An ASEAN Summit is more than a “mere” biannual affair. It means a barrage of associated bilateral and multilateral meetings between the 10 Member States, 10 dialogue partners, additional members of the ASEAN Regional Forum and other observers. This in turn inevitably results in a plethora of statements, declarations, plan-of-actions and other such announcements, which are painstakingly negotiated over even more meetings at various levels of seniority. 

It is no small feat for an ASEAN Member State to both Chair the regional organisation and host all its associated meetings. Cost and benefit, naturally, often come hand in hand. 

The 37th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi has resulted in some 30 declarations, statements, plan-of-actions and summaries, with several more still to come. These cover a whole gamut of issues ranging from stalled connectivity initiatives, environmental concerns, regional trade and integration, multilateral security frameworks, to name just a few. 

Make no mistake, like much of the world, ASEAN is facing significant challenges. These include the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on healthcare and economic wellbeing, major power relations framed by adversarial competition rather than mutual cooperation; non-adherence to international norms and laws; and the persistent threat of intolerance and violent extremism. 

These challenges impact different Member States in different ways, and understandably, most have prioritised national responses which have, at times, been at odds with collective, regional interests. Difficult circumstances have caused some to double down their relationships with major powers, ostensibly in the name of survival.  Real questions on ASEAN’s ability to maintain a meaningful united front on the South China Sea dispute, still remain. 

Yet if one were to look beyond the details and nitty gritty of the various declarations and statements made, ASEAN has remarkably managed to maintain a cohesive front when it mattered most. The declarations issued have been consistent on 3 broad themes. 

First, the importance of solidarity and cooperation in the face of the abovementioned multifaceted challenges. Cohesion here isn’t just limited to Member States, but inclusive of all its external stakeholders. Second, the importance of peaceful settlement of disputes, respect for sovereignty, and an emphasis on non-coercion of countries in their domestic and international affairs. 

These two themes are far from new to ASEAN. In fact, they are among the bedrocks of ASEAN and regarded as fundamental principles its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which external partners have to sign to formalise relations with the regional organisation.  

Third, the need to rebuild domestic economics, all of which are interconnected to regional and global markets to varying degrees, and to put in place various measures to ensure resilience. The emphasis on resilience measures, in particular, is important as it will ensure communities are not just strengthened as they forge forward through this global pandemic – but will be better prepared for the emerging new normal, which will present its own set of crises and challenges.  

Credit is due to Vietnam for its stewardship of ASEAN in a very disruptive year, and to all Member States for pulling through. For Malaysians, there was also a bit of national pride at hand when the Malaysia-proposed “ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework” was adopted at the Summit. A strategy document for navigating ASEAN through and past the pandemic, its holistic, ASEAN-community centred approach is another example of the core values of ASEAN being brought to the fore at times of crisis. 

However, whether this spirit can be translated to tangible benefits and impacts for its people on-the-ground, is yet to be seen. While policymakers having long preached about how ASEAN needs to be more people-centric, its record is mixed at best. Despite its efforts to broaden its reach by allowing NGOs greater participation and grassroots consultations, ASEAN largely remains an intergovernmental driven organisation with substantive inputs from established economic players. 

The challenges of the pandemic and the need for ASEAN Member States to increase cooperation should not be considered a hindrance in this effort. ASEAN policymakers ought to take heed of sentiment in the early days of the pandemic by its citizens, wondering what good the regional organisation was in the midst of crisis. The challenges ASEAN is facing ought to be used as an opportunity to redouble its efforts, and adopt more creative approaches, in becoming a more relevant organisation to the people it often claims to represent.

This article was first appeared in Malay Mail online on 17 November 2020.

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