1. ASEAN is almost 40 years old. It is one of the most successful regional organisations, and is deepening its integration efforts in all fronts. However, it has reached a critical milestone in its evolution and development. The challenges facing ASEAN today are many, viz.: a more complex and dynamic international environment, stiffer economic competition, greater regional interdependence, and the need to narrow the development gap among its Member Countries. There is no guarantee that it will continue to be relevant in the coming decades and remain the driving force in regional cooperation. ASEAN must address all these challenges.
2. It is believed that an ASEAN Charter will enable ASEAN to better position itself to overcome these challenges. The Charter presents an opportunity for ASEAN to take stock of its achievements and shortcomings, reaffirm its relevance, and forge a new path for its integration. Besides conferring a legal personality on ASEAN, the Charter will also seek to infuse ASEAN with a renewed sense of purpose, to reaffirm and codify key objectives and key principles, to strengthen its institutions and organisational structure, and strive to narrow the development gap, so that ASEAN can retain its role as a driving force in regional dialogue and cooperation.
3. Towards this end, on 12 December 2005, ASEAN Leaders signed the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the Establishment of the ASEAN Charter at their Summit in Kuala Lumpur. They set up an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) of senior ASEAN statesmen to examine ASEAN and come up with recommendations for an ASEAN Charter that is forward-looking and progressive. The EPG has come up with its recommendation for an ASEAN Charter and the report will be considered by the ASEAN Leaders at their Summit in Cebu on 13-14 January 2007.
II. TOWARDS A NEW ASEAN
(a) Realising ASEAN’s Vision
4. The EPG has reacted positively to the Member Countries’ current efforts to accelerate the realisation of the ASEAN Community by 2015. However, accelerating to 2015, means that ASEAN cooperation will expand to many areas that will require changes in the way ASEAN works. It would require strong political will of ASEAN Leaders, and active support of the ASEAN people.
(b) Stating the Objectives and Principles
5. As ASEAN has evolved dramatically beyond what was envisaged in the ASEAN Declaration of 1967, with the scope of cooperation now covering the political-security, economic and finance, and socio-cultural fields, the founding objectives of ASEAN would need to be updated and brought in line with the new realities confronting the Association. The EPG has been talking about how the Charter’s objectives should incorporate the vision of a Single Market with free movement of goods, ideas and skilled talent, along with efforts to harmonise regional economic policies and strengthen regional linkages and connectivity.
6. In the thinking of the EPG, ASEAN’s objectives should also include the strengthening of democratic values, ensuring good governance, upholding the rule of law, developing the promotion of human rights and achieving sustainable development.
7. ASEAN common principles, as enshrined in ASEAN’s fundamental documents, such as the ASEAN Declaration (1967), the Declaration of Southeast Asia as the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN)(1971), the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC)(1976), the Bali Concord (1976), the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ)(1995), the ASEAN Vision 2020 (1997), and the Bali Concord II (2003), have served ASEAN well up to this day. These principles have safeguarded ASEAN’s common interests and formed the foundation upon which Member Countries have developed mutual trust and modus vivendi which have been accepted by all. ASEAN’s principles are universally recognised, and are found in the Charter of the United Nations and other basic international treaties, conventions, concords and agreements subscribed to by ASEAN Member Countries. Other principles of ASEAN relate to the Bandung Conference of 1955, and to the unique circumstances of ASEAN’s founding and the importance of building trust and cooperation among Member Countries. These principles have been integral to the success of ASEAN, and they will continue to do so.
8. The EPG is contemplating how to improve decision-making in ASEAN. This has, hitherto, been based on consensus. The EPG is of the view that consensus decision-making should not be allowed to hold up decisions or create an impasse in ASEAN cooperation. Economic cooperation is one area where a more flexible approach can be adopted. The EPG leans towards a wider use of the “ASEAN minus X” formula. Some EPG members talked about a vote when absolutely necessary.
(c) Raising Resources and Narrowing the Development Gap among ASEAN Member Countries
9. ASEAN’s efforts on building the ASEAN Community will require considerable resources. It will be necessary to review ASEAN’s budget to see how best it can support the new demands, taking into account the resource constraints. The principle of equal contribution is likely to be retained for ASEAN’s operational expenditure, in line with the equal treatment accorded to all Member Countries. Efforts should also be made to attract more resources from the business sector, international organizations and ASEAN’s partners and friends.
10. The development gap within ASEAN has to be addressed as it could otherwise adversely affect ASEAN’s ability to achieve its goals. In this regard, the EPG has contemplated setting up of a Special Fund to help narrow the development gap and support other ASEAN regional development. Given the implications of such a far-reaching idea, it would have to be further studied by financial and fiscal agencies.
