ASEAN centrality deserves greater commitment – PM


The much-debated concept of ASEAN centrality deserves greater commitment as the region holds the promise of both high sustainable growth and peace, with stability among neighbours, says Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. 

Speaking at the 33rd Asia Pacific Roundtable here, the Prime Minister said the region should all work closely to see how it can identify and energise complementarities. 

“ASEAN’s past achievements are on record and it has no shortage of transnational institutions to drive it. 

“If ASEAN does not seize this moment when these initiatives are for the taking, others may do so and in their own way – or nothing positive may happen at all,” he said in his keynote address entitled ‘New Malaysia in a Changing Regional Order’.

A modern competitive world expects and demands a pro-active regional policy energised by fresh thinking and ASEAN has room for taking leadership on this front, he said, citing the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to name a few.

ASEAN too has no less than 15 formal partners spanning the globe: as Dialogue Partners, Sectoral Dialogue Partners, and Development Partners.

Among the more prominent perhaps is the Dialogue Partnership with the European Union, being a partnership between a region of Asia with much of Europe, Dr Mahathir said.

He added that Southeast Asia as a whole has the distinct advantage of still being a developing region. 

This means it can develop further, unlike developed regions where development has levelled off.

Dr Mahathir said a decade ago, ASEAN rolled out its master plan for connectivity by 2025. 

“You could say that China’s plan to revive the ancient Silk Road today is ASEAN’s master plan writ large.

“We in ASEAN can enjoy net gains if the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can be designed to serve national and regional interests, just as the ASEAN Connectivity Master Plan is intended,” he said.

Dr Mahathir said he previously proposed new, improved rail networks between East Asia westwards through Central Asia and Eurasia to Europe. 

“Freight by rail is faster than by ship and cheaper than by air. At the same time, we can enhance maritime connectivity eastwards across the Pacific to the Americas,’ he said.

But adequate maritime security and freedom of navigation, consistent with friendly trading relations with all states and parties, must be assured across oceans. 

Ports and naval assets en route can then refocus their purpose from dead-end war preparedness to greater readiness for flourishing commerce. 

“That is why I have emphasised that large warships on the high seas should be replaced by smaller patrol craft better suited for routine policing against crime, terrorism and other non-traditional threats,” he said 

Dr Mahathir stressed that ASEAN as a regional community has attained a record, whereby no country that has joined it has voluntarily left. Instead, countries from different regions wish to be part of it.

At this point in time ASEAN countries may not be posting double-digit GDP growth, but it is not a regional affliction but rather a global phenomenon, he pointed out. 

“Within our midst, the Asian “tigers” are still prowling though some may have been hibernating for a while, they will wake up and reclaim their rightful position in time,” he concluded.

The ASEAN community has about 660 million people, half of whom are below 30 years of age. This year, it is projected to generate, in purchasing power terms, a GDP of US$9 trillion. 

In five years, that number is projected to rapidly grow to US$13 trillion.