Asean needs to form a core decision-making mechanism as the regional organisation faces various regional challenges, a Thammasat University forum was told yesterday.

Zhang Xizhen, a lecturer visiting Pridi Banomyong International College of Thammasat University, said Asean’s unity had become weaker and the bloc was now significantly divided because of a lack of core leadership.

Mr Zhang said other international organisations have core decision makers such as the United Nations with five permanent members while the European Union had Germany and France.

Asean in the past decades had a number of decisive national leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, former Indonesian president Suharto and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia. Mr Zhang said Asean had been able to resolve contentious issues as a result.

Now that Asean has been enlarged and connects with several major powers such as those in East Asia, without core leadership the grouping was therefore facing difficulties in steering its direction, Mr Zhang said.

He said that, unlike in the past, Asean has faced difficulty in reaching a consensus in dealing with the South China Sea issue, as some members in maritime disputes with China wanted to address the matter strongly but others did not.

He said the return of the US to addressing regional affairs could make it difficult for Asean to find a balance between its relationship with competing superpowers.

He suggested that Indonesia and Singapore should take up roles as the core leaders of Asean.

The problem of Thailand in playing a leading role was the country did not have strong leadership, political stability or a robust economy, he said.

Ralf Emmers, an academic from S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technology University, Singapore, said the South China Sea problem undermined two core principles of Asean – neutrality and solidarity.

Prapat Thepchatree, director of Thammasat University’s Centre of Asean Studies, said Asean, with an estimated economic size of US$8 trillion in 2030, was confronting multi-pronged challenges ranging from improvements in democracy, human rights issues and political progress in Myanmar, to border disputes.

Mr Prapat said the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) remained a limited tool for addressing the rights issue.

Asean defence and military cooperation, which is still in its infancy, also needs to integrate more with other global players, Mr Prapat said.

Suthiphand Chirathivat, executive director of Chulalongkorn University’s Asean Studies Center, suggested that development of small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs) was the way forward for Asean in the lead-up to the Asian Economic Community (AEC).

But there would be several obstacles within Asean, particularly Thailand, as governments in the bloc lacked coherent strategic policy support for AEC implementation, Mr Suthiphand said. –