APISA2023 Conference Report

H.E. Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, Secretary-General of ASEAN, gave a Keynote Address on ‘Challenges and Opportunities for Regional Multilateralism in an Era of Great Power Contestation’ at the Asian Political and International Studies Association (APISA) Congress 2023 on June 30, 2023 via Video Conference

Dear Friends from the Asian Political and International Studies Association, Distinguished Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Greetings from the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. I would like to start by extending my appreciation to Ewha Womans University and the Asian Political and International Studies Association (APISA) for inviting me to share some thoughts on “challenges and opportunities for regional multilateralism in an era of great power contestation”. Indeed, the world today and our region in particular has entered, or should I say re- entered, the era of great power contestation, which to many observers have impacts on multilateralism. Some are of the view that multilateralism is bound to be sacrificed, that when great powers compete, multilateralism gets undermined or pushed to the side.

Such a path for multilateralism is something that is not definite, I would say. And I commend the organisers for framing the focus of our discussion this evening into “challenges and opportunities”. Indeed, we should not only be looking at challenges alone that are resulting from great power competition, we should also be leveraging the opportunities that come with it. As I have time after time shared with my team, it is always best to be optimistic in our outlooks; that even in the seeming instances of difficulties, opportunities still abound.

In fact, and as we all recall, it was an era of great power competition when the founding members of ASEAN were given the opportunity to establish ASEAN in 1967. As political scientists and international relations scholars would definitely know, it was with the intention of preventing our region from becoming the playing field of the great powers which were then at the heights of the Cold War, the Viet Nam War and the Korean War.

It was, no doubt, the same desire and aspirations that convinced them to come to an agreement on the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) in 1976, which would become the key framework of inter-state relations not only among the ASEAN Member States but also with and among other external parties that have

already acceded to the Treaty. At the moment, the number keeps growing year by year and we now have 40 non-ASEAN countries that have already acceded to the Treaty. This makes the number of High Contracting Parties to the TAC a total of 50. Yet, three additional countries, namely Mexico, Panama, and Saudi Arabia are expected to accede to the TAC in July of this year on the side-lines of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and related meetings in Jakarta.

It was also in the same context that, in 1971, ASEAN came up with the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), which would eventually become a de facto foundation of ASEAN’s foreign policy orientation, even if observers say that ASEAN does not have a common foreign policy position or outlook. Preventing the Southeast Asian region from becoming a region where major powers would deploy their nuclear weapons and also weapons of mass destruction, was the very essence why ASEAN crafted and pushed forward the establishment of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty.

Today, with the re-emergence of great power competition and geopolitical rivalry, I believe that ASEAN, both as a Community and as a regional organisation, with ASEAN being an embodiment of multilateralism, is presented with vast opportunities and possibilities.

Distinguished Participants, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Please allow me to elaborate on some of the key issues, as follows:

First, the importance of the ASEAN Centrality, which has become increasingly strategic and significant during these challenging times. When great powers compete and the prospects of cooperation between them becomes bleak, if not almost impossible, ASEAN would come in to provide them with a relevant platform and a timely avenue to strategically engage with one another on the issues of shared concerns and interests.

I would call this as ASEAN being a centripetal force, one that unites and serves as a bridge even between and among the competing forces or protagonists, for that matter. In this regard, I am pleased to share that great powers, which are ASEAN’s external partners, have manifested their strong support for ASEAN and its Centrality in regional affairs. In fact, if there is one thread that runs common among the pronouncements of ASEAN’s external partners, it is that they support ASEAN Centrality, or the central role of ASEAN in the evolving regional architecture.

The opportunity for ASEAN to lessening the seemingly increasing strategic trust deficit in the region has therefore become more pronounced in the context of the current strategic setting. Multilateralism, as a matter of principle and a way of life, is embedded in ASEAN and the ASEAN-led mechanisms. To be sure, the great powers

have expressed their commitment in continuing to support ASEAN, while at the same time, they are competing with each other, despite the fact that they continue to take part in the regional arrangements centred on ASEAN. These ASEAN-led mechanisms include, the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), among others.

Second, notwithstanding their competition against each other, ASEAN’s external partners are also in unison in wanting to contribute further to ASEAN Community- building, and so we have seen the growing interests and support from ASEAN’s external partners in undertaking various activities, programmes and projects with ASEAN in order to contribute to ASEAN Community-building.

In addition, several of ASEAN’s dialogue partners have had their relations with ASEAN elevated to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships, highlighting that these partnerships are at an enhanced strategic level, ensuring that they are meaningful and mutually beneficial and substantive. The desire to partner with ASEAN is also manifested by the fact that we are seeing an increasing number of countries wanting to seek formal partnerships with ASEAN, as Dialogue Partner, Sectoral Dialogue Partner, or Development Partner.

