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ASEAN Reasserting Its Capacity to Act as One Even on Highly Controversial Issues, Professor Says

(Sputnik) -- August 8 marks the 55th anniversary since the creation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an intergovernmental organisation that promotes economic, security, political, educational, and cultural interaction between its 10 member states.
Joseph Camilleri, emeritus professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne and one of Australia's leading international relations scholars, speaks about the role the organisation has been playing in East Asia and reflects on where ASEAN stands now, in a time of dramatic geopolitical tensions.

Foreign Ministers of Asean, China, Japan and Republic of Korea met at the 23th Asean Plus Three Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Cambodia on August 4, 2022. Photo AP

Sputnik: How effective is the organisation? What are ASEAN'S present problems?
Joseph Camilleri: ASEAN could of course be much more effective than it is now. And yet it remains the single most important regional organisation in East Asia. It has been going for some time. It has survived. It is only as strong as its members, of course, and their political fortunes. It's fair to say that until recently, the two countries that have been most forceful in leading the ASEAN position on various issues have been, of course, Indonesia, because it's by far the largest country in the organisation. And in years gone by Malaysia when it had a forceful leader, Mahathir period. Nevertheless, it has continued to function. It has tried to retain its independence from the United States on the one hand, and China on the other. And even though some countries are closer to the United States, while others are closer to China. Nevertheless, on balance they have tried to steer a kind of middle position, which I think has made ASEAN one of the most important institutions contributing to stability and peace in the region. There are problems, of course. But nevertheless, it has been playing a useful role at a time of increasing tensions in this part of the world.
Sputnik: What are the key achievements of this style of cooperation?
Joseph Camilleri: It has, of course significantly improved economic and cultural links between the ten member countries. It has expanded over the years from the original five or so countries to its current membership of ten. So it can be said that it includes more or less the whole of South-East Asia and it has developed useful dialogue partnerships with all of the great powers, including the United States, Russia, China, the European Union and Australia as well. And that has provided a forum where difficult and sometimes conflicting positions are discussed. And for example, in relation to the South China Sea, a number of the Asean countries are claimants to some of the disputed islands. And it has been pushing together with China to see whether there can be some agreement on a lasting, durable, meaningful code of conduct. And to say that this year is an important milestone in trying to develop such a code of conduct, and if it is to come about, then it would be another very significant contribution to stabilising what is now a rather tense region in the world.

Sputnik: What role would Asean countries play amid all the shifts happening in the world right now?
Joseph Camilleri: As I was just suggesting it can pay be a stabilising influence in the sense that it's not prepared to identify exclusively either with the United States or China or any other great power. And for example, even Vietnam, which is in a dispute with China about the Paracel islands, in other words, a territorial dispute. Nevertheless, it is able to maintain a very effective relationship with China on many fronts, particularly, economic cooperation and related issues. So that's a very useful contribution. The Asean countries have been hamstrung to some extent because of their commitment to not interfering in the internal affairs of any of the member countries. In one way, this is quite a useful position. It prevents interference. On the other hand, it is tested, when one of those ten member countries engages in gross violations of human rights, which could then verge into instability in the region. And it's very interesting to see that as a result of its last summit meeting it has decided to put Myanmar on notice. That is to say, unless it is able to pursue the five point agreement to which they had previously agreed by way of resolving the very unpleasant internal situation in Myanmar, then Myanmar will not be able to attend any future meetings of Asean. So that is an a sign that the Asean countries are beginning to reassert their capacity to act as one, even on highly contentious and controversial questions.

Sputnik: How do you see cooperation between Russia and Asean countries developing as Russia's foreign minister has been holding talks with South-east Asian countries?
Joseph Camilleri: By and large, the relationship has been reasonably effective. And there are, of course opportunities for improvement, further improvement, economic in particular, between Russia and the Asean countries. Most Asian countries have been very careful not to come down clearly or sharply on the Ukraine conflict, either on one side or the other. They have attempted to maintain a position of neutrality. And of course, when we say Ukraine or Russia, we are really to some extent saying the United States or Russia. Even those that have close links with the United States, including, let's say, Singapore and Thailand, have been careful to avoid coming down on positions which are highly contentious in ways that would put them at odds with Russia in this case. So I think there's probably the makings of a useful ongoing dialog relationship between Russia and Asean and including in that of course Vietnam, but also a number of the other Asean countries.

Sputnik: What are the challenges facing Asean countries as tensions escalate between the US and China after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan?
Joseph Camilleri: The big challenge is whether Asean can make its voice heard. Clearly, Asean does not want to see a major conflict, military conflict emerging around the Taiwan Straits. So it's very anxious that its voice will be a moderating influence in that region. It's a difficult one to pursue because of course it wants to maintain very good relations with China. For Asean, China is one of the major trading partners for virtually every country in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, it does not want to cut off its links with Taiwan. It would ideally like to see a peaceful resolution. The countries of Asean, by and large, are committed to the one-China principle and would like to see that outstanding conflict being resolved peacefully. And I think we could expect Asean to do whatever it can perhaps even more forcefully than it is now to ensure that that particular dispute is resolved peacefully, if at all possible.

(Latest Update August 9, 2022)

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