Thinking Beyond Politics

Now that Manila is gearing up for the series of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meetings that will all but shut down the city next week, many are asking what the public should expect to see as the outcomes, and more importantly, the long-term impact for the country and for the region. Discovering the meetings’ importance to the Philippines is especially important this year, given that the country is the chair of ASEAN.

To take a deeper look at the challenges that we have in ASEAN and the ways in which some of our member states are cooperating to address them, the Stratbase ADR Institute is hosting a conference entitled “ASEAN Leadership Amid a New World Order” on Wednesday, Nov. 8.

ASEAN’s challenges on political and security questions will be the highlight of the morning’s discussion, which has a special focus on maritime security. Speaking at the conference will be no less than National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Secretary Lorenzana will be accompanied by Prof. Renato de Castro, ADRi Trustee; Prof. Masashi Nishihara of Japan’s Research Institute for Peace and Security; Prof. Christopher Roberts of the University of New South Wales; Prof. Jay Batongbacal of UP; Prof. I Made Andi Arsana of Universitas Gadjah Mada; and Mr. Gregory Poling of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The demand for meaningful cooperation in ASEAN is ever-increasing.

In a more integrated world, the Philippines and its neighbors share their challenges, whose political, economic, and socio-cultural aspects transcend country borders and link together 600 million people. As Southeast Asia more closely integrates with the rest of East Asia and the broader Asia-Pacific region, the causes and consequences of our countries’ actions have also broadened.

The diplomats remind us that ASEAN is working to strengthen its centrality in the regional architecture and to actively contribute to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. If its principled calls should translate into action, and if ASEAN should persist in these calls, then we believe that it will continue to secure for itself a place at the center of our region’s cooperation.

Ultimately, we need to build trust in each other and in the institutions that have the potential to be transformative. This is particularly important at this juncture, when multilateralism in general appears to have an uncertain place in the world.

However, building trust in multilateralism requires these institutions to prove themselves to be effective, representative, and transparent about how they represent the region’s principles and shared objectives. One way of doing is for all states to rally around the mutually agreed upon set of rules to govern their conduct, especially in the most difficult areas of getting agreement, such as the South China Sea. The bottom line is that international law is the foundation for stability in our region.

ASEAN: More than meetings

For this reason, above and beyond the protection of each of our nation’s interests, by upholding international law, all the states of the region will also be securing peace.

We need to take concrete action, in accordance with law, to prevent conflicts, build confidence, and peacefully settle our disputes.

As I have previously noted, one of the most important actions is for countries to exercise self-restraint and focus on peaceful means in resolving the disputes.

Some examples that have been suggested, such as implementing the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea and establishing a legally binding ASEAN Code of Conduct, could give our governments the ease they need to work past our differences and boost all of our security.

The Philippines last hosted the Summit 10 years ago, in 2007, in Cebu. Looking back, among the agreements that the leaders signed was the ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism — a framework meant “to counter, prevent and suppress terrorism and deepen counter-terrorism cooperation.” The convention is still relevant and referenced today. Just recently, the Convention has been resurfaced in light of the close cooperation among some ASEAN members (the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia) to address the continuing cross-border threats that went hand-in-hand with the extended violence that we saw in Marawi.

In the case of ASEAN, although it is improbable that the region will change overnight, the agreed-upon conventions and other texts can lay the groundwork for deeper cooperation over time. Certainly, the standard ASEAN visa exemptions and the integrating ASEAN economic community are two examples of agreements developing over time that the countries of Southeast Asia have benefited from.

Looking even further back, Southeast Asia has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last 50 years. One has to wonder whether ASEAN’s founding fathers envisioned the level of cooperation that goes on in ASEAN today.

Thus, even as we might be critical about some disappointing developments in ASEAN in recent years, we should also be mindful of how far the efforts of our societies have brought us. Nevertheless, there cannot be an anniversary year without performing an honest assessment.

Where could ASEAN do more? Where could ASEAN gain more confidence? This is an especially important exercise this year, as the association highlights itself as a model of regionalism for the globe.


Prof. Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the founder and managing director of the Stratbase Group and president of its policy think tank, Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ADRi). Prof. Manhit is a former chair and retired associate professor of Political Science of De La Salle University. He has authored numerous papers on governance, political, and electoral reforms.