Faculty Co-Director David Cohen Gives Distinguished Lecture at Singaporean University

Faculty Co-Director gives distinguished lecture at Singaporean University.

As the culmination of his appointment as a Visiting Senior Fellow this summer, Faculty Co-Director David Cohen was honored to deliver the S.T. Lee Distinguished Annual Lecture at Singapore’s S. Rajarantnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in August. 

Cohen underscored the gravity of the regional and global challenges currently confronting ASEAN in his lecture, titled “A House Divided? Prospects and Challenges for ASEAN Unity in an Era of Regional and Global Crises.” With the recent coup in Myanmar and military expansion by China, the US, and others in the Indo-Pacific region as two key examples, Cohen posed a pivotal question: How can ASEAN effectively engage with and respond to internal and external pressures while navigating complex relationships with China, the United States, and other regional and global powers in their quest for Indo-Pacific dominance?

Cohen spent considerable time discussing the escalating power rivalry between China and the US in ASEAN and in the Indo-Pacific. He pointed to the current flashpoint of confrontation between China and the Philippines over Second Thomas Shoal and the major expansion of US military bases in the northern Philippines facing the Taiwan Straits. He highlighted how the dispute over maritime rights and territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea has been further complicated by the involvement of other external actors such as Australia,  India, the United Kingdom, Japan, and NATO members.

Pointing to the failure of ASEAN as a regional organization to support the rights of its maritime nations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, he stated, “ASEAN Member States are not and have not been unified in defending the integrity of their exclusive economic zones.”

Cohen further emphasized the urgent need for a reevaluation of ASEAN's policy on Myanmar. Despite the five-point consensus reached by ASEAN leaders in April 2021, Myanmar has failed to meet the consensus requirements and, consequently, has been excluded from important ASEAN Summits and high-level meetings. In Cohen’s perspective, it remains unclear if ASEAN will play a convening role for negotiations or stick by the ineffective policy of not engaging with the junta.

Audience questions revolved around American foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific, the possibilities for long-term unity within ASEAN, and the adherence to the rule of law and responsibility of enforcement. Cohen expressed ambivalence with regards to the likelihood of ASEAN coming to consensus on some of these thornier issues. 

As ASEAN grapples with these complex global relationships, Cohen stressed that the organization must provide its member nations with viable alternatives to confront these regional and global crises. Cohen emphasized that ASEAN must find unity and strength to not only survive, but also thrive in these turbulent times.

The full lecture can be viewed at the following link: https://www.rsis.edu.sg/event/the-s-t-lee-distinguished-annual-lecture-by-professor-david-cohen-visiting-senior-fellow-rsis/