ASEAN faces an uncertain future

By Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation/ANN

BANGKOK — ASEAN has yet to overcome a few immediate uncertainties. As ASEAN enters its 50th anniversary, it has to overcome quite a few immediate uncertainties to maintain its relevancy. First, it is all about the role of the U.S. in the regional and global order. For the past 70 years, the U.S. has been the foundation of stability and prosperity since the end of World War II. Now a new U.S. administration will run the country for the next four years; Washington has the potential to upend everything very familiar to the region. Since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has not made a policy statement regarding the Southeast Asian region, let alone focus on U.S.-ASEAN relations. He and his staffers held phone conversations with some ASEAN leaders and key officials — mostly pleasantries. Currently, the ASEAN foreign ministers were perplexed by the lack of policy direction toward ASEAN from the White House.

Ever since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, U.S. administrations have made extra efforts to inform and assure ASEAN leaders of the U.S.’ continued engagement and commitment — even though there were different policy approaches by some past administrations. Now with the rise of China, ASEAN is extremely anxious to know U.S. policy towards the world’s second-largest economy — and its overall ties to the grouping. However, this is the first time in three decades that ASEAN is being kept in the dark on U.S. diplomatic trends.

ASEAN leaders were doubtful if the Trump administration would continue his predecessor’s rebalancing policy and other programs despite tangible contributions to the region in the past eight years.

At the retreat, the ASEAN ministers quickly agreed to Malaysia’s proposal to call for a special meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss their future relations at the earliest possible date. Kuala Lumpur will make the bid as it is the coordinating country of U.S.-ASEAN relations, succeeding Myanmar in 2015. 30th Summit Under the Philippines chair, the ASEAN leaders will hold their 30th summit later in April and want a head-start to form common strategies in response to U.S. policy. Therefore, the upcoming senior-officials meeting between ASEAN and the U.S, its 30th session scheduled in May, would be too late for such a target. Second, the leadership role of the Philippines chair of ASEAN, particularly that of President Rodrigo Duterte, is closely linked to the progress of ASEAN-U.S. relations.

Manila has been working diligently to ensure that Trump comes to the East 12th Asia Summit and 5th ASEAN-U.S. Summit in early November at the Clark Airbase, where U.S. troops and aircraft used to be stationed. Duterte was the first ASEAN leader to have a phone conversation with Trump.