50 Years of ASEAN – Going Strong: Changing Policies in the Indo-Pacific

December 5, 2017 Asia , China , India , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , Pakistan

Reuters photo



Anil Trigunayat



Through the simple yet profound two page Bangkok Declaration, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was conceived and established on August 8, 1967, when the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines signed it. Later it encompassed the other five countries from the region. Facing several conflicts among the members they resolved to overcome them appropriately through dialogue and cooperation. The motto was and is “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”. Since then ASEAN has emerged as one of the most important, well integrated and viable Regional organisations with broad-based institutional networks.


During its five decades of existence, despite obvious challenges, global economic downturns, maritime, connectivity and developmental issues, the ASEAN has moved apace from strength to strength and successfully overcome the inherent constraints. With the rise of China as a regional and aspirational global power, it has become highly relevant in the international security, strategic and economic architecture in the Indo-Pacific – hitherto Asia-Pacific framework.


The organisation only last month (November 13-14) celebrated its Golden Jubilee at the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila with the theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging with the World”. President Rodrigo Roa Duterte of Philippines and Chairman of the Summit stressed that “terrorism and violent extremism endanger the peace, stability and security of our region because these threats know no boundaries. Piracy and armed robbery in the seas put a dent in our growth and disrupt the stability of both regional and global commerce. The menace of illegal drug trade continues to endanger the very fabric of our societies.”


This set the tone for further discussions for strengthening the ASEAN community’s institutional linkages and deeper integration. Closer deliberations were held with the ASEAN Dialogue Partners and ASEAN led mechanisms like the ASEAN plus three and East Asia Summit as well as the ASEAN centric Regional Comprehensive Partnership. A landmark agreement on the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers was signed that strengthens social protection, access to justice, humane and fair treatment, and access to health services for the peoples of the region. The Philippines itself provides a huge workforce globally. Other deliverables included those concerning health, women and youth, terrorism, radicalization and violent extremism, trafficking, poverty alleviation, food security, coastal and marine environment, and the pursuit of innovation for regional economies, among others to achieve the ASEAN vision 2025.


In keeping with the ASEAN Charter, the leaders of the ten member countries agreed to pursue:


(a) A people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN;


(b) Peace and stability in the region;


(c) Maritime security and cooperation;


(d) Inclusive, innovation-led growth;


(e) ASEAN’s resiliency; and


(f) ASEAN: a model of regionalism, a global player.


It is not to say that the ASEAN in its growing years did not have intra-member challenges, especially those relating to internal affairs where the other members wanted or expected a different behavioural response from the other which was construed as an interference in internal affairs. However, through consistent accommodation and internal consultations they overcame such challenges. Similarly, not all countries agreed to follow or toe the same line given the higher stakes impinging on the bilateral relations with a non-ASEAN partner like China, Japan or the US and there has been no dearth of these but for the organization, they have developed a unique commitment. One has to concede that given the changing dynamic in the region and growing interest of the international players and big powers to constrain a single country hegemony the member countries will be faced with difficult choices.


Having had several miracle years of economic growth as well as successfully facing the global economic downturn the ASEAN’s economy is projected to register a stronger growth of 5.0% in 2017. The merchandise trade remained strong at USD2.2 trillion in 2016, of which 23.1% was intra-ASEAN. Intra-region trade is also expected to stage a rebound in 2017 mirroring the projected broad-based improvements in global trade. In 2016 the region attracted USD98.0 billion foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows, of which 25.2% was intra-ASEAN, reflecting continued investors’ confidence in the region.


FDI inflows to the region are also anticipated to be higher in 2017 following the expected recovery in global FDI flows. The final statement attributed credit to the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC); “We recognised the contribution of the AEC to this positive outlook, and reaffirmed our commitment to further advance the AEC initiatives to strengthen ASEAN’s collective resilience and long-term competitiveness.”


In keeping with their centrality and web of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral networks ASEAN leaders noted with satisfaction the strengthening of relations with Dialogue Partners, Sectoral Dialogue Partners, Development Partners and other external partners through existing frameworks and the effective implementation of various Plans of Action (POAs). They reaffirmed the importance of maintaining ASEAN centrality and unity in shaping the evolving regional architecture built upon ASEAN-led mechanisms, including the ASEAN Plus One, ASEAN Plus Three, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus, and in further deepening our engagement with external parties to address existing and emerging challenges as well as strengthen development cooperation in ASEAN.


They further added that “We looked forward to the 20th ASEAN-China Summit, 15th ASEAN-India Summit, 20th ASEAN-Japan Summit, 19th ASEAN-Republic of Korea (ROK) Summit, 9th ASEAN-United Nations (UN) Summit and the 12th EAS and welcomed the forthcoming 40th Anniversary Commemorative Summits with Canada, European Union (EU) and the United States, as well as the commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the ASEAN Plus Three in adding momentum to strengthen our partnerships with our Dialogue Partners.”


The issue of the South China Sea was expected to be one of the key irritants while the 20th ASEAN-China Summit was held. However prior to that and as a result of consultations with Philippine President Duterte, since they had won the international arbitration award and China ignored it, the Chinese were confident of finding a broader dialogue mechanism having committed over US$ 3.34 bn for infrastructure development and billions in other aid.


Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who led the delegation to ASEAN & EA Summits, maintained that they will bilaterally resolve disputes with its neighbours over the South China Sea and that will convert it into “Sea of Cooperation and Friendship”, perhaps to the dismay of some extra-regional powers. He even extended his stay to work for the state visit of President Xi Jinping in February 2018. Duterte was the clear winner as he managed to leverage the Summit to improve and smoothen ties with the US while assuring China that their recent bonhomie is intact. Though President Trump skipped the East Asia Summit he extended his stay by a day conveying the right signals of continued US interest in the region. One of the key take aways was ASEAN‘s tough stance against North Korea and support for the international sanctions through downgrading ties with Pyongyang.


