Feb 24, 2011
By Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, For The Straits Times
AS PUNDITS debate the imminence of the Asian Century, and the impact of the rise of China and India, one phenomenon continues to evolve steadily: the remarkable geopolitical transformation of South-east Asia.
In the past, South-east Asia had been bled and torn apart by some of the 20th century’s nastiest protracted wars.
Today, there is no war between the major powers in South-east Asia, no proxy war involving countries in the region, and no war between South-east Asian countries. What was once a painfully divided region is now a cohesive grouping of Asean 10, with an Asean Free Trade Area, and a dynamic Asean Community in the making.
Asean still has plenty of internal and external challenges, of course. But a fresh forward-looking charter is guiding Asean to adapt in meeting these challenges.
A key part of that transformation is how to reposition Asean in the 21st century world order.
The Asean region now has a population of more than 600 million citizens, with a combined gross domestic product of US$1.5 trillion (S$1.9 trillion) marked by high growth and political stability, a growing middle class, endowed by enormous natural resources, including some of the world’s largest tracts of rainforests. With these considerable assets, Asean can grow internally as well as externally.
Asean has thus become a regional organisation with global significance. There are, however, responsibilities that go with this hard-earned status.
There are several ways in which Asean can contribute to the community of nations.
# First, in its own neighbourhood, Asean can continue to realise the vision of a region becoming ‘a concert of South-east Asian nations, outward-looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity’. This means realising the Asean Community by 2015 in all its politico-security, economic and socio-cultural dimensions; closing the development gap; managing or resolving some of the outstanding conflicts and disputes in the region where possible; bringing Asean to the grassroots; promoting interdependence – all the necessary tools of community-building.
In a volatile world, a resilient and dynamic South-east Asia at the heart of Asia makes a big difference.
# Second, Asean can help shape and evolve the larger regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific. Asean is in the best position to carry out this task: With its dialogue partners, the East Asia Summit, the Asean Regional Forum and the Asean Plus Three forum, Asean is already the hub of the region’s key diplomatic processes. But it should not make the mistake of taking the notion of Asean centrality for granted.
Asean must continue to ensure that dynamic shifts in power relations do not lead to strategic tension but rather result in a dynamic equilibrium, and to a state of regional affairs marked not by geostrategic clash but by growing confluence.
# Third, Asean can help advance cooperation on global issues. Asean will not assume European Union-like common foreign and security policy. But Asean can work towards a more coordinated position to provide a collective push on issues such as climate change, forestry, global financial crisis, transnational crimes and terrorism. Rather than resisting or pushing them away, Asean finds it better to engage all the major and emerging powers to find a common solution. This is why Asean, represented by its rotating chairman, has taken active part in recent G-20 summits.
Asean is said to be among the world’s most successful regional organisations. Not too long from now, an Asean Community will emerge, and it will be confronted with the daunting task to find its rightful place in a still elusive and turbulent world order.
It is a challenge that Asean is ready to meet.
The writer is President of the Republic of Indonesia, and the current chairman of Asean.