Posted in Speeches & Statements of the Former Secretaries-General of ASEAN Print

Paper presented by H. E. Mr. Rodolfo C. Severino, Secretary-General

of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,

at the Fourth High-Level Meeting Between the United Nations

and Regional Organizations on Cooperation for Peace-Building

United Nations, New York, 6-7 February 2001


This paper will recall the situation of conflict in Southeast Asia at the time of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the fundamental aims of Southeast Asia’s leaders in creating ASEAN. It will describe the ASEAN approach to issues that can lead to conflict, an approach to which can be attributed the preservation thus far of regional peace. It will recount the specific instruments that ASEAN has developed toward this end. It will cite instances of cooperation with the United Nations and its agencies in peace-building in Southeast Asia. Finally, it will ask questions about the role of ASEAN in dealing with the types of conflicts that may erupt in the region in the future.

1967: A Fractured Southeast Asia

At the time of ASEAN’s founding, in August 1967, Southeast Asia was deeply and severely fractured in many ways. Indonesia had just emerged from a massive domestic upheaval and its confrontation with Malaysia and Singapore. Malaysia and Singapore had just gone through a bitter separation. The dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah was boiling. Each country had boundary or other territorial disputes with one or more of its neighbors. Viet Nam was divided, and war was raging between North Viet Nam and South Viet Nam, each with great-power allies and supporters. Laos and Cambodia were deeply embroiled in that war, in which the Philippines and Thailand backed South Viet Nam and the U.S. Myanmar, then Burma, had decided drastically to reduce its participation in international affairs, contending with armed conflict within its borders. In Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, communist insurgents with strong support from their big power patrons created a serious security threat. In other words, the entire Southeast Asian region was struggling for survival in the Cold War quagmire.

It was in these unpromising circumstances that the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand decided to transcend their countries’ differences, raise the stake of each country in good relations and cooperation with its neighbors, and thus prevent their disputes from erupting into conflict. At the same time, they determined to disentangle the ASEAN region from the rivalries of the big powers and keep it from continuing to be an arena for open or covert big-power conflict.

The Coming of Peace

ASEAN was to succeed in these aims beyond all expectations. Southeast Asia has not seen open conflict between ASEAN members. Immediately after the end of the wars in Indochina in 1975, ASEAN members reached out to the re-united Viet Nam, and to Laos, leaping over the wall erected by ideology and history. Viet Nam’s intervention in Cambodia in 1978, however, placed it and ASEAN on opposite sides of the political and diplomatic fence for another decade. That fence came down with the political settlement of the Cambodian question in the Paris Peace Accords of October 1991, which both ASEAN and the United Nations, in collaboration, helped to bring about. ASEAN also supported the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) during the transition in 1992 and 1993, which paved the way for a duly-elected government in Cambodia in 1993.

In the meantime, Brunei Darussalam had joined ASEAN in January 1984, a week after it gained its independence. Viet Nam was admitted into ASEAN in July 1995, Laos and Myanmar in July 1997, and Cambodia in April 1999. All Southeast Asian countries are now in ASEAN, as envisioned by ASEAN’s founders in 1967. And Southeast Asia is at peace, another element of the founders’ vision. ASEAN has maintained its record of no conflict between members.


This singular achievement may be attributed to ASEAN’s approach to the conduct of relations among members, to the very character of the association. In its approach to common goals and to issues that could lead to conflict, ASEAN places a premium on dialogue and consultation in place of posturing and confrontation. It prefers quiet discussions and eschews “megaphone diplomacy” and “feel-good diplomacy.” It considers mutual respect and understanding – understanding by each member of another’s situation and difficulties – as vital to the peace and stability of the region and to the future of the association itself.

In ASEAN, bilateral issues – whether they have to do with boundaries, borders or the movement of people – are managed bilaterally, without being complicated by unnecessary regionalization or internationalization. As in the case of many other regional organizations, ASEAN’s insistence on consensus ensures that the association takes no action that threatens the vital interests of any member.

