Asean centrality rests on peoples not leaders

Asean centrality rests on peoples not leaders

When the Asean senior officials got together recently in Singapore for the discussion on South China Sea, the situation in Ukraine was discussed on the sideline. There was a proposal from some Asean members to issue a joint statement on the annexation of Crimea by Russia.

But they could not reach a consensus even if the proposed statement would just address in general those principles enshrined in the UN Charter and Asean Charter. Cambodia was adamant that Asean should not get involved in this matter.

As the global strategic landscape has undergone dramatic shifted, the much heralded Asean centrality is being challenged to the core. The most frequently asked questions these days are: Is there such thing as the Asean centrality? If so has Asean earned it?

The answers will depend on the interpretations of Asean centrality. For Asean, it is the key concept that holds the members together to ensure all act together to present a common front - a group with one voice. For others, Asean centrality means that Asean must be situated in ways to lead and influence agendas and policies that impact on the organisation. However, the dialogue partners have also used the concept to please Asean and get closer for their own purviews and interests. Both the US and China have.

In the past, the so-called "Asean way" was a more common depiction of behaviour and practices, especially in the United Nations during the Cambodian conflict (1979-1992), that have earned Asean the brand name it enjoys today. At the time the world was less complicated - it was the time of Cold War with two-polar world and the Asean members were like-mind and connected both at the working level and among the leaders.

All that have changed - both the world and the region - when the wise men from the member countries got together to draft the Asean Charter in 2008. They wanted to make Asean, now 10-nation, a rule-based organisation and people-centred organisation. So they started to use the concept of centrality to accentuate the role of Asean in all schemes of things affecting the grouping's unity and interests. Over the past four decades, without any serious security challenges, the Asean way and now Asean centrality has quintessentially been a self-fulfilling prophecy as the Asean members could just get way by paying lip service.

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