Furthermore, the central role of ASEAN in promoting regional cooperation is likewise becoming more evident in regard to the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). This important ASEAN document, which was issued in 2019, is fast becoming a significant reference framework for external partners in pursuing cooperation with ASEAN, while a number of them likewise have their respective Indo-Pacific strategies and policies, which on closer look, would dovetail and complement the AOIP.

For this year, as we are fully aware of, the mainstreaming of the implementation of the AOIP is the third thrust of Indonesia’s priorities, as the ASEAN Chair for 2023. Indonesia has also put out two other thrusts, ASEAN Matters and Epicentrum of Growth, to give clear priorities and directions of ASEAN, as the region continues to move forward in these challenging times in the region and in the world.

What I would like to highlight in regard to the AOIP, which makes it unique and mutually acceptable to all our partners is the principle of “inclusiveness”, a fundamental principle in ASEAN. In other words, the AOIP is inclusive and welcomes the involvement and participation of all, encourages cooperation rather than competition, among ASEAN’s external partners including other regional organisations such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Pacific Island Forum (PIF), among others.

Thirdly, it has also become evident that ASEAN as a driving force is not only confined to the realm of politics and security, but in the areas of economics and socio- cultural cooperation as well. In the economic areas, ASEAN has taken the lead in

cooperation with five other Dialogue Partners to craft and to set up the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is considered to be the world’s largest free trade agreement. Now, RCEP has entered into force, and ASEAN has been working to implement the RCEP Agreement for the benefits of its people as well as of its partners in the Indo-Pacific. The prospect of regional economic integration is therefore gaining much momentum and this time, it is not only at the level of ASEAN but also in the wider Indo-Pacific setting.

Distinguished Participants, Colleagues, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,

For sure, amidst the current strategic setting that affords us with several opportunities, it would also be worthwhile to look at the recent developments, which from the perspectives of some observers, could pose serious challenges to multilateralism. Among the plethora of such challenges is the emergence of so-called minilateral groupings, foremost of which are the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security arrangement and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) involving the US, Japan, Australia and India.

There is an apprehension that the existence of these trilateral and quadrilateral arrangements would undermine multilateral cooperation in the region, including ASEAN. I believe otherwise. As I have explained at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this month, it is not an act of balancing between ASEAN and these arrangements. In fact, it is ASEAN’s policy to constructively engage various external partners and that partners involved in these arrangements are also welcome to engage ASEAN through the ASEAN-led mechanisms. ASEAN believes in building partnerships and in working together for the common interests, with mutual respect.

In addition, these minilateral and sub-regional arrangements need not necessarily undermine ASEAN and ASEAN Centrality. Considering that those involved in these arrangements are friends and partners of ASEAN, which have expressed strong support to ASEAN. At the same time, these arrangements should not be seen as competing against each other, or undermining ASEAN. As long as they continue to contribute to ASEAN and ASEAN Community-building, their emergence should not be seen as undermining ASEAN Centrality but instead complementing ASEAN, if they do not work against ASEAN’s interests and ASEAN Community-building.

As I stated earlier, it is also worth to be mindful of the fact that in the current geopolitical setting, there appears to be a growing strategic trust deficit, making it difficult for regional states to cooperate. In this regard, again, I would like to highlight the important role that ASEAN could play in reducing such strategic trust deficit on the one hand, and to focus on confidence-building and conflict prevention on the other. By providing the platform through the ASEAN-led mechanisms where regional powers can come together, including those who are in fierce competition, open

communications are important and needed to be promoted proactively in order to work to enhance the strategic trust among the major powers.

Moreover, we should not forget that we have various mechanisms and platforms, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum Annual Security Outlook, where participating states make known their respective defence interests, policies and postures. To a great extent, this is one way to promote transparency and openness in the conduct of foreign and defence relations and policies in the region.

Distinguished Participants, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the important role of the academics and analysts who are members of the Asian Political and International Studies Association (APISA) for their contributions to the policy dialogue through their discussions, research, and publications.

With the increasingly fast-changing world today, it is always helpful to have colleagues and friends in the academic community, who have the privilege, opportunity as well as the time to think through these issues and to provide policymakers with sound policy advice and recommendations. It is through the concerted efforts and collaboration between the policy world and the academic community that we could have a peaceful, stable and prosperous region, notwithstanding the current strategic environment which is full of competitions and tensions.

I thank you for your kind attention.

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