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Asean's international status is rising

27 December 2022

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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: It might sound pompous to keep stating the strategic importance of Southeast Asia over the past year due mainly to the three heavy-weight summits held in the neighbourhood. Historically speaking, it has always been this way since the colonial period when European powers gobbled up land, suppressed local people, and gained and influenced footholds throughout the region's mainland and archipelagos.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24, the war has helped to highlight the value of Southeast Asia under the umbrella of Asean and put the bloc on the global geostrategic map. In the past, it was the Cold War that placed Southeast Asia at the heart of regional conflict.

It was a clearly ideological, divided world. Southeast Asia opted for the free world. This time around, it is a different ballgame. The region can make a choice, refusing the outside powers' impositions or hegemonic inclinations.

Throughout the Ukraine war, Western countries have paid little attention to developing or smaller nations that could not contribute to the military effort to beat Russia. In the case of Asean, they wanted the bloc to follow diplomatic moves by imposing sanctions to punish Russia. Only one country complied. Other members did not.

For Asean, economic sanctions would not help end the war but would only escalate it and cause further suffering to civilians.

As such, it was natural that the ongoing conflict would permeate regional agendas, including the Asean-related summit, G20 and Asia Pacific Leaders Meeting in Phnom Penh, Bali and Bangkok. Before these summits, nobody would predict that the three hosts would be able to rise to the occasion.

After all, the countries in Southeast Asia held different views and positions that puzzled the Western world. In more ways than one, these divergences were derived from the Western domination and post-colonial experience of their nation-building process, which still continues today.

Throughout these years, Southeast Asian nations have learned the art of surviving and coexisting with both friendly and hostile great powers in their neighbourhood.

Inevitably, with the three summits held in Southeast Asia, all major powers have had to take notice of the outcomes of these leaders' meetings, especially their demeanours at various events. Some new diplomatic trends occurred during November of 2022 -- some of which could have long-term implications for the emergence of a new international order.

First of all, the most visible feature has been the diplomatic capacity and finesse of developing countries in looping in great powers. They want to make sure that their home grounds are not used for confrontation. For instance, as the host of the Asean-related summit, Prime Minister Hun Sen utilised the event to show off post-war Cambodia and its diplomatic balancing acts with all concerned parties.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was invited to Phnom Penh to meet up with Asean foreign ministers and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). The TAC is a regional conduct agreement with clear stipulations of respect for national sovereignty and integrity, non-use of force, and non-interference of internal affairs, among others.

Ukraine's accession sent a strong signal to Moscow of its commitment to the regional code of conduct. Russia, which signed the TAC in 2005, should have complied voluntarily with it. Life today for Russia, its people and the rest of the world would be in a better condition. Today, there are 50 signatories of the TAC from the world's four continents.

As a bloc, Asean has earned its centrality as never before. Previously, Asean centrality meant the bloc set its own agenda and stuck to its region. But now Asean has taken the initiative.

Each Asean member, which hosted a summit, has contributed to the strengthening of the bloc's centrality, contrary to what some critics may say -- that it's irrelevant, ununified and unable to settle its own crises.

Such a bleak assumption is understandable because, in the age of social media, the optics of progress and success is pivotal. Politicians and policymakers want to score points as early as possible, especially during a time of crisis, no matter how fragile the situation might be.

In the case of Myanmar, during the 1988 Burmese crisis, Asean did not have the same pressure that it and the concerned parties are facing today. Now they are all using social media to propagate their activities, imagined or real, further complicating efforts to fund durable solutions.

In addition, leaders of great powers still need leaders from developing and small countries to serve as a bridge or sometimes as a cushion. After all, they are non-threatening partners. As the G20 demonstrated, Indonesia has served as a bridge for all protagonists to get together and agree on a common communique. Both the leaders of the US and China also felt comfortable meeting in Bali.

Furthermore, due to the US-China rivalry, both superpowers are reaching out nonstop to garner more support from countries -- many from regions that would be overlooked under normal circumstances. Southeast Asia, the South Pacific Islands and Africa are now topping their agenda.

In the coming years, in particular the Year of the Tiger, Southeast Asia will become even more important because of the operationalisation of various Indo-Pacific strategies.

At the moment, there are at least ten assortments of Indo-Pacific strategies with shared commonalities. Within the region, Japan, India and Korea would put into good uses their Indo-Pacific frameworks.

These frameworks identified Southeast Asia as their core which links the Indian and Pacific Oceans together. As such, from now on, the region can no longer stay passive and idle. Under the Indonesian chair, Asean will be more confident in managing ties with the great powers.

At the Phnom Penh summit, the Asean leaders adopted the guidelines to mainstream the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

It is not an overstatement to say that for any Indo-Pacific strategy to succeed, it needs to realign with the AOIP. Asean has the intention to use the AOIP as a guideline-cum-tool to navigate and manage these competing strategies so that they don't end up entangling or overlapping with one another.

Most importantly, the AOIP will ensure that no program or activity undertaken by Asean is turning one party against the other.

Southeast Asia is rising. Overall, in the coming years, the region will attract more capital, investors and visitors despite its diversities and levels of development.

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the economic growth of Asean will be hovering around 5.2% in 2023.

In comparison with the rest of the world, the region's prospect looks pretty good.

After all, Southeast Asia still remains the fulcrum for all great powers, big or small, to convene and be convinced of their power projections and influence. The region can make its own decision.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in The Bangkok PostClick here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

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