When the Asean senior officials got together recently in Singapore for the discussion on South China Sea, the situation in Ukraine was discussed on the sideline. There was a proposal from some Asean members to issue a joint statement on the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
But they could not reach a consensus even if the proposed statement would just address in general those principles enshrined in the UN Charter and Asean Charter. Cambodia was adamant that Asean should not get involved in this matter.
As the global strategic landscape has undergone dramatic shifted, the much heralded Asean centrality is being challenged to the core. The most frequently asked questions these days are: Is there such thing as the Asean centrality? If so has Asean earned it?
The answers will depend on the interpretations of Asean centrality. For Asean, it is the key concept that holds the members together to ensure all act together to present a common front – a group with one voice. For others, Asean centrality means that Asean must be situated in ways to lead and influence agendas and policies that impact on the organization. However, the dialogue partners have also used the concept to please Asean and get closer for their own purviews and interests. Both the US and China have.
In the past, the so-called "Asean way" was a more common depiction of behavior and practices, especially in the United Nations during the Cambodian conflict (1979-1992), that have earned Asean the brand name it enjoys today. At the time the world was less complicated – it was the time of Cold War with two-polar world and the Asean members were like-mind and connected both at the working level and among the leaders.
All that have changed – both the world and the region – when the wise men from the member countries got together to draft the Asean Charter in 2008. They wanted to make Asean, now 10-nation, a rule-based organization and people-centered organization. So they started to use the concept of centrality to accentuate the role of Asean in all schemes of things affecting the grouping's unity and interests. Over the past four decades, without any serious security challenges, the Asean way and now Asean centrality has quintessentially been a self-fulfilling prophecy as the Asean members could just get way by paying lip service.
However, in July 2012, Asean literally broke down when it failed to issue a joint communique due to members' different views on the South China Sea disputes. The disconnectedness at the ministerial level manifested itself in the most unusual way. Now Asean is no longer whole as member countries are willing to put national resiliency ahead of regional resiliency. This new attitude reflects the harsh strategic environment each Asean member has to accommodate and live with these days.
Recently, it has don on the Asean leaders that if Asean centrality is going to the main driving force of the grouping's future integration, there must be more concerted efforts from them to realize the people-centered Asean. In nutshell, the strength of Asean centrality lies with the sense of belonging among Asean citizens. At the moment, despite the diplomatic pleasantries, the real implementation of various actions plans for the Asean Community, including the much heralded economic pillar, was not as smooth as one would expect.
Issues related to human rights, social justice and democratic space remain an alien concept among some of the Asean leaders. This has to change. Like it or not, sooner or later the concept of Asean citizens would come to the fore as more people within Asean are travelling and get to know each other. They will demand more from their leaders, not as a Thai, a Malaysian, an Indonesian, a Vietnamese but as Asean citizens.
Malaysia, the next Asean chair, has already made clear its agenda in 2015. It was in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 when former prime minister Abdullah Badawi tried to open up Asean decision-making regime with the so-called "interface" with the representatives of civil society organizations. What kinds of lessons learned from the past ten-year of on-and-off experiment with bottom-up process remained to be seen. It is incumbent on Kuala Lumpur to identify practical bottom-up measures. Obviously, today's Asean cannot only rely on the leaders-only decisions. Rapid growth of civil society networks among Asean members are helping Asean citizens to comprehensive new ranges of challenging confronting their common future. They also know that they have to engage and go behind their frontiers.
As the Asean Community is approaching in less than 600 days, the Asean leaders have to be more responsive to the needs of their citizens. With broader and stronger citizen's support, the Asean leaders will have increased mandate to maintain the Asean centrality.