- By Mark Angeles
The first 50 years of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, better known as ASEAN, were a period of growth and mostly positive accomplishments, but the next half-century will be fraught with challenges that require major changes that will allow the organization to act in a nimble, proactive manner, said Indonesia’s former foreign minister on Friday.
Dr. Raden Mohammad Marty Muliana Natalegawa, Indonesia’s foreign minister from 2009 to 2014 and the Director General for ASEAN Cooperation during his country’s chairmanship of the organization, made his remarks last week in an interview with journalists attending the 2nd ASEAN Media Forum in Singapore last week.
The Honourable Dr. Natalegawa, who has also served as Indonesia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and the Indonesian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, said recent, significant events involving the Koreas, China, the United States, Myanmar and other countries are harbingers of a rocky future for the association.
“(In the case of) One Belt, One Road, I’m surprised ASEAN does not have a common position. I’m totally flabbergasted that China is picking us off one by one. Some are invited, some are not. ASEAN needs to be central in this discussion. If we start going to China individually, then we will be at a disadvantage”, he said.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development strategy proposed by the Chinese government that focuses on connectivity and cooperation among Eurasian countries, primarily the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the ocean-going Maritime Silk Road (MSR). The initiative was known in English as the One Belt and One Road Initiative(OBOR) until 2016.
The ambitious project has been described by critics as a push by China to take a larger role in global affairs with a China-centred trading network.
Events that occur can’t wait until April of a given year when leaders meet, or July when ministers meet, or November when there’s a summit, he said.
“North Korea, South China Sea happens, ASEAN is silent,” he said, referring to North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing and the competing claims of sovereignty over the strategically important islands and waters of the Pacific Ocean that borders China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries. Indonesia’s former foreign minister said ASEAN has to decide on how to change its philosophy so that it can be more proactive in the midst of unfolding major developments.
“Within ASEAN there is a variation of thought between minimalist and the need to cajole and encourage. ASEAN needs a transformative outlook”, he said.
Dr. Natalegawa cited the transition to democracy in Myanmar
as an example of how ASEAN could lend assistance.
“With the reform process taking place, this should be the best of times for Myanmar, not where we are now. I hope ASEAN can play a central role in this”, he said.
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in a speech commemorating the 50th Anniversary of ASEAN in August 2017, seemed to agree with Dr. Natalegawa’s vision when she called on the regional body to evolve in order to respond to future challenges.
“The progress achieved during our first 50 should not make ASEAN complacent. It should inspire and enable the peoples of ASEAN to step up the momentum to realize a participative, resilient, and socially-responsible community for the betterment of all ASEAN peoples,” she said.
Among the most significant accomplishments of ASEAN since 1967, the State Counsellor said, were the trust and partnerships established among the member countries that have facilitated common goals and the strengthening and nurturing of the bloc as an economic social and cultural powerhouse. The 10 ASEAN countries now constitute the world’s seventh biggest economy.
But there is still much to be accomplished, Dr. Natalegawa said. For Myanmar, which faces ongoing challenges in Rakhine State that have prompted international scrutiny, he suggested that ASEAN could offer a solution.
“With Myanmar, there should be a process of mutual encouragement”, he said, an approach that could help ease, not inflame tensions.
“The key element that ASEAN must create is trust. Because this is certainly an issue internal to Myanmar. Having said internal, this doesn’t mean that there is no potential regional contribution. I remember when we were dealing with Myanmar’s first ASEAN chairmanship (in 2014). ASEAN was able to speak with one voice on Myanmar, but at the same time cajoling Myanmar behind the scenes to deliver on promises. Yes, it is a national issue, but there’s a regional contribution”.
ASEAN was founded in 1967 and would eventually represent Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, and Laos.