ASEAN central to the region’s future

Author: Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN Secretary-General

During his visit to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat in Jakarta on 4 March 2010, Kofi Anan, former United Nations Secretary General, commended ASEAN for having regained its profile in the international arena. This profile is something that needs to be nurtured further.

The world wants ASEAN to achieve, and become even more successful, so that it has one less region to worry about. Last October there was an appeal for China and East Asia to pull the world away from the economic crisis.

As it transpired, the West asked us to pull the world out of the worst economic crisis since the Second World War. Their need for our support follows the realistic response to managing East Asia’s own financial crises over a decade ago. We have adjusted ourselves and are now more integrated, and resilient, than many had thought.

ASEAN+3, which includes China, Japan and Korea, was established because we realised that all of our countries require integration. It is important to remember that the economies of ASEAN itself are going to grow, even during these difficult times, at the rate of around 5 per cent this year.

Of course, economic crisis is not the only challenge for East Asia. There are also political and other non-traditional threats. The questions are: Can East Asia cope? Can ASEAN cope? Should we think about the Asia-Pacific Community and East Asian Community? I don’t see these new formulations of regional architecture as a challenge, but as further recognition of the importance of our entire region.

So ASEAN needs to coordinate policies in any new regional architecture. In 1955, Asian and African leaders gathered themselves at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Bandung. We realised back then that we, as individual states, needed to coexist peacefully. In 1967, after the signing of the Bangkok Declaration to establish ASEAN, the British Charge d’Affaires sent a telex to London, saying ‘These countries have failed before. We don’t have to give them anything. We already gave them English!’

Over the past 40 years we have developed a ‘workable diplomatic sculpture’ called ASEAN.

The experience of other regional groupings shows that they all have a strong core. The European Union has coal and steel cooperation. The North American Free Trade Area is centred around the United States—the strongest economy in the world. ASEAN is designed in the reverse. ASEAN has a rather loose core but draws on connectivity and dialogue to generate real partnership. Everybody is comfortable with us. We can claim that we gave rise to other configurations too: APEC, ASEM, ARF and the ASEAN+3.

This October, Australia and Russia will join ASEM. We have also heard keen interest from the US and Russia about joining the East Asia Summit. United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton asked me, ‘How much do you mean to implement the ASEAN Charter?’ I said, ‘We have to make it a living document. Much like your Declaration of Independence!’

We are not perfect but we can provide centrality and leadership to shape the regional landscape. We don’t want to be central by default but by strengthening our community. We are so diverse, and so different, and are dragged down by historical baggage.

But as the world is watching, we are showing our responsibility. We have gained confidence.

The Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation (CMIM) is a good example, with a resource pool of $US120 billion. It is a good sign that East Asia is showing the way in helping our own people. To the collective resource, ASEAN contributes 20 per cent, the Republic of Korea contributes 20 per cent, while the remaining 60 per cent are for China and Japan to settle among themselves. They cannot settle because they don’t want the other to give more. This is a problem that other regions of the world may also want to have!

Beyond these changes, ASEAN has been enjoying evolutionary progress over the past 42 years. We want to continue this evolution. Disruption will trump cooperation if there is a sense that change is being externally imposed, just like in the past.

Of course, we welcome President Obama’s re-engagement with Asia. His planned trip to Indonesia is important and symbolic for all of us. He will notice that the region has moved forward in the last decade and these changes must shape US engagement with East Asia.

Like a ceremonial umbrella, which is not held straight overhead, the US has to be symbolically behind, not overwhelming, not imposing, but there to provide a sense of security, trust and confidence to the region. For that reason, the US has been playing that role of the umbrella but not quite above, as it did earlier during the Vietnam War. That sensitivity has to be taken very seriously. Then everybody can be comfortable and confident.

ASEAN itself also has to change. We need to consolidate ourselves and integrate to be one market and production base. The core must be consolidated and integrated more effectively.

With a combined GDP of $US1.6 trillion ASEAN is recognised around the world. The world knows that we will be good partner for them. ASEAN will provide centrality in any evolving architecture in this region.

Surin Pitsuwan is Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He was formerly Foreign Minister of Thailand and has a PhD from Harvard University.

This is an edited excerpt from Surin Pitsuwan’s keynote address at the International Conference on Changing Global Landscape and Its Implications on Regional Architecture, 5 March 2010, Bangkok.

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