Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) hands the gavel to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a transfer of Asean's chairmanship at the closing ceremonies of the grouping's 31st Summit in Manila on November 14, 2017. Photo: AFP/Aaron Favila/Pool
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) hands the gavel to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a transfer of Asean's chairmanship at the closing ceremonies of the grouping's 31st Summit in Manila on November 14, 2017. Photo: AFP/Aaron Favila/Pool

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is fast approaching a moment of institutional truth.

More than five decades after its creation the 10-member regional bloc is struggling to forge a unified and effective response to leading geopolitical flashpoints in the region that threaten to spiral into wider security crises.

Singapore, the organization’s new rotational chairman for 2018, confronts an uphill battle in steering an increasingly divided, despondent and disempowered organization.

Yet the prosperous city-state, which has already expressed a commitment to upholding a rules-based regional order, a subtle jab at China’s recent might-is-right approach to regional affairs, is arguably the best candidate to lead any institutional soul-searching.

At the heart of Asean’s dilemma is the institutional incapacity to cope with the rise of China as the region’s dominant power. From the Mekong River delta to the South China Sea, Beijing is revamping the geopolitical landscape in its own image without a challenge.

A J-15 Chinese jet fighter prepares to take off from the deck of the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, during a drill in the South China Sea. Photo via SCMP.

Smaller Southeast Asian states have been at the mercy of an increasingly assertive Beijing, which has deployed a combination of economic carrots and strategic sticks to coax and cajole its smaller neighbors.

Throughout its existence Asean evolved and expanded in the shadow of a preeminent America, which used its military muscle and diplomatic capital to undergird the region’s security and prosperity. Indeed, the organization was first conceived to counter the spread of communism in the region.

But as America retreats into isolationism, Asean has been left to its own meager devices. Meanwhile, a rising China has stepped up to the plate, re-asserting its ancient era supremacy in its former backyard, expressed most vividly in its expansive nine-dash-map claim to the South China Sea.

But Asean is inherently incapable of standing up to China, precisely because of its antiquated and self-defeating decision-making structure. The so-called “Asean way” of regional cooperation is handicapped by a misplaced emphasis on consensus, which in practice means unanimity.

To be sure, consensus-based cooperation allowed the regional body to expand its extremely diverse membership as well as ensure peace among its members. These are commendable achievements for the organization, which has also become a major platform for dialogue among global powers over the past two decades.

The Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) mechanisms, for instance, provide a unique and indispensable opportunity for institutionalized dialogue among major actors and great powers in the Asia-Pacific region.

US President Barack Obama and Asean leaders at the US-Asean Summit held at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California in 2016. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

Yet, earlier hopes for “Asean centrality” have been dashed by the inability of the organization to maintain internal coherence in face of external challenges.

The decades-old organization is beginning to suffer from what one may call a “middle institutionalization trap.” The set of decision-making arrangements, which allowed Asean to peacefully integrate almost all Southeast Asian nations in the past, is no longer up to the task of managing 21st century challenges and events.

It’s almost impossible to garner unanimity on highly divisive issues, where member states have divergent threat perceptions and interest calculus. The search for unanimity provides de facto veto power to all member states, regardless of their national interest, nature of their stake and respective size and influence.

It only takes a single nation’s opposition for Asean-level cooperation to grind to a halt, not to mention the opportunity for external powers to leverage their economic dominance to divide and rule Asean through loyal Southeast Asian client states.

This travesty has been glaringly apparent in the case of the South China Sea disputes, the destruction of the Mekong River, and the Rohingya refugee humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

In the past year, Asean states struggled to forge a united front against China’s coercive activities in crucial global sea lanes (South China Sea), largely ignored a mounting crisis (Mekong River) and failed to even agree on a joint statement on one of the world’s most urgent humanitarian crises (Rohingya).

Protestors against the treatment of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar government in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

The upshot is an increasingly hapless bloc which is fast fading into irrelevance. Instead of shaping the region along its principles of dialogue-based cooperation, Asean is increasingly at the mercy of great power competition.

Throughout the decades, Singapore has been a major advocate of empowering Asean’s institutional capacity, namely through the “Initiative for Asean Integration” and ensuring a calibrated expansion of its membership from its original six to current ten members.

Regional stability is the bedrock of continued prosperity of the highly trade-dependent city-state; Singapore thus has a vested interest in empowering Asean.

The city-state has also preserved its unique status as the repository of cutting-edge diplomatic talent, as a major source of investment for regional states, as well as an unblemished neutrality on all major regional geopolitical flashpoints, particularly the South China Sea disputes.

Upon his assumption of this year’s chairmanship, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasized the necessity for “strengthen[ing] Asean’s community-building efforts,” as well as ensuring “our voice [is] heard on the world stage and to be able to manage our own issues among ourselves…”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a meeting at The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, September 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lintao Zhang

Singapore has consistently underlined its commitment to preserving a rules-based regional order, where international law — rather than military muscle — determines inter-state relations and management of regional disputes.

For Lee, this “means for Singapore a stabler [sic] world to live in, a safer Southeast Asia in which we can operate, a more prosperous region in which we can grow our economy, expand our markets and seize opportunities which will be there.”

Under this year’s Asean theme, “Resilient and Innovative”, Singapore could explore innovative reforms which will allow for the bloc to forge timely and effective responses to regional crises.

That could include the adoption of an “Asean minus X” formula on all major geopolitical issues, where majority voting rather than unanimity wins the day.

Singapore can also encourage “minilateral” cooperation among like-minded members on specific areas of concern, whether in the South China Sea or on the Mekong River.

While there are no easy solutions to Asean’s current predicament, Singapore is still perhaps the best candidate to steer the region towards a badly needed self-reinvention.

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