(d) Strengthening ASEAN’s Organisational Structure
11. During the first ten years of its establishment, ASEAN operated without a central secretariat. Even after the ASEAN Secretariat was established in Jakarta in 1976, Member Countries were initially reluctant to create a strong central secretariat. Subsequently, this cautious approach resulted in a slow and rather piecemeal development of the whole ASEAN structure. The current institutional framework is not sufficiently well-structured to deal with the increasing number of transnational and trans-sectoral issues. ASEAN lacks effective coordination among its various bodies. The key challenge is to adopt a holistic approach to establish an overall structure that can provide unity in purpose, focus and effective implementation of ASEAN Leaders’ decisions, and ASEAN agreements.
12. The EPG is expected to propose various measures to strengthen the ASEAN Secretariat and to improve the efficiency of ASEAN meetings. One innovation is to have Permanent Representatives from ASEAN Member Countries based in Jakarta. This could settle a variety of cross-sectoral issues and reduce the need for many meetings.
(e) Creating Legal Personality
13. By embarking on building the ASEAN Community, ASEAN has clearly signaled its commitment to move from an Association towards a more structured Intergovernmental Organisation, in the context of legally binding rules and agreements. In this regard, ASEAN should have a legal personality. ASEAN needs relevant privileges and immunities as are necessary for the exercise of its functions and the accomplishments of its objectives. The EPG is keen to urge all ASEAN Member Countries to put in place measures, including legislation, to give effect to such a legal personality.
(f) Monitoring Compliance and Implementation
14. ASEAN must establish a culture of honouring and implementing its decision and agreements, and carrying them out on time. Delays and non-compliance will be counter-productive, undermine ASEAN’s credibility and disrupt ASEAN’s efforts in building the ASEAN Community. It is clear from the EPG’s consultations with the incumbent Secretary-General and his two predecessors that ASEAN’s problem is not one of lack of vision, ideas, and action plans. The problem is one of ensuring compliance and effective implementation of decisions. As ASEAN steps up its integration efforts, appropriate monitoring and compliance mechanisms should be established.
(g) Promoting ASEAN as a “People-Centred Organisation”
15. ASEAN remains a diverse grouping of ten nations with different socio-cultural identities, norms, and varied historical experiences. But this diversity is also its strength. ASEAN Leaders have recognised the importance of rallying the people of ASEAN behind the ASEAN’s goals. More needs to be done to promote greater awareness of ASEAN among the people, particularly through media and communications programmes. While it may be difficult to include this idea in the Charter, the ASEAN Leaders, the Secretary-General of ASEAN, the ASEAN Secretariat, and the ASEAN Foundation should consciously and continuously pursue this objective.
16. The EPG feels strongly on the need for ASEAN to engage representatives of civil society, think-tanks and the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA, previously known as AIPO), among others, to better communicate the objectives and activities of ASEAN to the public, and to provide feedback on their current concerns. They can also be encouraged to participate in ASEAN activities and programmes revolving around commemoration of key ASEAN activities to promote greater regional identity and consciousness, such as the ASEAN Day celebration; activities in culture, sports, arts, and heritage, museum exchanges, exhibitions, publications, students and youth exchanges; and women programmes, etc.
(h) Strengthening External Relations
17. ASEAN has, over the years, developed useful linkages with countries beyond the region through its dialogues and forums, such as the Dialogue Partnerships, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Plus Three, and the East Asian Summit (EAS). Each of these arrangements brings unique strengths to the relationships and must therefore be nurtured. ASEAN can build on such links to ensure that it remains outward-looking and successfully pursues friendly relations and mutually beneficial cooperation with partners and friends. This will help forge a regional architecture that is open and inclusive, as well as strengthen regional cooperation to deal with the growing number of transboundary challenges ranging from transboundary haze pollution to terrorism, transnational crime, and maritime security to natural disasters and communicable diseases.
18. All major powers are ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners, and they engage with ASEAN on regional and international affairs of common concern as well as contribute to development activities within ASEAN. The EPG believes the Charter should provide for Dialogue Partners to appoint their Ambassadors to be accredited to ASEAN and based in Jakarta to facilitate and develop their relationships with ASEAN. ASEAN should also seek to retain its centrality and strengthen its role as the driving force in regional cooperation. To do so, the Secretary-General of ASEAN can be given a larger mandate to represent ASEAN’s interests and to devote greater attention to nurturing cooperation with Dialogue Partners, and other regional and international organisations.
19. Furthermore, ASEAN must maintain close cooperation with the United Nations (UN), where it has recently obtained Observer status. The role of the ASEAN Chair in regional processes, such as the ARF, should be enhanced to preserve ASEAN as the primary driving force. In addition, ASEAN should also strengthen the coordination and support role of the ARF Unit within the ASEAN Secretariat.
20. The challenges facing ASEAN in the next decade and beyond are daunting. It is clear from the EPG’s discussions that ASEAN cannot allow itself to be overtaken by events. To remain relevant, ASEAN must strengthen itself to actively and effectively address and overcome the challenges. The report of the EPG will seek to strike a balance between preserving ASEAN’s fundamentals and putting in place a stronger basis for ASEAN’s cooperation and future integration. The ASEAN Charter should provide a framework for a stronger ASEAN . If political will is mustered, ASEAN will be reinvigorated.