Pundits and observers of the region have long doubted the agency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) – consigning the organisation to the doldrums of history since the early 1990s. While Asean’s role at the time was limited to the domain of regional security, over the past two decades, it has evolved beyond that to cover regional economic and social integration as well.
The recently concluded 33rd Asean Summit in Singapore reaffirmed the organisation as a fundamental player within the regional political-security architecture. Except for US President Donald Trump, every other major Asean partner was represented by their respective heads of government – a nod towards Asean’s crucial position at the heart of Asia-Pacific regionalism.
However, it’s no surprise that a group of 10 nations tend to disagree on some matters. After all, even the best relationships are peppered with arguments.
As distinguished international relations scholar Amitav Acharya puts it, Asean’s greatest challenges are internal, not external. To that end, I would argue that for Asean to continue defying the odds and making its name on the international stage, it must rely on its true strength – its inherent unity.
In the Malay language, the term muafakat best captures this strength. The expression loosely translates to consensus and cooperation. But more than that, it is often used in the context of decision-making within societal structures.
This, in many ways, paints an accurate description of Asean – a society of states with shared historical, cultural and linguistic ties. Moreover, it is towards this collective Asean community vision that members are striving in the long term.
Asean’s unity has been demonstrated before – most evidently in its handling of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in the 1970s and its constructive engagement with Myanmar’s authoritarian regime.
More recently, however, Asean’s cohesiveness has come into question due to advances from China, which has been wooing member states into its orbit of influence.
Nevertheless, Asean has remained united and relevant, as evidenced by the attention and respect accorded to it by larger powers. Powers such as the US, China, the European Union and Russia have committed to engaging with its member states via multilateral dialogues spearheaded by the bloc.
As such, given the global uncertainties that lie ahead, “Asean muafakat” has now more than ever become an integral cog in both the machination of Malaysia’s foreign policy as well as the region’s strategic security goals.
Malaysia, as a trading nation, is heavily reliant on its international partners. Therefore, its vital that the image we project internationally is one that is not aligned to any one power, especially with the battle for primacy between the US and China in the region.
Active participation in Asean is one way of not giving in to the sway of any one power. Asean’s central nature over the years has ensured that it plays a crucial “manager” role in terms of dealing with competing influences in the region.
Though the concept of Asean centrality has been used by many of its critics to vilify its inaction and sluggish workings, it remains an important component to ensuring the geopolitically smaller states in the region have a say in affairs that have a direct impact on their livelihoods.
Yes, centrality can be stifling at times. But like Rome, unity wasn’t built in a day. It took considerable effort, political will and determined leadership to make it happen.
Asean-led institutions like the Asean Regional Forum and East Asia Summit are some of the few successful arrangements which can bring together major rivalrous powers like the US, China, Japan, Russia and even North Korea to the same table.
By subscribing to such values, this would help reinforce the narrative that Malaysia is in itself, central and nonaligned. On this basis, Malaysia would be able to more boldly engage with bigger powers.
But Asean’s centrality, which is at the cornerstone of the organisation’s ability to stay non-partisan, is at risk if its member states aren’t united. And this brings me back to my earlier point that the association should fall back on its inherent unity or muafakat to continue surviving.
Malaysia may be too small a state to shift the geopolitical needle, but Asean isn’t. Asean stands as proof that small states, in the right circumstances, are great influencers.
Senator Yusmadi Yusoff is a lawyer and the Founder of RIGHTS Foundation, an independent think tank and charitable organisation based in Kuala Lumpur. He is also a political aide to prime-minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim