of Human Rights, had previously diminished the reputation of the bloc.

Furthermore, unlike other regional organisations which were formed around definitive collective interests (the EU was foundered upon coal, steel and agriculture, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is centred around oil and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), created to facilitate the strategic economic expansion of the US to include the economies of Canada and Mexico), ASEAN was not conceived upon binding grounds, even though a shared economic vision among the bloc’s founding signatories induced its genesis.

As an outcome of these quandaries, its contributions to the international community have typically been regarded as nugatory. Fortunately, with the bloc’s recent commitment to reforming its ideological architecture via the creation of the ASEAN Human Rights Body (AHRB) saw heightened confidence placed in the former.

Other ASEAN-born entities and programmes such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) and Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation (CMIM), the latter of which is a fund of US$120 billion intended for disbursement to ASEAN countries that are plagued by short-term liquidity woes, demonstrate the newfound willingness and expertise of ASEAN to serve the economic needs of its member-states better.

In addition, high-level ministerial dialogue conferences and groupings like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN+3 and ASEM show a strong inclination within ASEAN towards constructive foreign engagement and is telling of the international community’s belief in ASEAN as an important global player.

The consensus that ASEAN still has a long way to go in fortifying its institutions and attaining diplomatic sophistication in its political manoevring is true. However, the organisation has proven itself to be resilient and will steadily continue to offer consolidated leadership for Asia as well as provide the world with a strong and nonpareil model for inter-governmental collaboration based on respect for diversity.

As such, one can only agree with Dr. Surin in that ASEAN will transmute to espouse considerable power and influence within the international community and propel Asia’s growth, development and eminence further.