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Promoting the centrality of ASEAN in regional cooperation structure (*)
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Illustration. Picture: Viet Nam News Agency

Enhancing the effectiveness of tools and cooperation mechanisms

Since the establishment of ASEAN, cooperation among its members has made great strides. ASEAN countries have developed bilateral and multilateral cooperation mechanisms in several fields of security, politics, economics, culture, society and other specialized sectors of which political cooperation is valued as most successful. One of the recognizable achievements is that ASEAN countries have settled internal differences and disputes to avoid conflict, facilitate a peaceful, stable and cooperation environment, realize economic development objectives and build a unified and strong Southeast Asia. ASEAN is confirming its prestige in the common prosperity of East Asia and Asia-Pacific.

The ASEAN Regional Form (ARF) came into being in 1993, ushering in dialogue mechanisms and a trust-building and preventive diplomacy which capture concern of not only ASEAN member countries but also other big countries in the world. The world highly appreciates ASEAN’s signing of the Convention on Non-use of Nuclear Weapons (in 1995), signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea with China (DOC, 2002) as a basis for the Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC).

ASEAN’s cooperation has been expanded with the East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN+8 (between ASEAN and partners including the US, Russia, China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.) With EAS, ASEAN has consolidated peaceful environment and stability, strengthened cooperation and trust among member countries in security and politics, established new relations among East Asian countries for friendship, long-term stability and comprehensive bilateral and multilateral cooperation. The presence of powers in ASEAN+8 shows that Southeast Asia in particular and East Asia in general have increasingly had an important position not only in terms of geopolitics but also geostrategy and economy in the world.

In light of increased challenges to security in the region and the world in the 21st century, countries in Asia-Pacific set up an open ASEAN-centered and restricted security mechanisms. It is the ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting+ (ADMM+). It aims to promote mutual trust and cooperation to maintain peace and stability within the region and beyond. Though ADMM+ is a young mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation, established nearly three years ago, its Expert Working Groups (EWGs) have coordinated closely to promote cooperation in areas which have influence on all member countries including marine security, counter-terrorism, military medicine, peace-keeping activities and humanitarian aid.

ASEAN identifies the objective of building itself as “a major linkage pillar”, “a common connectivity ground” among big partners in the region and the world. In the process of building the regional structure, ASEAN reinforces its centrality and build an open East Asia region.

Besides, ASEAN has also paid much attention to other regional security mechanisms such as the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), the Asia-Pacific Security Conference (APSEC) and the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA). The Shangri-La Dialogue is a relatively strong security mechanisms, established in 2002, with the participation of 30 countries. APSEC is an important activity of military leaders and security scholars where they discuss challenges towards political, economic and diplomatic issues in the future. FPDA emphasizes opportunities for exchanging points of view on matters of mutual concern. This mechanisms has contributed to promote ASEAN position in regional security at present.

To adjust to the new regional situation and assert its centrality, ASEAN has continued adapting and reforming existing cooperation mechanisms. This point of view has been demonstrated in the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, especially when ASEAN mechanisms (ARF, ADMM+, and EAS) are aimed to discuss and solve regional security issues. These mechanisms continue to play an significant role and control ASEAN’s coming steps. At the 23rd ASEAN Summit organized in Brunei in October 2013, leaders once again laid stress on the control role and important responsibility of ASEAN in building a regional structure to ensure peace, security and regional development. Accordingly, ASEAN should continue strengthening solidarity, its voice and contribution in important regional issues; promoting dialogue; building confidence; sharing code of conduct and upholding values of tools and mechanisms for political and security cooperation such as the Treaty on Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ Treaty), DOC, ARF, ADMM+ and EAS… ASEAN should play the nucleus role in promoting and expanding relations to the whole of East Asia through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), ASEAN Plus Three and East Asia Connectivity while expanding cooperation with partners and exerting efforts to overcome challenges.

Fully aware that a united and strong ASEAN is an important factor to promote regional cooperation and keep balance with powers, the association has constantly pushed forward the development of the ASEAN Community and consolidated its internal strength and cohesion.

In face of changes in the world politics as well as division and conflicts in many countries which have led to serious regional instability, the fact that ASEAN leaders reached consensus on concrete steps to build the ASEAN Community with the core value “People-Centered ASEAN Community” is a clear message on the unchanged will of a closely bound ASEAN - a unified political entity. These objectives are of decisive significance in ASEAN coordinated actions in all fields.

Ensuring sustainable regional economic growth has been a common concern of the 10 ASEAN countries given the world economic recovery is still slim. Countries are striving to build up regional response to international economic and monetary changes. These are fundamental factors to find solutions to crisis, through which ASEAN can actively contribute to growth and balanced world economic development. Opportunities for trade exchanges, investment, and relations among regional countries do not only ensure that people in the region can benefit from integration and growth, but ASEAN’s role can be maintained and promoted as a positive factor in the world economy.

At the 23rd ASEAN Summit, leaders of ASEAN countries highly valued achievements in implementing the Master plan on building ASEAN Community in the three security, economic, and socio-cultural pillars of which the economic pillars is taking lead with 80% of measures completed.

Confirmation of the “open” economy’s attraction

In recent years, leaders of ASEAN countries have emphasized the importance of regional cooperation structure in the other economic cooperation frameworks beyond the region to encourage more commitment from major counterparts. ASEAN maintains that the presence of powers in regional cooperation mechanisms such as EAS, RCEP, Trans-Pacific Treaty (TPP) will be an important basis for regional security structure development.

With a total number of 600 million people, an area of 4.7 million km², a GDP of US$1.500 billion and trade value of more than US$ 1.700 (1) of which from 25% to 30% are intra-regional exchange, ASEAN has become one of the important political and economic entities in Asia-Pacific and indispensable partner of powers in their foreign policies.

