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ASEAN Community in a Changing Global Landscape

Updated on December 21, 2018

More than fifty years after its creation, it is to ASEAN’s credit that the region has remained stable and peaceful despite some unresolved territorial conflicts among its members. This is mainly due to the adherence of member states to fundamental principles embodied in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), which remains the cornerstone of ASEAN cooperation and regional diplomacy. The TAC has also been instrumental in building a concentric security framework and dialogue mechanisms – mainly through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) – where ASEAN’s centrality is key to managing the security environment in this part of the world. It is largely because of these ASEAN-centred mechanisms that China, Japan, and the divided Koreas (in the ARF) are engaged in the process of security dialogue since 1994, which also contributed to the creation of the Six-Party Talks that enabled concerned states until the late 1990s to manage the problem of nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula. (The importance of engaging with North Korea through the ARF has become even more critical in recent months amidst increasing tensions in the Korean peninsula following ballistic missile tests conducted by Pyongyang in April 2017.) As well, the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) framework has enabled ASEAN members to engage with China, Japan, and South Korea across a range of political-security and economic issues of mutual concern, including those related to difficult problems such as the dispute over the South China Sea in the case of China. Indeed, without ASEAN’s centrality in the ARF, EAS, and the APT, it would have been more difficult to manage both traditional and nontraditional security issues facing the region. These include threats from terrorism and violent extremism, human trafficking, drug trafficking, migration, pandemic diseases, and natural disasters related to climate change.

33rd ASEAN Summit in Singapore, 2018
33rd ASEAN Summit in Singapore, 2018

While ASEAN no doubt has contributed significantly in maintaining international peace through the above security and dialogue mechanisms, its members should also give importance to building an ASEAN Community that enables them to enhance their national resilience and to be responsive to a range of human security issues in the region. Specifically, human development problems such as poverty, inequality, and access to basic services are at the root of many internal conflicts faced by many ASEAN 29ASEAN Community Building – What It Really Means to be a Community states. To some extent, these problems are exacerbated by lack of accountability and transparency in government institutions, which contribute to graft and corruption, violations of human rights and the principle of rule of law, perpetration of political violence and atrocities, and limited access to justice. For some ASEAN members that are still in the process of nation-building, these issues are complicated by continuing armed challenges to the legitimacy of the state, which remain difficult to resolve in the absence of meaningful dialogue that would lead to negotiated peace agreements that are acceptable to all stakeholders. In some cases, the rise of nationalist or religious extremist ideas undermines social harmony that is anchored on the values of tolerance and respect for diversity in many multi-ethnic societies in the region. Some governments need to respond more effectively to contain this threat, which has led to increasing use of hate speech, violent attacks, or adoption of discriminatory laws against minority groups.

Indeed, national resilience is key to building an ASEAN Community where member states are committed to promoting and implementing human protection principles and in developing regional resilience based on shared values. This is in fact clearly stated in the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, which was adopted in the Summit of Leaders in 2015, where they reaffirmed the importance of these principles as they envisioned “a peaceful, stable, and resilient Community with enhanced capacity to respond effectively to challenges.”14 The ASEAN leaders also underscored the “complementarity of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with ASEAN community building efforts to uplift the standards of living” of peoples in the region.15 More importantly, they also stated their resolve to realise, among others:

3 Pillars of ASEAN community
3 Pillars of ASEAN community

- A rules-based community that fully adheres to ASEAN fundamental principles, shared values and norms as well as principles of international law governing the peaceful conduct of relations among states; An inclusive and responsive community that ensures our peoples enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as thrive in a just, democratic, harmonious and gender-sensitive environment in accordance with the principles of democracy, good governance and the rule of law;

- A community that embraces tolerance and moderation, fully respects the different religions, cultures and languages of our peoples, upholds common values in the spirit of unity in diversity as well as addresses the threat of violent extremism in all its forms and manifestations;

- A community that adopts a comprehensive approach to security which enhances our capacity to address effectively and in a timely manner existing and emerging challenges, including non-traditional security issues, particularly transnational crimes and transboundary challenges...

Overall, a people-centred and people-oriented ASEAN Community can be realised if member states are strongly committed to putting human security, human development, and human protection at the core of their national and regional development agenda. Traditional conceptions of sovereignty that privilege state security more than people’s security are no longer viable in the context of a more interdependent and integrated world. Instead, states should take seriously their primary responsibility to protect their people, including vulnerable populations within their territory, from threats to human security that could lead to, or exacerbate further, internal conflicts. Sovereign responsibility should also be linked to the promotion of good governance, rule of law, and human protection, which contributes to enhancing the legitimacy of states and their national resilience in dealing with challenges facing the region.

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