I am reprinting my opening remarks yesterday:
“As the theme of the conference suggests, ASEAN is celebrating its 50 years of existence this year, even while it contemplates its future. From its humble beginnings with modest aspirations, it is not an exaggeration to say that ASEAN, as a collectivity, has risen as a middle power in regional and even global affairs. But there are new challenges that, if not responded to appropriately, threaten to bring ASEAN down to a “middling power” unable to chart its own destiny.
ASEAN’s rise has been achieved by an astute combination of institution-building enablers. The first is employing the “ASEAN Way” to create unity in diversity in bringing peace and stability to the region.
The second is an enthusiastic embrace of globalization by its members such that combined, they have now become the world’s fifth largest economy.
And the third is building from scratch an impressive regional system for wide-ranging engagements of all kinds. These include economic and security matters, thus assuring its centrality in setting the agenda for the region. Encouraged by its success, ASEAN has now embarked on a more ambitious journey to transform itself into a Community with a capital “C”. But it will be doing so under very changed circumstances from its first 50 years of existence.
ASEAN’s rise came during a period of relative peace and stability and of economic liberalism, led and secured by Pax Americana. This is no longer the case. America’s seeming retreat from global leadership on such matters ranging from guarantor of peace to economic liberalism and even to climate change has led to worldwide uncertainty and lack of direction. At the same time, China’s economic clout has translated into the geopolitical sphere. Russia has again become a player in global security. The world has moved on from a unipolar center of power to one where multipolar centers of geopolitical and economic powers compete for allegiance in return for benefits.
These developments have the potential to undermine the very foundation on which ASEAN built its prosperity and and enabled it to play a central role in assuring peace and stability in the region. ASEAN’s export-dependent economies face threats from the retreat from multilateralism and rising protectionism. A multipolar world now requires ASEAN to tread carefully to maintain its centrality and preserve its unity.
How ASEAN collectively responds to the following challenges spawned by these developments will determine its future.
First, how can ASEAN successfully navigate between competing powers while maintaining its centrality and cohesiveness? Is there scope for collective engagement with like-minded middle powers? How can it contribute to reducing tensions in the Korean Peninsula that have region-wide consequences?
Second, as a maritime territory, with the South China Sea as its centerpiece, how can ASEAN as a middle power, where adherence to the rule of law is one of its founding principles, play a lead role in the sharing and conservation of the resources that it holds? How can it assure freedom of navigation in waters where a third of world commerce flows amidst competing claims for its ownership and control?
Third, with three-quarters of its trade conducted with non-ASEAN economies that now face difficulties themselves, what new drivers will ASEAN need to develop to maintain its growth momentum? The business leaders I have spoken to remain sceptical of ASEAN members’ capability to generate growth amongst themselves. They say there are far too many barriers that still need to be dismantled to make ASEAN an economic community of practical value to them. And with the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution led by disruptive technology, they say ASEAN should be pro-active in order to maximize the benefits, while minimizing the threats that come with it. How will ASEAN address these many business concerns?
Fourth, with growing prosperity comes demand for equitable distribution and along with it, the exercise of individual freedom. What can ASEAN do collectively and individually to address these demands which, if not met, can exacerbate ethnic and religious differences leading to often-violent extremism? How can the various stakeholders of ASEAN buy into the vision of an ASEAN community if they do not share in its benefits? How can ASEAN’s young, tech-savvy and idealistic population be harnessed as agents for change in achieving a sustainable, innovative and inclusive ASEAN?
Fifth, ASEAN is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including drought, rising sea levels and natural disasters. How can ASEAN play a major role in regional and even global efforts on climate change and on mitigating its impact, particularly on food and human security?
These are some of the challenges that ASEAN must face as it moves to its next phase of deeper integration. In developing effective responses to these challenges, will ASEAN members be willing to move beyond the principles of non-interference and decision-making by consensus? Doing so will require establishing legal standards and obligations. ASEAN’s founding fathers had already defined the basis for these as “an abiding respect for justice and the rule of law and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter.” It has often been said that the law is the greatest leveler and the best guarantor of peace. Is ASEAN ready to take this next step?
I leave you with these conundrums as our formidable cast of thought leaders, including you in the audience, lead us in our quest for answers over the course of the next day and a half. The goal is to provide meaningful inputs to the ongoing conversation among our leaders as they chart the course of ASEAN into the future. It is the hope that they will be bold, visionary and committed. With all the profound changes taking place, it cannot be business as usual.
This event is a collaboration of the ASEAN-Institutes of Strategic and International Studies consortium under the leadership of Pak Jusuf Wanandi, the Stratbase ADR Institute, and my own organization, the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation. I also thank our sponsors, whose generous assistance made this gathering possible.” By Roberto R. Romulo
The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ASEAN Trade Union Council.
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