Myanmar's State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi (Center), gestures while talking to Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha (Right) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (Left) during the 20th ASEAN-China Summit in Metro Manila, Philippines. The Philippines is hosting the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings from 10 to 14 November. EPA-EFE file pic

The just concluded 31st Asean Summit signalled the distance the regional association of 10 members have travelled in the last 50 years. At times, it has been a long and arduous journey. As the 60s turned into the new millennium over the last half a century, the regional association of nations met with a fair share of challenges. Of the challenges, the Rohingya crisis has tested the regional body most, with diplomacy winning over consensus. Malaysia has been relentlessly pushing for a solution to this refugee crisis . A day before the summit ended though, a promise was extracted from Myanmar State Counsellor Aung Sang Suu Kyi, with her agreeing to work out a long-term solution for the Rohingya’s repatriation. This much she has promised Asean. Many around the world have pushed for quicker solution to the Rohingya crisis, but nations do not work like business entities. Businesses go for profit; nations for progress. Sometimes, the “slowly but surely” approach works, although in the case of the Rohingya, crisis delay equals danger.

Asean consensus turned out good news, too. Two regional bodies — Asean and the European Union — and the United States stood together in their pledge to ensure maritime security in the South China Sea, with freedom of navigation and overflight guarantees. Meanwhile, Asean and the US expressed their respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, signalling their commitment to peaceful resolutions of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force. “We are dedicated to maintaining peace, security and stability in the region, and ensuring maritime security, including the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight,” the statement read. Another milestone was Asean’s and China’s agreement to commence discussions on the very important Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Expect some serious discussions on this from early next year.

The biennial meeting of Asean leaders also signed the Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. This comes 10 years after the Asean leaders signed the Cebu Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in January 2007. This consensus enhances access to justice and health services of the region’s migrant workers, and ensures their humane and fair treatment.

As Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said at the end of the 31st Asean Summit and Related Meetings on Tuesday, Asean is increasingly valued by world and regional powers for its strategic importance and position. The joint statements by the US and EU is a case in point. China’s statement on the Code of Conduct is the other. India and Australia, too, are courting Asean. Asean’s 600 million people is good reason for this global attention.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had an interesting analogy for the Southeast Asian regional body. He likened Asean to a lifeboat of 10 nations “to come together, to work together, to have our voice heard on the world stage and to be able to manage our own issues among ourselves, and to cooperate to improve the lives of our people”. Asean members will be looking forward to be in the lifeboat that Singapore is expected to steer as the next chairman in January.

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