The very process of integrating the ASEAN economy, aimed primarily at productive efficiency, easier and less costly commerce, increased investments and the generation of jobs, serves to strengthen the fabric of peace by raising the stake of each ASEAN member in the prosperity of all. Thus, ASEAN has accelerated the implementation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), is embarking on negotiations on the liberalization of trade in services covering all services sectors and all modes of supply, and is creating an ASEAN Investment Area (AIA) and an electronic ASEAN (e-ASEAN). Under these schemes, goods, services and capital are to flow freely within the region. ASEAN has put together plans for road, railway, power, gas-pipeline and telecommunications networks. In response to the recent financial crisis, ASEAN, almost by instinct, turned to regionalism, not only integrating the regional market but also initiating common regional action on financial matters. In the midst of the information revolution, ASEAN members and ASEAN as an organization are working together to ensure that their people have the human and institutional capacity to acquire, develop and use information and communications technology for their economic and social advancement primarily through the e-ASEAN scheme.

ASEAN cooperation in many other areas thickens the texture of regionalism and strengthens the regional identity of Southeast Asia, a circumstance that, in turn, increases the stake in regional peace and progress. Cooperation goes on in an expanding range of endeavors – education and health, labor and the status of women, social safety nets and the family, transnational crime, rural development, the protection of the environment, drug addiction and drug trafficking, science and technology, food and agriculture, small and medium enterprises. The growing networks of officials and private citizens across the region contribute to the mutual understanding and personal relationships that help strengthen the regional peace.

ASEAN members, almost by virtue of their membership, are committed to the market as the primary engine of economic growth, with its implications for the rule of law, for the integrity of economic, financial and political institutions, and for the stability of the nation. They place high importance on the development and role of the private sector, with its implications for governance and for society as a whole. At the same time, they seek to ensure that rampant capitalism does not lead to the dangerous enlargement of the economic and social gaps within the nation and within the region.

ASEAN’s four newest members have suffered immensely from the Cold War conflict and its aftermath. As a post-conflict peace-building effort, ASEAN is giving special focus to the development of the Mekong Basin, in which all of them are located. Particular emphasis is placed on human resources development, which ASEAN considers to be the key to their economic, social and political fulfillment and their fuller integration into the Association. Infrastructure development in the Mekong region is also a high priority. ASEAN is now taking active steps towards implementing a massive project of linking Singapore and Kumning in southern China with a network of railroads.

Even as ASEAN hastens and deepens the integration of the regional economy and its cooperation in other endeavors, it has remained open to the rest of the world. Certainly, ASEAN’s trade and investment regimes are among the most open in the world. By engaging important countries in the region, ASEAN has contributed to the stability of East Asia. For almost a quarter-century, ASEAN as an association has maintained active links with its major partners through its dialogue system. It helped to found APEC and remains at its core. It initiated the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). ASEAN is exerting efforts to enable Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to join APEC and ASEM as soon as possible.

More directly related to regional peace and stability is the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). In this forum, ASEAN and other powers with interests in the region undertake dialogue and consultations on political and security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, engage in activities intended to build mutual confidence, and seek ways of preventing conflict in the future. The participation of North Korea in the ARF in Bangkok last July for the first time has further underscored and enhanced the efficacy of the ARF.

Another initiative of ASEAN that is gathering momentum is the so-called ASEAN+3 framework of East Asian cooperation, which involves China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. Leaders of the ASEAN+3 countries declared in a joint statement issued in Manila on 28 November 1999 their common commitment to develop cooperation in economic, financial, political and transnational fields. This new ASEAN+3 framework also indirectly creates a unique informal occasion for the three Northeast Asian countries to hold discussions among themselves. Before their meeting with the ASEAN leaders in Singapore last November, the leaders of these three countries met among themselves over a working breakfast and agreed to upgrade their breakfast meeting into a regular annual +3 Summit. ASEAN can rightly take pride in having a part in bringing these three closer together.

Instruments of Peace

Although inclined to informal arrangements and tacit understandings, ASEAN nevertheless has devised a few formal instruments for the advancement of peace and stability in Southeast Asia. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, signed in 1976, constitutes a code of behavior for States of Southeast Asia and others to adhere to it and provides a mechanism for the peaceful settlement of disputes through regional processes. The Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone, signed in 1995 and now in force, is ASEAN’s contribution to the cause of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons as well as to the safety of the region. ASEAN is currently consulting with the five Nuclear Weapon States to enlist their support for the sanctity of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. ASEAN is also working closely with China on a regional code of conduct in the South China Sea, where there are overlapping claims of some ASEAN members and China. At the ASEAN-China Summit in Kuala Lumpur in December 1997, ASEAN and China reached a common understanding that the maintenance of regional peace and stability served the interests of all parties. The parties concerned in the South China Sea disputes agreed to resolve their disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations in accordance with universally recognized international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, without resorting to the threat or use of force.

