IT has been reported that with the Apec (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Chile cancelled, global attention turned to the 35th Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) summit that took place in Bangkok over the weekend.
Formed in 1967, Asean has come a long way to be recognised as one of the foremost regional organisations in the world. The five elder statesmen – representing Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – who gathered in Bangkok back then did so due to the fear of communism creeping down from Vietnam, following the “Domino Theory”. The then US President, Lyndon B. Johnson, had put forth this theory that South-East Asian nations would fall like dominoes if they did not prepare to avert the inevitable.
These young nations, most of which had only recently become free of colonial rule, felt an urgency to come together and form a regional grouping to safeguard their independence and integrity.
Tun Thanat Koman, Thailand’s Foreign Minister, has been acknowledged as having played a central role in helping Asean to take off and succeed.
After more than 40 years of illustrious existence, Asean today faces many challenges that it needs to overcome lest it faces the same fate as the European Union which is grappling with the stark reality of breaking up thanks to Brexit, ie, Britain’s bid to leave the union.
Security and trade were the underlying necessities that prompted the formation of Asean.
For security, there was the declaration of Zofan – the Zone of Freedom and Neutrality – which kept in check foreign intervention or interference.
When it comes to the second reason for its formation, trade, Asean has done well. It is a leading trading partner of China, the United States, the European Union, Australia, Japan and Russia.
According to Kishore Mahbubani, the noted scholar and diplomat from Singapore, the greatest challenge Asean faces today is the trade war between the United States and China. The world is hoping for an amicable solution to emerge from negotiations that are going on presently. If this trade war drags on or no solution is found, Asean would be greatly affected, states Mahbubani.
Another problem Asean faces is China’s claim to the islands in the South China Sea that have not been addressed in spite of diplomatic efforts by different member nations. The United States has also warned that the South China Sea is a free highway and that any attempt to lay claim to this important seaway would lead to confrontations. Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia have claims to several areas known to contain rich minerals resources.
The annual haze that engulfs Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Thailand is an example of a cross border issue that needs to be solved amicably. During the intermonsoon period of June to August, the southerly winds that blow across Indonesia bring with it heavy smoke that affects the health of citizens of the affected countries. The air pollutant index rises to alarming levels, forcing schools to be closed and citizens to wear facial masks.
Indonesia has been reluctant to accept aid from Asean member countries, and there is no mechanism to deal with this annual health hazard. According to environmentalists, Asean should form an Asean Disaster Management Team to act in the event of transborder incidents.
When Asean was formed, the leaders specifically included the term “the Asean Way”, which enshrined the principal of non- interference in the internal affairs of member countries. Principally, it emphasised that no member of Asean should interfere in the internal affairs of any other member country.
The acceptance of this principle helped to sustain a friendly atmosphere but it has also hampered certain necessary actions from being undertaken. The plight and exodus of 700,00 Rohingyas from Myanmar to the borders of Bangladesh is an example. Nations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia that are also greatly affected by the Myanmar refugee problem could not act or say anything due to “the Asean Way”.
Furthermore, the concept of an Asean community has still not become a reality. The majority of Asean citizens are still unaware of the goals and activities of this grouping of nations in spite of its four-decade-long existence.
Asean faces many hurdles. It needs good leadership to overcome the many challenges ahead.
DR HJ AHMAD