Although the elephant remains in the room, though some may wish to look the other way, China seemed to have succeeded not only through signing of FTA and Investment Agreements between Hong Kong-China but also through articulation in ASEAN Chairman’s Statement as follows “We discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of the improving relations between ASEAN and China and in this regard are encouraged by the adoption of the framework of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC), which will facilitate the work and negotiation for the conclusion of a substantive and effective COC.


In view of this positive momentum, we looked forward to the announcement of the start of substantive negotiations on the COC with China at the 20th ASEAN-China Summit and the subsequent convening of the 23rd ASEAN-China Joint Working Group Meeting on the Implementation of the DOC in Viet Nam in early 2018.  We reaffirmed our commitment to the full and effective implementation of the DOC in its entirety, and the importance of undertaking confidence building and preventive measures to enhance, among others, trust and confidence amongst parties. In this regard we welcomed the successful testing of the MFA-to-MFA Hotline to Manage Maritime Emergencies in the South China Sea and looked forward to the operationalization of the Joint Statement on the Observance of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea.  In our view, these are practical measures that could reduce tensions, and the risks of accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculation.”


It further added “We likewise reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, maritime safety and security, rules-based order and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea. In this regard, we further reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the DOC that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea, and stressed the need to adhere to the peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”


Myanmar was yet again on the humanitarian radar of the world due to the Rohingya crisis gettting out of hand. While some others expected a stronger statement on the issue, ASEAN lived up to its style of accommodation and deflected the issues as “With regard to role of the AHA Center and the Northern Rakhine State in Myanmar, a number of Leaders expressed support to Myanmar’s humanitarian relief programme and welcomed the launch of the Myanmar Government-led mechanism in cooperation with the Red Cross Movement and the assistance from the international community in these endeavours.”


They underscored the importance of increased humanitarian access to the affected areas and that assistance be given to all affected communities. Further, they urged Myanmar to continue to implement the recommendations of the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and welcomed Myanmar’s establishment of a Ministerial Committee for this purpose. They welcomed the commitment by Myanmar authorities to ensure the safety of civilians, take immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine, restore normal socioeconomic conditions, and address the refugee problem through a verification process. They expressed support to the Myanmar Government in its efforts to bring peace stability, rule of law and to promote harmony and reconciliation between the various communities, as well as sustainable and equitable development in Rakhine State,” hence the difficult issues were managed amicably. Whether it will last and for how long remains to be seen.


As for India, I recall a meeting in 1997 when the Singapore PM at a CII meet gently chided us by stating the obvious that “India had far too long looked westwards and ignored its eastern neighbourhood.” It was only in 1992 that our “Look East” policy found some traction with the sectoral partnership that eventually got converted to full dialogue partner and India became part of the ASEAN Regional Forum. In 2012 we signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. In 2014 at the Myanmar Summit with a view to integrate our North East region with ASEAN and to take the relationship to the next level Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the “Act East Policy” that has seen tremendous movement and engagement both at sub-regional and regional level including cutting a new pie of cooperation across SAARC-ASEAN landscape like BBIN and BIMSTEC.


During the last few years, India’s ties with the region have seen drastic improvement and closer collaboration in the domain of trade, economic, cultural, security and defence cooperation due to geopolitical developments and economic compulsions. All the member states of ASEAN and US and Japan wish to see enhanced Indian engagement in the region as India is perceived as a benevolent regional power. India supports freedom of navigation and rule-based regional architecture. Highlighting the importance India attaches to the region Indian leaders including President, Prime Minister and Vice President have visited all the ASEAN countries, the latest being the PM’s visit to the Philippines last month.


This year we celebrate 25 years of our bilateral cooperation with ASEAN and the 5th anniversary of strategic engagement as well as the 15th ASEAN-India Dialogue Summit. PM Modi has invited all ten Heads of States from ASEAN to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day, a unique honour for closest friends. At the same time, the Commemorative Summit will be held which may outline the new and expanding contours of future cooperation. In Manila, underscoring the strength PM Modi said that “in the near future South Asia and South East Asia will be the development engine of the world and that the Government of India’s Act East policy puts ASEAN (this region) at the centre of our engagement.” India’s commitment to deepening the historic ties is governed by 3 Cs – Commerce, Connectivity and Culture and if one adds the potential conflict with another C in the region it should make them obvious natural partners for a dynamic regional balance.





Anil Trigunayat

Amb. Anil Trigunayat is a member of the Indian Foreign Service. He has served in the Indian Missions in Cote d’Ivoire, Bangladesh, Mongolia, USA, Russia, Sweden and Nigeria, Libya and Jordan. In the Ministry of External Affairs he has worked in the Economic, West Asia and North Africa and Consular Divisions.

He also served as Director General/Joint Secretary for the Gulf & Haj Divisions in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi. Thereafter, Mr. Trigunayat worked as Deputy Chief of Mission in the rank of Ambassador in the Embassy of India, Moscow

Prior to his superannuation in May 2016, he served as Ambassador of India to Jordan and Libya and High Commissioner to Malta (June 2012 – May 2016).

He is a post Graduate in Physics from the Agra/Kumaon University and also studied Russian History, Culture and Language at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. As a visiting fellow he also conducted research work on “WTO and Regional Trading Blocs” at the Oxford University.

He is a member of the All India Management Association/Delhi Management Association as well as that of Oxford and Cambridge Society of India and the Association of Indian Diplomats (former Ambassadors).  He is also the Honorary Member of the International Trade Council, Brussels.

Currently he is steering a Committee on promotion of trade and investment with Africa and the Middle East at the Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industries. He is also honorary Adviser to BRICS Chamber of Commerce.

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