ASEAN’s Three Pillared Community Must Continue To Look Outward, Not Inward

By Phar Kim Beng

ASEAN will soon potentially have more than 650 million people under its fold, and collectively close to USD 1.9 trillion in GDP. They are but large, generic numbers. ASEAN to date lacks the physical, institutional and human connectivity to make Southeast Asia cohere as a market. The policy makers in ASEAN know as much; which is why they have put together a Master Connectivity Plan to try to bridge the divide between all three realms.

Further, impressive numbers are peddled by policy makers in ASEAN to raise the threshold of regional imagination. The key is to convince the member states of their inherent strengths – with the implicit goal of minimising any outpour of ethno-nationalism, which can do much to damage the integrity of ASEAN regional integration.

In the interim, the larger goal of a three pillared community should be to encourage all member states to look outward, rather than inward. The ASEAN Security Community, for example, remains trapped in confidence building; an issue that has been discussed by the policy makers for more than twenty years without any attempt to graduate to preventive diplomacy, maritime cooperation, and peacekeeping. Looking outward means borrowing and applying the best practices from abroad.

Historically, ASEAN has not been shy about learning and adopting policy lessons from beyond. ASEAN Track II diplomacy, for example, is based on the practices and principles in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The Helsinki Summit in the mid-1970s inspired ASEAN to do the same, without an attendant focus on the issue of human rights, however. When the ASEAN Post Ministerial Meeting was converted into an ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994, the goal was still very much the same with Europe: to foster common understanding between Asian countries that were hitherto affected by the Cold War.

Although the genesis of preventive diplomacy came from the former UN Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the template is still not discredited. An early warning system is deployed to track the grievances and frustrations of the conflict claimants over land, or any issue(s), with the ardent goal of preventing an armed conflict before it spirals out of control. Without such a system in place, the internecine ethno-separatist conflict in Southern Thailand has carried on for more than a decade with huge casualties on all sides. Without maritime cooperation, ASEAN has not been able to put a finger on the issue of piracy, poaching, and preventing the tensions in the South China Sea, for that matter, to keep defence budgets in the region from further bloating. The International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) have both found a spike in the Asian countries defence expenditure, even including the member states of ASEAN, by some 700% over the last five years.

With the absence of peacekeeping, the member states of ASEAN have not been able to contribute to the maintenance of international peace. When the Blue Helmets are sent to any security contingencies, they are sent in their national representation; not on behalf of ASEAN. Without an ASEAN Peacekeeping Force, the conflicts in the region such as Mindanao will continue to simmer, with potential exploitation by radical militants like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf Group. The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) must look outward too, invariably, to foster best practices. Indeed, AEC appears aware of the importance of external engagement, given its focus on promoting keener competition. Yet, AEC has neglected the importance of adopting the best practices in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Although there are 3000 companies listed across the seven stock exchanges in ASEAN, none have pledged themselves to the importance of ASEAN CSR. It is as if ASEAN only matters as a larger consumer market, with nary a commitment to increase a company’s social contribution to AEC at all. Indeed, AEC should work closely with the United Nations’ Global Compact on enhancing CSR, as the UN Global Compact has been in this line of trade for more than a decade.

The ASEAN Social Cultural Community is also proceeding without any attention given to the best practices abroad. The UN Alliance of Civilization, and the Project on Common Word, for example, are best examples in inter faith and inter communal dialogue. Although Malaysia intends to launch the Global Movement of the Moderate (GMM) in January 2012, this is currently being done without any consultation with Indonesia or other countries yet. Yet, Indonesia, Thailand, and for that matter, Vietnam, can do much to strengthen the foundation of such a movement – especially if they are pegged to ASEAN.

Given the advent of globalisation, ASEAN cannot proceed with its regionalisation with the attempt to circle its wagons merely. It has to learn from the world, and adapt the best practices. Only then can it live up to the universal principles laid down by the UN and the international community.

Indeed, the ASEAN Charter is meant to do that, especially on contentious issues like human rights and gender rights. Without such an international focus, ASEAN may be lost under the ASEAN Way purely, since the latter encourages consensus and agreeable agreement, all achieved at the lowest common denominators.

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