The Straits Times says

Charting a course for Asean's future

With the close of this year's Asean Summit, held in the Philippines, some introspection is in order. First, it should be said that Manila deserves kudos for steering a successful summit, devoid of acrimony. It also managed to persuade the wavering American president to attend the parallel East Asia Summit, where Asean meets its dialogue partners. Given the grouping's 50th birth anniversary, it is a time to cheer the little victories of a sustained project that has seen its original four members grow to its current 10. Like a small flotilla in shifting currents, Asean has survived the occasional buffeting in a remarkable fashion.

This is also a time to ponder Asean's future direction as it looks at the next 50 years. As incoming chair of Asean and host of its next summit, Singapore has laid out its vision for that future. It sees Asean as balancing on the tripod of a more stable world, a safer South-east Asia and a more prosperous region. Using a maritime metaphor, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has described it as a "lifeboat" for South-east Asia to come together, have its voice heard on the world stage and crucially, "to manage our own issues among ourselves". This is why the theme for Singapore's chairmanship is "resilience and innovation" - the first dealing with known challenges, and the second clearly aimed at a future to be profoundly impacted by the digital economy, automation and artificial intelligence.

Being pragmatic, Singapore has no illusions about the journey ahead. As new strategic and economic vistas unfold, many hazards will arise that might wreck even a vessel focusing on its own course, leave aside a group of 10 moving at different speeds and perhaps somewhat different directions. China has made it clear that while it endorses an Asean economic union, it looks poorly on South-east Asian political unity. On the sidelines of the Asean Summit, the meeting of the Quad nations - the US, Japan, Australia and India - underscores the attempts to build new formations in the neighbourhood. As big-power rivalry in the region grows, Asean risks yielding its cherished centrality to being the stuffing in the sandwich.

In this fraught environment, it is imperative to ensure parochial and nationalistic considerations do not undermine Asean's collective pursuit of regional public goods. These include security in the neighbourhood, protection of the environment, free and safe passage in international waters, and an open climate which fosters trade and investment. The prevailing spirit must be to shut out none and welcome all to contribute - as in the building of an economic community. Politically, it is time to drop its "all on board or nothing" approach and allow more scope for the majority to air their positions on issues affecting all. Remaining silent when things are seriously amiss would breed cynicism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2017, with the headline 'Charting a course for Asean's future'. Print Edition | Subscribe