In the economic relations between ASEAN and East Asia, ASEAN recognizes that East Asia and Southeast Asia are regions with highest trade exchange. That of East Asia is the highest in Asia. East Asia also accounts for almost 30% of the total trade value of the world and attracts one third of global foreign direct investment annually. East Asia’s trade percentage is 55% (that of EU is 60% - 70%), much higher than that of ASEAN. On the other hand, as the world economic center is moving to Asia-Pacific, the role and significance of an East Asian community will increase. To maintain the leading role in building East Asia institution and community, ASEAN has set great store by building a successful economic community and reducing development gaps.

In 2011, ASEAN made an advance in implementing trade agreements with other partners in the form of sub-regional mechanism-ASEAN+1 to build RCEP. RCEP consists of ten ASEAN member countries and six partners (Japan, China, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand) to supplement constraints of free trade agreements (FTA). ASEAN+1 has brought about benefits for all participating sides while maintaining ASEAN’s centrality in regional linkages. RCEP is considered as a comprehensive, high quality and economically beneficial agreement with fundamental principles conforming to those of World Trade Agreement (WTO). RCEP has been remarkably improved as compared with ASEAN+1 agreements by taking into consideration development levels of each member country to provide concrete preferential treatment, particularly to the least developed countries in ASEAN. Such an ambitious project as RCEP is turning ASEAN into a center of the biggest trade flow in the world, ushering in prospect for economic connectivity of 16 countries with the total number of more than 3 billion people, GDP of US$ 17,000 and 40% of world trade in 2015. However, RCEP has also posed numerous challenges in the negotiation process, implementation and promotion of ASEAN’s centrality.

Three ASEAN’s partners in Northeast Asia confirmed their continued effective cooperation with ASEAN and support ASEAN in realizing key objectives in community building, linkages and connectivity and promotion of ASEAN’s centrality. Given unstable global economy, trade turnover between ASEAN and Plus 3 increased by 5% in 2012, achieving US$ 712 billion. The three Northeast Asian countries’ trade proportion accounts for 28.8% of trade turnover of ASEAN. Their direct investment in ASEAN was up by 6.6%, reaching US$ 46,7 billion, accounting for 43.6% of total outside investment in ASEAN.

“Unique” values

Historical and cultural characteristics of Southeast Asia, openness of dialogue forms in East Asia, ways of behavior and values of ASEAN such as neutrality, principle of none threat, and reliability in mediator role have constituted attraction to this region.

The Bangkok Declaration in 1967 and Bali Declaration in 1976 laid foundation for sustainable relations of ASEAN. Especially, the Bali Declaration exclusively devotes Chapter IV to the setting up of a joint mechanisms to solve disputes in security, political, economic and social fields of ASEAN. On means to settle disputes, Article 15 of the Bali Treaty says that parties have the right to choose ways of ASEAN process: direct negotiation, through third party, arbitration or international court and ASEAN process. In case disputes arise, if parties agree to choose ASEAN process, disputes will be settled as stipulated in Article 13, 14, 15 and 16 of the Bali Treaty, meaning the parties shall at all times settle such disputes among themselves through friendly negotiations. In the event no solution is reached through negotiation, a High Council (ministerial level) shall be set up to take cognizance of the dispute or the situation and shall recommend to the parties in dispute appropriate means of settlement. The High Council may constitute itself into a committee of mediation or upon agreement of the parties in dispute, acts as a committee of mediation, inquiry or conciliation. When deemed necessary, the High Council shall recommend appropriate measures for the prevention of a deterioration of the dispute or the situation.

In the current context, ASEAN member countries are building a new mechanisms to be more suitable to international situation. In November 8, 2010, ASEAN Foreign Ministers signed a Protocol on Dispute Settlement Mechanisms-an important document to completing the legal framework as stipulated by ASEAN Charter. The Protocol will settle disputes as consequence of different interpretation in the implementation of ASEAN Charter and other tools of the Charter. The Protocol points to four means of disputes settlement which are arbitration, good offices, mediation, conciliation to solve the disputes in an equitable and rational manner. At present, ASEAN is playing up its mediation role in diffusing disputes and tension in politics, security and territorial integrity, especially marine disputes between ASEAN member counties and China, China and Japan and Japan and South Korea. On the role of ASEAN, former ASEAN Secretary General S. Pitsuwan confirmed: “ASEAN has earned the place to play a central role in the evolving regional architecture by virtue of not only being the hub in economic integration initiatives in the region but also by being able to provide the platform for political and economic dialogue and engagement among major global players”(2).

In general, with the central role in emerging regional structure, ASEAN has striven to make the structure useful. ASEAN can settle regional transnational issues which can not be solved by any single country. Territorial disputes, security, marine safety, terrorism, weapon control, human trafficking and drug, climate change, water security, epidemic, migration and refuge, and international financial and trade imbalance are regional problems affecting even inter-regions. Due to the scope and nature of problems, they should be settled through regional mechanisms.

As a regional organization of Southeast Asian countries and an institution for regional nations to establish cooperation relations, ASEAN has created a firm foundation for itself in general and for each member state in particular to continue developing strongly and confirm its role in the evolving regional structure in Asia-Pacific./.


(*) Published in Communist Review No 853 (November 2013)

(1) Data of ASEAN Secretariat,

(2) Nguyen Huy Hoang: ASEAN in a new stage of development: some issues and prospect, Southeast Asia Research Review, No 8, 2012, p.18

MA. Trinh Thi Hoa, MA. Dinh Xuan Tuoi