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"ASEAN Resilience: Continuity and Change" by Hoang Thi Ha

2018/48, 2 May 2018

At the 32nd ASEAN Summit on 27-28 April 2018 in Singapore, the ASEAN leaders issued their Vision for a Resilient and Innovative ASEAN “as an articulation of ASEAN’s strategic position and intent in the context of a shifting geopolitical and economic landscape.”

Resilience – originating from Indonesia’s concept of National Resilience or Ketahanan Nasional – was officially introduced into the ASEAN discourse for the first time at the first ASEAN Summit in Bali in February 1976. This concept was then largely inward-looking as ASEAN member states were pre-occupied with nation-building and regime survival against the threat of communist insurgencies. The 1976 Bali Concord thus highlighted member states’ resolve to “eliminate threats posed by subversion to its stability, thus strengthening national and ASEAN resilience.” Subversion is no longer the overriding concern of ASEAN member states but national resilience, especially in terms of economic performance, remains central to ASEAN’s strategic autonomy today.

In the 1970s, the notion of resilience acquired an ASEAN dimension to include the level of interaction among the member states, the degree of their commitment to the grouping, and the adaptive capability in facing challenges and opportunities. In essence, these ingredients of regional resilience remain relevant to ASEAN today. But in scope and depth, they are now manifest in much bolder goals and aspirations which are compatible with a more integrated and mature ASEAN.

What were modestly described as “level of interaction”, “degree of commitment” and “adaptive capability” four decades ago are now elaborated and expanded in ten Key Principles of a resilient and innovative ASEAN under the Vision adopted at the 32nd ASEAN Summit, namely: (i) unity and centrality; (ii) rules-based order; (iii) peace and security; (iv) cooperation against terrorism and non-traditional threats; (v) economic integration and openness; (vi) embracing technology; (vii) investment in youth and the elderly; (viii) ASEAN identity; (ix) sustainable and inclusive development; and (x) respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. More importantly, the Vision identifies 37 specific areas of cooperation to give substance to these principles.

These principles and action lines demonstrate the recognition that ASEAN resilience must be sourced from within by intensifying regional integration and community-building. One target towards this goal is to double intra-ASEAN trade by 2025, as stated in the Vision. The point here is to make ASEAN real and relevant for ASEAN member states and their peoples. As stated by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his Opening Ceremony remarks, “ASEAN can only maintain its centrality if it is a substantial endeavor, and if its members see value in the shared enterprise.”

It is in the geo-political realm that the notion of ASEAN resilience has evolved significantly. The intent of the original resilience concept, embraced earnestly by Indonesia and Malaysia, was to create an autonomous regional order by reducing, if not excluding, major powers’ involvement. This quest for “regional solutions to regional problems” in the Cold-War bi-polar world led to ASEAN’s signing of the 1971 Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN).

In today’s fluid and shifting regional balance of power, ASEAN’s strategic autonomy remains a central goal but it is sought from a posture of an outward-looking ASEAN. In response to competing initiatives and designs by the major powers such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, ASEAN resilience is anchored in ASEAN-led mechanisms that promote an open, inclusive and rules-based order. The way forward is to improve their effectiveness, and deepen engagement and interdependence with the major powers in the ASEAN-centric regional architecture.

More than ever before, ASEAN resilience is grounded in the cohesion among its member states, especially “vis-à-vis external divisive forces” as noted in the Vision – a very blunt statement by ASEAN standards. It is by no coincidence that ASEAN unity and centrality is the first principle in the Vision, a reminder that as the member states link their fates together through ASEAN, they should get their act together for a resilient ASEAN. In the words of Prime Minister Lee, “[i]ndividually, the ASEAN member states will find it hard to make much impact on their own but when we speak in one collective ASEAN voice, we can be effective.”

Ms Hoang Thi Ha is Lead Researcher II (Political and Security Affairs) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.