Asean needs to develop a more comprehensive way to resolve disputes, said senior Singapore diplomat and former Asean chief Ong Keng Yong.
This includes reviewing and making recommendations to improve a 2004 protocol, which covered enhanced dispute settlement mechanisms to resolve economic disputes, said Mr Ong, who headed Asean from 2003 to 2008.
Another way is to ensure that a 2010 protocol to the Asean Charter on dispute settlement mechanisms would apply in future instruments, so as to encourage its use in resolving non-economic disputes.
Speaking at the start of a regional forum yesterday, Mr Ong made the suggestions as part of his call to turn the South-east Asian grouping - known for the "Asean way" of making regional decisions based on consensus - into a more rules-based body.
"To move forward to become a more rules-based Asean, it is important to see the Asean way as having a symbiotic relationship with a rules-based Asean. Achieving consensus and adhering to international law are both critical aspects of maintaining regional cooperation."
The ambassador-at-large was speaking to more than 70 academics and experts from the region, including Mr Walter Douglas, US deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs, public diplomacy and regional and security policy in East Asia and the Pacific.
The two-day conference focuses on legal issues of importance to the Asean region, such as the transboundary haze issue, territorial water disputes and the rights of women and children. It was organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, The Asia Foundation and the United States Embassy here.
Mr Ong noted that the 10-member Asean - which marks its 50th anniversary in August - also needs to implement and enforce its legal obligations if it wants to be an effective regional body. Instead of signing on to as many legal instruments as possible, it is more important for Asean to implement its legal obligations, he said.
To aid this goal, Asean should streamline its large body of agreements by reviewing existing treaties and dispute settlement mechanisms, and prioritise and use them accordingly, he suggested.
While Asean is not perfect, building a regional community is an ongoing learning process, he added.
"Implementing regional obligations is as crucial as signing on to them," he said. "In this pursuit, we need law, rules and systems to strengthen Asean as an open, inclusive and peaceful region to ensure a secure and prosperous future."
Since its founding in 1967, Asean has relied more on consultation, consensus and declaratory statements, rather than treaties with binding legal obligations. This changed in 2007, when the Asean Charter was established.
The conference was opened by Mr Douglas, who said the new US administration under President Donald Trump remained focused on Asia, citing recent visits to the region by US Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this year as examples.
Mr Douglas said Asean is a strategic location for the US, as it includes countries that are "up and coming" and places where a significant number of Americans' parents or grandparents originate from.
"We're deeply committed to the region and have been for quite a few years... We're here to stay, we're going to be very involved in the most positive way that we can."