ASEAN at Fifty: Challenges to Unity and Centrality

This essay was originally written for a Conference marking the 90th Anniversary of Southeast Asian Studies and Overseas Chinese Studies in Jinan University, Guangzhou, on July 15-16, 2017. Some text is drawn from the integrative chapter in a newly published volume "Building ASEAN Community: Political-Security and Sociocultural Reflections" (ERIA, DFA, 2017)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) turns 50 in 2017. Critics and supporters of ASEAN have much to say about the group’s achievements and shortcomings since its establishment in 1967. Critics will say ASEAN has been measured and found wanting. There are too many conflicts within and among its members that remain unresolved. The principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs have been too privileged in practice, at the expense of effective cooperation and integration. Organizationally, ASEAN is too process-oriented while inadequate in achieving timely results and impact. Consensus among member-states remains shallow even on certain critical issues that require solid agreement. The absence of a common foreign policy and differences in security priorities and threat perceptions continue to stand in the way of a true political-security community, it might also be said.

Image Credit: Reuters/Mark Crisantol

Supporters, on the other hand, will argue: were it not for ASEAN, would Southeast Asia even be as peaceful, stable, and economically progressive as it has been and still is, after several decades? Aren’t the norms and practices associated with the ‘ASEAN Way’ for which it has often been criticized – including informality, nonconfrontation, relying on consensus-based decision making – part of the reasons the member states have remained together all these years? The fact that other countries, including big powers and non-likeminded states, choose to engage in ASEAN-led multilateral arrangements is also clear recognition of the organization’s important contributions.

This mixed record of ASEAN has led to such sharply contrasting observations, captured in the often-cited metaphor of ASEAN being simultaneously perceived as a glass half full (in the eyes of supporters and optimists) and a glass half empty (in the view of critics and sceptics).

In my own view, ASEAN’s major accomplishments in the past fifty years far outweigh its shortcomings and constraints.

The first accomplishment is that despite the lack of a common identity and despite diversity at so many levels among them, ASEAN member-states were able to identify shared interests, and develop coordinated approaches and cooperate in order to promote these interests as well as overcome common challenges. ASEAN continues to lay the groundwork for a regional community through its 3 pillars: with the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) being most advanced, and the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) demonstrating as well as enabling the evolution of security thinking in the region from competitive to cooperative security, from state to human security, from military concerns to nontraditional security. The ASEAN Socio-cultural Community (ASCC) on the other hand is potentially the most critical to ASEAN’s overall success inasmuch as it seeks to bring in the peoples - the citizens of the region - into the project of integration.

The second is successfully bringing into its fold the 10 countries of Southeast Asia despite sharp ideological and political divisions and a history of conflict and expansionism by some during the Cold War. The vision of the founding fathers of ASEAN in 1967 was to bring the region together, even if it took many decades and great transformations in the international environment.

The third accomplishment is that, at the sensitive time following the end of the Cold War and collapse of the bipolar order, ASEAN stepped up to become a hub of multilateral security and economic arrangements, helping to promote dialogue, confidence building, serving as a convenor and interlocutor and to some extent also an agenda-setter among small, middle and big powers of the East Asian and Pacific region. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Plus Three (APT), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), are but some of the institutional manifestations of ASEAN’s centrality in developing a post-Cold War regional security architecture, however incomplete it still is.

Fourth, however belatedly and incrementally, ASEAN, through its Charter, has started the process of institutional reform, focusing on monitoring of implementation of agreements, improving coordination mechanisms, strengthening decision-making processes, deepening functional specializations, all hoping to help move the region forward from what began fifty years ago as personalistic leadership preferences and national agendas to a more committed sense of regional and collective interests.

What then are the outcomes of ASEAN cooperation, from the vantage point of Southeast Asia? These are the following: (1) peace among neighbors, some of whom have deep historical animosities, with such peace enabling each one to focus on economic and social development for national resilience; (2) economic resiliency, withstanding shocks such as the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-98; (3) relative autonomy from domination by any external power, considering the region’s history of colonial control and proxy conflicts; (4) agreement on certain fundamental principles in the conduct of relations with the outside world including respect for sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs, but counteracted by open regionalism, inclusiveness, moderation and a collective aspiration to non-alignment and balance of influence.

I do not think anyone has to worry that ASEAN’s first fifty years will go down in history as a failed exercise in regionalism, because its successes were indeed significant, especially when one considers the obstacles in the past. This is not to say that ASEAN should pat itself on the back and rest on its laurels, because the internal and external challenges it now faces are still quite formidable. The next fifty years of ASEAN are difficult to predict – and even the next five years will require wisdom and dedication of those who lead and drive ASEAN – to meet existing and emerging problems that affect ASEAN unity and its claims to centrality.

Some member states internally face domestic social and political transformations that test ASEAN principles and values – including moderation in religious beliefs; tolerance for cultural diversity; ethnic and racial inclusiveness; commitment to the rule of law. Some of the internal problems are spilling over to and affecting intra-ASEAN relations, for instance the Rohingya issue in Malaysia-Myanmar ties, Islamic radicalism in Indonesia and Malaysia feeding extremist violence in the Philippines, internal conflict in southern Philippines complicating relations with Malaysia over Sabah. But on this occasion, let me focus on ASEAN’s external relations.

