Commitment to the rule of law vital to Asean stability


The curtain-raiser for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and related events in Manila this week was a forum that featured a powerhouse line-up of local and international experts.

Organized by the private think tank Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, “Asean Leadership amid a New World Order” aptly set the stage for what would no doubt prove to be a pivotal gathering for the 50-year-old regional bloc. Context was key in highlighting just how critical this part of the world has become in light of increasingly complex and quickly evolving global geopolitics.

Former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario opened the proceedings with an important reminder on just how high the stakes are when one considers Asean’s unique position.

He explained: “Over 600-million people call Southeast Asia home. The region is not only one of the world’s largest population centers, it is host to several of its youngest, fastest-growing, and most dynamic economies.”

Even so, he said, while such plethora of factors work in the region’s favor, an unfolding trend can well prove to be a game-changer. “The fates of the Southeast Asian nations and our primary trade and security partners are becoming more intertwined. Financial problems in one country may ricochet on another, just as security concerns in one area can engulf others.”

As such, recent developments such as the threat of a nuclearized Korean Peninsula and an increasingly militarized West Philippine Sea can no longer be confined to the arena of security. Beijing’s continued aggressiveness in the disputed waters, for instance, had been seen as inherently connected to its trade-related needs to secure the critical sea lane.

Such naked ambition had naturally come at the expense of diplomacy, about which the rising superpower seems to have no qualms. Beijing had summarily ignored and continues to ignore the 2016 ruling on the West Philippine Sea issued by the international tribunal, a clear gap where Asean as a community envisioned 50 years ago in Bangkok can and should come in.

This role is in jeopardy, however, Del Rosario said. “Many of our states have found themselves being pulled in different directions. This has been worsened by a lack of leadership from among us. In broader context, one can say that Asean is adrift.”

The international tribunal’s decision represents a lost opportunity then, considering the Duterte administration’s all but resigned and defeatist attitude about it. Considering the complexity of Asean-China relationship, the ruling could have provided the much-needed boost in leveling what is a grossly uneven playing field.

The award, propped up by international law, could have become “an essential piece of the puzzle in fostering the maritime security that we desire in Southeast Asia,” said Dindo Manhit, president of Stratbase ADRi.

“The case not only showed that disputes can be resolved without recourse to force and in accordance with law, it has become an example for the region to lean on in understanding their own rights and responsibilities,” he added.

The ruling, Manhit said, could have even served as a guidepost as Asean formulates critical mechanisms in maintaining regional stability, mechanisms that are guided by principles of self-restraint and peaceful dispute resolution. Examples cited include the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea and a legally-binding Asean Code of Conduct.

For his part, defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana acknowledged the need to establish such a code of conduct in the disputed waters, ostensibly to strengthen strategic trust among nations, especially in light of warming ties between Beijing and Manila. Even so, his recommendations include deepening military exchanges with other regional and global players, including the US, Australia, Japan, and others.

Del Rosario, who as foreign affairs secretary was notably tough on Beijing, said he still believes that China’s trajectory toward global superpower status can still be within the framework of international law.

“China should consider if, in achieving its present military or economic objectives, it will continue to have a measure of respect from its neighbors. We know that it can do so, because China’s path to ascendance as a nation has not always been led by its might.”

If this vision is too idealistic, it still doesn’t compare to just capitulating to Beijing’s whims, del Rosario said. For the smaller states to abandon their sovereign equality, he warned, will only “guarantee that we bequeath our grievances to our children.” The option, he said, is totally unsatisfactory.

The only recourse then is to carefully consolidate whatever leverage Asean has in its evolving relationship with its neighbor. In this case, a steadfast commitment to the rule of law should always be the first—and perhaps the most critical—step.

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