The recently concluded ASEAN summit held under the chairmanship of Brunei was emblematic in underlining the ambitions of the regional South East Asian regional bloc but, once again, it also clearly exposed key faulting lines that risk torpedoing any future efforts of progress of the bloc.
ASEAN, representing one of the most dynamic regions in the world and surely one with the highest potential, is still trying to forge its own moral compass in navigating strategic issues, finding it hard to balance a common approach with overwhelming national interests dictated by each member state.
Such contrast could not be better exemplified by the Summit’s final declaration.
On the one hand, the leaders of the region affirmed a commitment to be at the vanguard of the digital transformation and 4th Industrial Revolution and on the other hand, they showed their fragility and vulnerability in handling the Myanmar crisis.
The positive decision not to invite Min Aung Hlaing, the Junta leader in Myanmar, was, at the end overshadowed by ambiguous declarations about Myanmar, a clear signal that ASEAN has not yet completely given up on the generals in Naypyitaw.
A strong focus and determination to pursue prosperity for its own people is hampered by a clear lack of a common approach in dealing with vital issues pertaining to democracy and human rights, a situation that poses serious risks for effective regional integration in South East Asia.
Till Myanmar’s crisis, ASEAN had managed to deal with this internal contradiction quite effectively, always putting forward its ASEAN’s approach based on strict unanimity and conformity of views that always led to an acceptable consensus.
Yet this time around, the differences among member nations are too vast to be obfuscated by the usual declarations with the bloc being split in two among those who wanted a much firmer response to the crisis and those members still willing to preserve the usual consensus-based politics.
The lack of any substantial mediation role between San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and the generals following tensions in the post-November elections that paved the way for the coup showed the structural deficiencies of ASEAN’s external approach.
The regional bloc is not only unprepared to deal with regional crises but also seriously constrained by its principle of not interfering in the internal affairs of its members.
The current state of affairs in the ASEAN is the result of a cooperative regional system that is too centered on intergovernmental decision making by its members rather than on the delegation of authority and responsibilities to the secretariat in Jakarta.
Such an approach can be detrimental to any progress on an ambitious ASEAN Post 2025 Vision and the numerous concavity plans that ASEAN is set to embark on. We are dealing with a true conundrum where pragmatism and the status quo are pitted against a progressive and dynamic values-based system. A consequence will be the ongoing attempts being made to chart an innovation and sustainability agenda within ASEAN, and whether or not it will succeed or fail.
The final declaration of the Summit refers to several initiatives to promote youth engagement in the field of climate action, employment and digitalization. Youth centered issues are assuming a bigger role in the regional policy-making but effective implementation of formal commitments requires swift action and also a common approach to key issues.
On the issue of climate change, for example, this is an area where ASEAN, as a whole, is advancing but still lacks some basic fundamentals in a truly common approach. The official declaration of the bloc on the ongoing COP 26 Summit in Glasgow is more geared towards expectations in terms of what developed nations should do rather than proposing regional common solutions with binding commitments.
The release in October of the ASEAN State of Climate Change Report (ASCCR), developed by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), could be a milestone if its recommendations, including the goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, were fully implemented.
Yet, the documental is mainly inspirational rather than offering a binding joint position. While several nation members, most recently Malaysia have made some bold announcements and all should be praised for more precise and detailed commitments in terms of Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs, ASEAN must do more together.
Therefore, it is not surprising that ASEAN has its own pavilion at Dubai 2020 Expo but not an official delegation to Glasgow Cop 26. In this context, it is hard to understand what the creation of a new ASEAN Centre for Climate Change in Brunei can really represent for the region: real progress or tokenism?
The challenges are not only about raising ambitions through a common front in the area of climate change. As difficult and complex as climate action might be, the obstacles in forging a common consensus in this key area are nothing in comparison with the daunting task of promoting a common approach to human rights.
The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, AICHR is a tool that is not able to uphold the respect of human rights in the ASEAN community. It is an institution unable to investigate any presumed case of human rights abuse, basically a talking shop though there is a push from the democratic camp of the ASEAN to reform it.
A formal Review of the Terms of Reference was even agreed by the 52nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, but a panel of experts in charge of this task has not been nominated yet. In recent months, under the impetus of Indonesia, a series of initiatives have been taken to renew interest in the potential role that the AICHR could assume.
An ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue 2021 was convened on September 21 and a stakeholders meeting was called in order to discuss ways to strengthen its human rights protection mandate.
Effectively dealing with the Myanmar crisis implies solving the ASEAN’s conundrum: upending the status quo and moving away, albeit only partially, from the traditional ASEAN’s approach.
This means supporting a stronger human rights agenda within the ASEAN community no matter the obstacles that will be posed by the authoritarian members of the bloc. Jointly facing the climate challenge will imply not only stronger cooperation but also integration and a stronger role of the ASEAN Secretariat.
For an EU that is getting ready for the upcoming ASIA-EUROPE Meeting (ASEM) a few weeks from now, helping ASEAN to effectively tackle these key sensitive areas is paramount. The recent visit of Frans Timmermans focused on climate change and smart cities was important but political issues must be also dealt with vigorously as well.
The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific requires a much stronger and agile ASEAN and as a good partner and friend Europe has the responsibility and duty to help forge a new consensus within ASEAN on its future’s course.