Southeast Asian leaders take another look at ‘ASEAN way’

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Southeast Asian leaders take another look at ‘ASEAN way’
Former President and Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo addresses the audience as part of the High Level Forum Conversations with ASEAN Leaders. -- Photo by FSI Philippines via Twitter (@FSIPhilippines)

THE ASSOCIATION of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is at a crossroads on whether to continue observing its long-held principle of consensus-based decision-making, as the regional economic bloc adjusts to a new world order.

During the Top Level Forum of ASEAN@50 on Thursday at Conrad Manila hotel in Pasay City, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, now a lawmaker representing Pampanga’s second district, said the next half century belongs to nations that will “seek common ground to resolve common problems.”

“All the hope and anxiety about the future leads us to one conclusion: we must all press for ever closer cooperation in ASEAN if we are to collectively benefit from the good and collectively tackle the challenges together,” Ms. Arroyo said.

The “ASEAN way” with its principles of dialogue and cohesion, has been crucial in building trust and maintaining harmony among the 10 member states since the bloc’s establishment in 1967.

The consultation-based mechanism provides a special platform to address a long list of conflicts and crises in the region that is marked by extreme diversity.

This method of non-intervention has received widespread criticism for impeding the region’s ability to provide meaningful solutions to big issues, including the South China Sea territorial dispute.

“We can’t just say everything has to go by consensus. We can remain informal and pragmatic, but become more decisive,” former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in the same forum.

Yang Berhormat Pehin Dato Lim Jock Seng, Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, concurred: “ASEAN way may take a long time to evolve… It is a process, but the world will not wait for us.”

“ASEAN will have to demonstrate our own leadership, our own self-reliance and make our own decisions on how to get a hold of our own future by our own resources rather than relying on our partners for development,” said Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, former Thai minister of Foreign Affairs.

“That is one way to get away from the lack of progress in decision-making.”

Facing mammoth issues in the future will require “global-size cooperation,” building stronger regions and expanding partnerships on politics, economy and security, Ms. Arroyo said.

Dr. Mari Elka Pangetsu, Indonesia’s former Trade minister, said ASEAN should strengthen its collective leadership role at a time when the world is pulling back from globalization, citing the potential of Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership (RCEP) — a free-trade partnership that will link Southeast Asia with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

“We want to continue the process of reforms. We want to continue the process of opening up,” Ms. Pangetsu said.

“ASEAN centrality becomes even more important.”

While ASEAN has made some headway in the economic dimension of the integration, it is necessary for Southeast Asia to establish a sense of communal identity since the initiative is still very much leadership-driven and removed from common citizens.

ASEAN should engage its citizens and learn from the lessons of European Union, which saw the United Kingdom leave the euro zone because “they never really felt they belonged,” Thailand’s Mr. Abhisit said.

“For a sustained integration arrangement to be successful, you have to create a sense of belonging. People must participate.” — Krista Angela M. Montealegre