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Between giants, Asean will overcome

During the latest Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit, the list of pressing issues facing the region was overwhelming. The reflex response of skeptics was to predict the weakening of the organization. However, these fears are dictated by a misreading of the players and nature of the challenges at hand. I am confident that not only will the Asean survive the demands and obstacles thrust into it, but will ably balance the interests of the big powers and effectively manage pressures from them.

This is not a wishful expression of faith. It is a judgment based on evidence and an objective analysis:

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The Rohingya crisis: Myanmar welcomes the assistance offered by the Asean because of the latter’s successful humanitarian mission after the Storm “Nargis” disaster in 2008. The Asean and its dialogue partners realize the greater perils to the whole region that would result if the Rohingya problem gets out of hand.

The stakes of actors in the region: China and the United States have a common interest in safeguarding freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea and in preventing an outbreak of war. They also favor the eventual conclusion of the Asean Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The Chairman’s Statement of the latest summit was forthright in alluding to the South China Sea, expressing “concerns on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.” The member states reaffirmed the need to pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

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China and the United States have a long-run interest in maintaining close economic cooperation. While they have competing frameworks in dominating international trade and security (China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy), Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and US Vice President Mike Pence both expressed in the last summit their countries’ appreciation of the value of maximizing the benefits from their partnership with the Asean.

Japan, Australia and South Korea, despite their alliance with the United States, are leading trade partners of China. They are part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, along with India, New Zealand and the 10 Asean member states.

Denuclearization of North Korea: Member states would like to see the Asean playing a mediating role in resolving the Korean Peninsula crisis. Since the 1999 Asean Informal Summit, the Asean has been the convener of meetings among East Asian countries. This meeting in Manila led to the framework, “Asean Plus Three” (China, Japan and South Korea).

We cannot underestimate the fraternal ties that bind the Korean peoples. The longing for reunification was further fortified between the leaders of South Korea and North Korea when they met at the inter-Korean peace summits and signed the Panmunjom Declaration and other agreements in April, May and September 2018. There is no turning back.

The formidable composition of the Asean:  In evaluating the future of the Asean, the strength, resilience and perseverance of its member states cannot be overlooked. Southeast Asia is the melting pot of world religions, ideologies and civilizations. It is made up of countries that have stood up to centuries of foreign domination. They resolved their internecine conflicts dating back to precolonial times. At the end of the Vietnam War, the founding states of the regional bloc embraced the other countries of Southeast Asia and brought them to the fold of the Asean. Faced with an economic crisis in 1997-1999, the Asean is now the fastest-growing economic region in the world.

For these reasons, we should not fear for the future of the Asean. In its 51st year, we should be grateful for the indomitable spirit of our peoples who brought the region to where we are now.

Dr. Wilfrido V. Villacorta was Asean deputy secretary general and Philippine ambassador and permanent representative to the Asean.

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