It does seem to many observers that ASEAN-centered multilateral cooperation has rather taken a back seat in recent years, especially to the increasing salience of big power competition as the balance of influence if not the balance of strength between major powers (primarily US and China, but also involving Japan and India) has begun to shift. ASEAN member states are individually responding with an increase in power balancing behavior, whether through the reinvigoration of alliances, creation of new security partnerships centered especially on maritime capability-building, or through unilateral military build-ups. While inclusive security mechanisms such as the ADMM Plus and the EAS continue to pursue cooperation proposals, their potential to contribute to construction of a new regional order or regional security architecture is still very limited.

Southeast Asia itself has become a major arena for geopolitical contestation among major powers because of its strategic position astride the South China Sea, and the fact that maritime and territorial disputes still persist between China and some ASEAN countries.

China’s economic rise and rapid advances in military capability raise questions about its future role. As China gears up to become a major actor in the regional and world stage, will it be a benign and responsible power – indeed a partner in peace and development, a provider of public goods for the region, an upholder of international norms and law? Or will it be a power that will leverage its size and strength to assert influence or control, to protect what it sees as its own interest but at the expense of its neighbors’ sovereignty, at the expense of legitimate rights and interests of Southeast Asian states and of non-regional states, and in the process doing harm to ASEAN’s unity, integrity and collective autonomy?

To try to do both, as China sometimes appears to do, will be counterproductive, each role mutually cancelling out the intended effect of the other. In an earlier article (CQISS, 2015), I wrote that “in the perceptions of some countries in its immediate neighborhood, China offers one open hand of cooperation and at the same time a fist ready to pound. In response, these countries (in ASEAN) offer one arm ready to embrace and one poised to fend off unwanted advances.”

What of the role of the United States? There is much uncertainty about US policy in the Asia Pacific. I believe this is not only in the medium term or because of the absence of a clearly articulated vision and goals under President Donald Trump, but potentially over a longer period. For a long time, US foreign policy has been underpinned, among other things (like promotion of national interest and the desire to sustain global leadership), by belief in the superiority of liberal democracy as a legacy of Western civilization. Today, internal political divisions in the United States have damaged consensus over what American values are, and the Trump election into the presidency is not the cause but possibly a symptom, if not an effect. Without American certitude that they represent a superior vision and ways that should be admired and emulated by others, the alliances and other relationships across the globe that helped secure the dominant role of the US on the basis of agreement on values have begun to unravel and will continue to unravel. The US could well remain a leader on the basis of tactical convergence of material interests with other states, but the ideational foundations of its leadership will badly need to be restored if it seeks to sustain its legitimacy as a global leader.

Nonetheless, the US role in the region has been one of a regional balancer, and as a provider of security and economic advantages. ASEAN countries may not support US foreign policy on many counts, and some Southeast Asian publics may even have overtly anti-American sentiments, but for the most part, Southeast Asian governments’ worries concerning the US role have been about it not being engaged enough or interested enough, rather than about whether it is too interventionist.

In the meantime that China has yet to be seen as stepping back from its assertiveness and coercive diplomacy of recent years, with the militarized artificial islands now serving as a permanent physical reminder to its neighbors; and in the meantime that the United States is not seen as ready to engage in a more meaningful political, diplomatic, and economic role (rather than a primarily military one) to help buttress regional peace in what China considers its “periphery”, there will be much uncertainty.

Middle powers are stepping up -- Japan, India and Australia in particular, to address the potential for maritime security dilemmas. Because the South China Sea, which connects through strategic sealanes of communication to the East China Sea and the Indian Ocean, is the arena for China’s recent power projection, and because this is the shared ocean space between China and ASEAN, this also places the spotlight on ASEAN’s capabilities to manage regional tensions while relying almost exclusively on its norms and diplomatic instruments.

In its external affairs, ASEAN’s brand of diplomacy has been characterized by inclusive multilateralism rather than exclusivist alliances, promoting confidence and cooperation rather than confrontation, engagement of all major powers rather than taking sides with one or the other, and reliance on dialogue and consultation rather than on material capability and coercion. Recent developments arising from China’s rise and the US rebalance have put pressure on ASEAN countries, dividing them and marginalizing ASEAN itself. China has also tried, but failed, to convince most regional states to choose close ties with Beijing rather than with Washington.

Should ASEAN fail in promoting its own vision of regional order, among the possible scenarios of the future are great power conflict, or a concert or collusion between them. Both scenarios may upend decades of ASEAN and middle powers’ efforts at securing their own autonomy and centrality or voice in regional affairs. Should ASEAN be marginalized, the US-led hub-and-spokes alliance system is also not necessarily the only form of regional architecture, as China has been proactively seeking support for its own order-building initiatives. China seeks to play a more active role in international affairs in the future. Some scholars say that ASEAN plays an important role in China’s “grand strategy” for continued economic growth and modernization, whether in relation to ASEAN’s continuing advocacy for economic integration and open regionalism, in the management of the disputes in the South China Sea, or through support for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road connectivity initiative. But for ASEAN to make such a contribution, it has to be strong, with its institutions and arrangements still able to make a difference, and the member-states unified in their perspective. Only thus can ASEAN, together with other middle powers, play a more important role in the management of relations among powers.