The great virtue of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ founding fathers is that they dared think the unthinkable. And because the stars were aligned, their audacity brought relative peace, stability and progress to the region over the decades.
But as it enters its next half-century, Asean is faced with a strategic environment far more complex and implacable. It is floundering under unprecedented geopolitical, economic and environmental pressures, raising concerns about its future.
At its recent 30th summit and 50th anniversary, Asean rolled out a fresh agenda: basically a business-as-usual scenario, to do more of the same that brought it success. This means deepening regional economic integration and enlarging Asean’s role in the global market.
But what worked in the past may not be a dynamic in a region that is markedly changing, not necessarily for the better. Today narrow economic interests are colliding with broader political and security considerations. With the growing threat of terrorism, widening disparities, environmental degradation, and lack of a coherent policy on China’s colonization of the South China Sea, does Asean in fact have a future?
Perhaps Asean’s first imperative is to retool its structure. In addition to its existing three pillars — political-security, economic and sociocultural — it should consider a fourth, the Asean Climate Change Community. Asean’s epic transformation was achieved at an enormous cost to the environment, and its renewed focus on sustained economic growth is certain to intensify the impact of climate change.
The Asean Center for Biodiversity at the University of the Philippines Los Baños warns that the region is poised to “lose 70 to 90 percent of habitats and 13 to 42 percent of species by 2100.” If the trend continues, our biological diversity would be gravely ravaged at century’s end. Environmental protection must be on par with economic development.
More importantly, while enhancing the environment is the moral thing to do, it’s also good business. Eco-friendly technologies have opened up a whole new range of business opportunities in renewable energy, energy-saving systems, green building, carbon pricing, and adaptation and mitigation strategies.
A second imperative involves technology and revolutionary change. We are at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is disrupting every major industry and replacing lower middle class and lower class jobs. This will impact on Asean’s labor force, the world’s third largest after China and India, as ultracheap automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, and mobile internet become more prevalent.
An excellent response is the establishment of the Asian Labor Institute. This proposal by the Asean Trade Union Council aims to help upgrade the labor sector as technological advances create new services that change the way people work and live.
A stronger and more calibrated front against terrorism, an escalating threat to the region, may be a third imperative. The siege of Marawi City by rebels affiliated with the Islamic State is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Jihadists have reportedly set up a base in Mindanao as training ground for extremist Islamist groups targeting neighboring countries.
Singapore has unraveled a terror network of Jemaah Islamiyah, leading to the liquidation of its cells in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. JI envisions establishing a Pan-Islamic caliphate encompassing three Muslim-majority states (Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia) as well as countries with significant Muslim minorities (Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand).
Finally, there is the conflict over China’s militarization and extensive claims in the South China Sea. Asean’s continuing failure to adopt a clear policy on this matter has underscored its mercantilist approach to Beijing’s aggression.
China has co-opted Asean resolve on this critical issue — first by successfully cultivating individual Asean members as client states and second by forging bilateral relations with each state, effectively dismembering Asean unity.
It is plain that Asean is still ruled by Lord Palmerston’s dictum that nations have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. But this should only make it imperative to rekindle the exceptional courage and vision that attended Asean’s birth.