Forum: Asean's centrality must be defended

Thai policemen stand guard outside a venue for the Asean summit in Bangkok, on Nov 1, 2019.
Thai policemen stand guard outside a venue for the Asean summit in Bangkok, on Nov 1, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

Mr Toh Cheng Seong raised some excellent points on Asean's relations with the United States, including their longstanding relationship and the need to nurture win-win ties (Nothing exclusive about US summit invitation to Asean, Nov 16).

I wish to clarify that my earlier advocacy for Asean not to meet in Washington has little to do with "false pride and thin skins", but more with Asean's centrality, which is at increasing risk of being displaced (US not the proper venue for summit with Asean, Nov 11).

We must know that the invitations from President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump for Asean to convene in the US came about under different circumstances.

Mr Obama's invitation presented itself as a reciprocal gesture, while Mr Trump's came after his repeated absence at the East Asia Summit amid his all too well-known US-centric stance.

With the Quadrilateral Dialogue also brewing hot on the burner, it is prudent for Asean to remain circumspect lest the rug be pulled from under and dislodge the grouping of its central footing before it realises this.

Perhaps a diplomatic way to handle the tricky situation would not be to reject the US' invitation altogether, but consider a delegation comprising non-heads of state. But whatever it is that Asean decides on, it must project nothing short of unity.

With Mr Trump being so erratic, it is prudent to manage our expectations and keep in mind that going along with what he wants hardly guarantees anything. We should not discount the lesson from the Kurds, who laid their lives down for the US but were left on their own.

Diplomacy does require one to blend in lots of niceties, but preservation of our position must be kept in mind in all engagements. In this case, the centrality of Asean, which is absolutely critical, stands to be defended.

Lily Ong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2019, with the headline 'Asean's centrality must be defended'. Print Edition | Subscribe