20th Asia Security Summit “Balancing Asia-Pacific Minilateralism and ASEAN Centrality”

June 9, 2023

Speech of
Senate President Pro Tempore

20th Asia Security Summit
“Balancing Asia-Pacific Minilateralism
and ASEAN Centrality”
03 June 2023 | Shangri-La, Singapore

Excellencies, friends, ladies, and gentlemen,

Good morning! Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this prestigious event: the foremost security forum in Asia. It brings me back to my days as a student at the National Defense College of the Philippines for my Master in National Security Administration and my senate days as Committee Chairperson of Foreign Relations.

The ASEAN Charter underscores the importance of ASEAN Centrality in its relations with external partners. It emphasizes the central and proactive role of ASEAN as the main driving force in external political, economic, social, and cultural relations and cooperation with external partners. It seeks to position itself in the center of the regional architecture.

ASEAN-led regional institutions have allowed ASEAN to routinely engage all major powers of the world, discuss strategic issues, and provide a common vision on how to resolve wide-ranging economic, political, security, and other issues. This way, ASEAN has helped shape the balance of power in the region and has led the way in maintaining regional peace, security, and stability.

The importance of ASEAN centrality has also been recognized by President Marcos and the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs. Last 2022, Pres. Marcos urged his fellow ASEAN leaders to unite against the challenges being faced by the region and underscored that it is imperative for ASEAN to reassert its centrality.

At the ASEAN Summit held last May 2023, the President asserted ASEAN centrality in the Summit amidst the geopolitical rivalries in the region. This is also in recognition of the fact that ASEAN has a big role to play in forging regional and multilateral cooperation on various issues including food and energy security, economic recovery, transnational crimes, and the protection of migrant workers.

While this is so, studies have noted several areas where that very centrality may hinder the Association in building much-needed progress in tackling various contentious issues. There are also issues that affect only some and not all of ASEAN’s member states, such as marine issues which are not relevant to the landlocked. This has led to the organization of more and more minilateral arrangements and alternative engagements within and outside of ASEAN.

These minilateral arrangements can be seen as a welcome opportunity to initiate discussion among like-minded entities on specific and relevant economic, social, security, and defense issues. Minilateral cooperation can thus be seen as an arrangement that can complement and supplement ASEAN regional initiatives.

Minilateral groups have played an important role in discussing and pushing forward steps to improve maritime cooperation and enhance maritime security in the region. Within ASEAN alone, the trilateral cooperation among the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia proved to be beneficial in improving communication, information sharing, and joint patrols within the area and addressing long-standing piracy issues there. The pertinent question then in contemplating a balance is whether minilateralism will replace or strengthen multilateralism? ASEAN experience in navigating this crossroad can show the world the answer.

But let us address the elephant in the room, because I did not increase my carbon credits flying here to sidestep the dilemmas we face as we move forward to face modern challenges. The issue with minilateralism is that there is an imbalance of power between the few parties. It is where the small kid in the playground has to make deals with the bigger kids without his friends around.

I strongly believe that even with these potential issues, minilateral arrangements must not and will not diminish the significance of ASEAN’s role in the region. FIRST, minilateral arrangements still need to include ASEAN in its discussions in order to ensure overall regional security, peace, and stability; SECOND, ASEAN possesses the mechanisms, experiences, and institutions that can enhance the discussions, build solutions, and strengthen partnerships in various issues concerning the region and beyond; and THIRD, while minilateral arrangements involve major powers dealing with small countries, ASEAN and its 10 Member States could still circle the wagons around each other.

If fact, the role and the centrality of ASEAN have been recognized by minilaterals themselves on various occasions. For example, the QUAD during its 2023 Foreign Ministers Meeting, emphasized that it will be guided by the priorities of the Indo-Pacific region and has committed itself to support ASEAN centrality and unity, and the ASEAN-led architecture. However, there are those e.g. AUKUS that do not have a relationship with ASEAN at the time being.

This then merits the question: How can minilateral arrangements engage with ASEAN? This is where ASEAN led-institutions come into play. ASEAN-led institutions including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting – Plus (ADMM-PLUS), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and the ASEAN Plus arrangements have been recognized as entryways for minilaterals. And let me hasten to add, in terms of ecological security, the Asean Center for Biodiversity can be a means to identify more areas of minilateral cooperation.

Through these institutions, clusters of countries with relevant concerns can act as interest groups and underscore their key advocacies in discussions. Likewise, the ASEAN Member States that form part of minilateral arrangements are also in a unique position to push and advocate to include and utilize ASEAN institutions in discussions affecting overall regional security and stability.

ASEAN has all the necessary mechanisms to welcome minilaterals, but it is equally important for ASEAN to be open to constructive criticism. But we need to remind ourselves of the original intent of ASEAN as expressed by the founders. The Singaporean foreign minister at ASEAN’s founding in 1967, the legendary S. Rajaratnam feared that ASEAN would be misunderstood. “We are not against anything”, he said, “not against anybody. We want to ensure,” he said, “a stable Southeast Asia, not a balkanized Southeast Asia. And those countries who are interested, genuinely interested, in the stability of Southeast Asia, the prosperity of Southeast Asia, and better economic and social conditions, will welcome small countries getting together to pool their collective resources and their collective wisdom to contribute to the peace of the world.”

It is nevertheless imperative that as it looks back at its founding, ASEAN also recognizes the need for change where required, and takes appropriate actions to address these concerns. It is vital for ASEAN to listen attentively to constructive feedback and work towards making necessary amendments.

The global rise of a different kind of nationalism, bordering on isolationism poses a threat to multilateralism. What helps me grapple with these new realities is the Filipino national hero, Jose Rizal. Rizal inspired Asian nationalism while envisioning a pan-Asian consciousness. Southeast Asian multilateralism can be traced not merely to ASEAN’s founders but to the Southeast Asian visionaries like Rizal who saw a future not only free of colonial subjugation but free of domination by any major powers. That was the founding spirit of ASEAN and the purpose that keeps it essential still.

Let me close by agreeing that minilateralism has its advantages. But ASEAN must be engaged and involved in discussions as it plays its centrality role. As a foreign policy practitioner, I strongly uphold that the involvement of ASEAN and the utilization of its institutions will allow multilaterals to achieve peace and security in the region that would benefit everyone.

Thank you very much!