By Invitation

Committing South-east Asia to a new era of cooperation

Even as efforts at integration gain pace, it is uncertain if Asean's capacity to deliver matches its ambitions

South-east Asia will usher in a new era of cooperation and stability, following last week's conclusion of the Asean foreign ministers' meeting in Putrajaya, Malaysia.

They affirmed the commitment to establish the Asean Community (AC) by the end of this year, to be formalised by the Asean heads of government in November.

The AC will comprise the three pillars of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), the Political-Security Community (APSC) and Social-Cultural Community (ASCC), which were envisaged by the Asean Summits of 2003 and 2005.

The AC represents the highest form of regional cooperation among the 10 member states of Asean, and can be seen as the culmination of a few decades of Asean's role in fostering positive inter-state relations. That has helped develop rapport and facilitated the habit of cooperation among their leaders and people.

From fragile beginnings in 1967, Asean has become a shining example of regional cooperation worthy of emulation. Credit for this change should be given to President Suharto of Indonesia (1966 to 1998) and the other Asean leaders, who had recognised the need for Asean to work together to enhance their capabilities and grow their potential in a rapidly changing globalised world.

Asean has been outstanding in the developing world in promoting regional stability and security, preventing inter-state conflict as well as promoting regional economic cooperation and development.

The risk is that the extravagant claims for a Community (with a capital "C") may outstrip our capacity to deliver.

SOUTH-EAST ASIA'S TRANSFORMATION

With a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of US$3 trillion (S$4.2 trillion) in 2013, Asean now has the third-largest GDP in Asia, after China and Japan.

With a population of 600 million, Asean GDP is projected to grow by more than 5 per cent a year over the next five years, with intra-Asean trade exceeding US$1 trillion. With the establishment of the AEC, it will aim to create a single production and distribution base, where products can be manufactured anywhere in the region and distributed and sold throughout South-east Asia. The AEC aims to "transform Asean into a region with free movement of goods, services, labour and free movement of capital".

Asean will also enhance connectivity throughout the region. An Asean highway network is a priority project, while improved maritime links are promoted. Air services are being liberalised and rail connectivity has also been planned. China's initiative in establishing an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is significant as a source of funding for infrastructure throughout the region.

The emergence of the AC is a giant leap forward from the 1960s, when South-east Asia was regarded as the Balkans of Asia, riven by inter-state and intra-state conflicts in the region. The Cold War was raging and South-east Asia was a zone of contention. The Vietnam War was at its height following the United States intervention and spilt over into Cambodia and Laos. Myanmar was beset with multiple rebellions and Thailand and the Philippines with communist insurgencies. Indonesia was engaged in Konfrontasi, an undeclared war with Malaysia, which included Singapore.

The communist insurgencies in the region were supported by post-revolutionary China, with communist parties and their allies in the region replicating the street struggles of its Cultural Revolution. Malaysia-Philippines relations were ruptured over the Philippine claim to Sabah, while Malaysia-Singapore relations were embittered following Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965. South-east Asia's future looked bleak and uncertain.

The situation in the region underwent a dramatic transformation since Asean's formation. Following the end of the Vietnam War and the accompanying conflicts in Cambodia and Laos in 1975, South-east Asia was divided into two blocs - the non-communist Asean and the communist Indochina with a neutral Burma (now Myanmar).

The Asean Five (later six with Brunei) responded by intensifying their cooperative efforts in economic and political fields as set out in their Declaration of Bali Concord 1976.

They united in opposing Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1979 through the 1980s and, following the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia and the military takeover in Burma in the 1990s, offered the hand of friendship to the four Indochina states.

Vietnam joined Asean in 1995, followed by Laos and Myanmar in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999.

The enlargement of Asean encouraged its leaders to make bold plans for the consolidation and development of the regional grouping. They envisioned the three "Cs" - an Asean Charter, an Asean Community and Asean Connectivity - for enhancement of Asean's progress and prosperity.

AMBITIONS SURPASS ABILITY TO DELIVER

However, the challenge for Asean is that the ambitions of its proponents surpass their capacity to deliver.

The focus of governments will be on building strong states and maintaining their hold on power. By framing the AC, whose three pillars are political-security, economic and socio-cultural, as an objective to be reached by December, Asean draws attention to current weaknesses in the level of regional integration.

Like other regional groupings, the reality facing Asean is that it is essentially a diplomatic community of policymakers, journalists and academics which has not sunk deep roots.

Asean has been outstanding in the developing world in promoting regional stability and security, preventing inter-state conflict as well as promoting regional economic cooperation and development. The risk is that the extravagant claims for a Community (with a capital "C") may outstrip our capacity to deliver. This development is significant as we are at an inflection point in global history.

The US is, today, the only superpower and has controlled the maritime space of the Indo-Pacific since 1945.

A rising China, which has historically been focused westwards towards Central Asia, could emerge as a regional competitor for the US in the decade ahead. As China builds up its naval and air power, its presence in the East China Sea and South China Sea will increase. China is already the leading trading partner for states in South-east Asia and is rapidly emerging as a major source of investment, tourism and business partnerships.

China's rise in the decades ahead will pose challenges for the region even as it creates opportunities.

Policymakers in Asean states are concerned that China's capacity to influence regional decisions will increase as the country becomes more powerful. States in the region will develop closer relations with China. While prospects for cooperation are strengthened by China's enunciation of a Maritime Silk Road as a key objective, with its promise of enhancing mutual prosperity, increasing trade and investment and promoting regional peace and security, China's extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea highlight the potential for conflict.

China's unwillingness to turn to international legal adjudication of conflicting maritime territorial claims, current land reclamation which is far greater than that undertaken by any other claimant state and the lack of progress in reaching an agreement with Asean on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea draw attention that China's actions could negatively shape the perceptions of states in the South-east Asian region.

• The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Bakrie Professor of Southeast Asia Policy, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2015, with the headline 'By Invitation Committing South-east Asia to a new era of cooperation'. Print Edition | Subscribe