Cooperating With the United Nations

ASEAN leaders held a fruitful summit with the UN Secretary-General and leaders of UN agencies in Bangkok on 12 February 2000. They reiterated their commitment to promoting cooperation between ASEAN and the UN, especially in human-resource development.

In working intensively on regional mechanisms for financial stability, ASEAN has had the cooperation of the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. UNCITRAL and the World Intellectual Property Organization have provided useful reference points for ASEAN’s development of common standards, including those pertaining to electronic commerce and other aspects of information technology.

The United Nations, particularly through ESCAP and UNDP, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, have for a long time supported the development of the Mekong Basin, an area in which ASEAN has taken a particular interest. ASEAN has cooperated with UNESCO, WHO, UNEP and the Codex Alimentarius of FAO in the areas of their competence. UNDP, as a dialogue partner of ASEAN, has generously underwritten some of the most useful of ASEAN’s cooperati
ve projects. ASEAN is now engaged in consultations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on ways to ensure compliance with certain provisions of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone Treaty. ASEAN’s position on the South China Sea question has always been anchored on international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In its work of building the peace, ASEAN has enjoyed the support of the United Nations and its agencies. For many years, ASEAN and the United Nations worked very closely in the successful search for the settlement of the conflict in Cambodia and the building of peace in that country. ASEAN countries have cooperated with the United Nations in building the peace in East Timor. ASEAN supported the negotiations that Indonesia and Portugal conducted under UN auspices on the future of East Timor, including the stages that immediately preceded Indonesia’s announcement, in January 1999, of its intention to put to a referendum the question of autonomy or independence for the territory. In the face of the violence that erupted after the referendum in August, ASEAN leaders, meeting in September in Auckland, acceded to Indonesia’s request for prominent ASEAN participation in the international force that the United Nations was organizing, with Indonesia’s consent, to deal with the problem. ASEAN countries are active in supporting the United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor, with a Filipino officer and, after him, a Thai general commanding UNTAET’s military force, a Malaysian as the chief-of-staff of the UNTAET Administration Office, and a sizeable number of Filipinos and Thais among the UN peacekeepers deployed in East Timor.

Whether in Cambodia or in East Timor, whether in the South China Sea or on nuclear weapons and disarmament, whether in the settlement of disputes or on general codes of international behavior, ASEAN has always placed itself within the framework of the United Nations and its Charter, invoking its practices and precedents, measuring itself against its norms.

Internal Conflicts and Regional Organizations

The experience of the last decade of the 20th century has indicated that conflicts in the 21st century are more likely to be internal than inter-state. Is there a role for regional organizations in such conflicts? Should regional organizations be equipped to offer to intervene in them? If so, at what point? More specifically, are there likely to be internal conflicts in Southeast Asia that would warrant ASEAN intervention?

ASEAN’s record and approach thus far point the way to preventing inter-state conflict and laying down the conditions for peace between and within nations, at least in Southeast Asia, but perhaps elsewhere, too. But what if conflict does occur within a country in a form and to a degree that threatens other countries in Southeast Asia? Each such case would be different from others, perhaps even radically so. In this light, what norms are there to invoke? Would there be any? Could there be any?

The wealth of experience of the United Nations may help. Herein lies the value of consultations between the United Nations and regional organizations on building the peace.

In any case, ASEAN would have second thoughts before deviating from the ways that have worked so well for the region in the conduct of inter-state relations – consensus, quiet consultations on events that affect the region, regard for national sovereignty, eschewing well-intentioned or merely ostentatious actions that could do long-term damage to large numbers of people and to the region as a whole, avoiding cures that are worse than the disease.

ASEAN is taking initiatives in helping its members cope with internal problems that have transboundary or regional impact. The ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Haze, for example, has been organized to mobilize regional and international support to help Indonesia cope with the forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan. ASEAN Finance Ministers have institutionalized the regional surveillance process, with support from the ADB and the World Bank, to undertake periodic “peer reviews” of one another’s macroeconomic situations and policies. More difficult to deal with are those internal political situations that have triggered outcries from countries outside of the region and demands from civil society NGOs for ASEAN’s reaction and/or intervention. How to help its members cope with such political situations, and at the same time preserve the fragile structure of inter-state relations, indeed of regional peace and stability that has been so carefully crafted over more than three decades, remains a crucial question confronting ASEAN. This will have to be left to ASEAN to work out for itself.




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