Warning - ASEAN: Contains Effectiveness.
Research Fellow - Centre for ASEAN Studies (CAS) - Chiang Mai University
24th April 2015
“…all states in the international system fear each other…they anticipate danger…there is no room for trust amongst states” (Mearsheimer 1994).
Is the renowned International Relations scholar and realist John Mearsheimer correct? Do all states fear each other? Is there no room for trust? How about associations and unions, such as ASEAN, can they facilitate and enhance trust? How does a realist deal with groupings of states, especially groupings that contradict their view that the world is nothing more than a system of narcissistic and anarchical states?
Since its founding in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has vastly changed from an organization that counterbalanced Cold War superpowers to that of a highly contested, multifaceted Regional Organization (IO) that incorporates ten Southeast Asian (SEA) states. ASEAN has developed and evolved to primarily concentrate on regional integration, including; economic, security and social integration. However there is much debate over the effectiveness of ASEAN, with little consensus amongst scholars. Acharya states, “ASEAN remains an essentially contested institution with scholars and observers hotly debating the effectiveness of ASEAN (Acharya 2009:494). The purpose of this paper is to generally evaluate the effectiveness of ASEAN and aspects of scholarly research conducted on the organization, to demonstrate and determine that ASEAN does have aspects of effectiveness. The paper is the result of primarily only reading critical assessments of ASEAN, for over five years, in what I thought were almost all lacking an holistic analysis. By no means do I attempt to analyse everything, however I endeavour to demonstrate that ASEAN has and can be effective.
At a recent Southeast Asian symposium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, the Sultan of Perak, made the argument that ASEAN is misunderstood by those outside of ASEAN, especially foreign scholars. Sultan Nazrin argued one must understand the values of ASEAN, local cultures and traditions, and what ASEAN has achieved so far. He also acknowledged ASEAN’s shortcomings and explained that progress was slowly being made. There was a loud applause after he explained why ASEAN was effective, vital and strategic, from the majority ASEAN audience. This created the question that perhaps scholarship outside of ASEAN lacks to fully understand some of the fundamentals of what ASEAN is.
Problems with the scholarship.
The vast majority of scholarly literature on ASEAN concludes that ASEAN is either ineffective in its entirety or large portions of the organization are useless. Scholars that argue ASEAN is ineffective, although accurately signifying certain failures within ASEAN, lack a holistic approach where cultural and social norms are taken into account. This is primarily demonstrated when ASEAN is analyzed exclusively from an International Relations position. Not including social and cultural factors within scholarly research on SEA enables one to make inaccurate assumptions and conclusions. Scholars such as Mearscheimer (Mearscheimer 1994), Brandon (2002), and Jones (Jones 2007), all facilitate their argument within the field of International Relations, often comparing ASEAN to the likes of the European Union (EU), and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Contrasting ASEAN to that of other regional or international organizations, although at times a necessity, does not provide a complete and accurate evaluation. Member states of the EU have similar governmental systems and structures, however ASEAN has semi-democracies, democracies, dictatorships, absolute monarchies and other forms of systems, making comparison problematic.
Jones, in comparing ASEAN to that of other organizations, argues, “the uncertainty among its (ASEAN) diplomats and its academic admirers about whether ASEAN is an organization, a discourse, or a community of various hues represents something of a puzzle (Jones 2007:149). It is here scholars from outside of ASEAN can find it difficult to fully understand the very nature and purpose of the organization.
A dilemma many scholars find themselves in when discussing ASEAN is that of the organizations purpose. Brandon argues, “ASEAN’s sacrosanct policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of member states has created the impression that it is more interested in preserving the group and its processes than in actually trying to solve problems” (Brandon 2002). Mohamad explains a common problem found within scholarly research is scholars signalling out a single issue and then concluding ASEAN, in its entirety, is ineffective. Mohamad states, “…we find outsiders cynically commenting on the failure of ASEAN as an economic community, when in fact economic cooperation was not a prime objective of the early ASEAN leaders” (Mohamad 2004:15). There is a significant amount of commentary arguing ASEAN and its institutions and forums such as the AFTA and the ARF are ineffective. However, again, by looking at a single issue, such as tariffs and protectionism traits, one neglects broader aspects.
Incorporating factors, such as, the organizations history, its previous and current aims, the socio-cultural make-up of member states, and the ever-evolving geopolitical situation will further enhance ASEAN scholarship. Determining ASEAN is ineffective based on the organization not fitting any already formed formula or mold is problematic. ASEAN is intrinsically linked to a unique set of cultural and social values found within SEA, making it incomparable to that of other regional or international organizations. The non-confrontational and hierarchical respect driven culture needs to be taken into account prior to one formally evaluating ASEAN. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad states, “…one of the characteristics of ASEAN meetings is that most of the work and the process of reaching consensus are achieved during informal get-togethers of ministers in the absence of their official advisors” (Mohamad 2004:19). By no means is ASEAN entirely effective, however future scholarship would be enhanced if it provided a greater understanding of the unique organization and embraced scholars and leaders such as Sultan Shah.
Although ASEAN is somewhat a different organization to that founded in 1967, in order to evaluate ASEAN’s overall effectiveness, it is imperative to understand why ASEAN was founded and what it was initially intended for. In the early 1960’s SEA was plagued by numerous problems that included, intra-regional ideological schisms, intra-state territorial disagreements, and weak socio-political unity throughout the region. There was a real fear within diplomatic circles throughout Asia that disputes and tensions between SEA states could collapse into armed conflict. Communism and the domino theory was causing great apprehension in Britain, the United States and throughout SEA. Communist governments within SEA, supported by China, were attempting to export their ideology to neighbouring states. Chinese supported communist insurgencies were found in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, and the USSR supported an insurgency in Vietnam (Lim 2009:9). SEA was a very complicated, problematic and dangerous region, with little hope of regional collaboration. The then US ambassador to Thailand, Ambassador Young, pessimistically stated, “…it is doubtful that political regionalism or area-wide defence will emerge to play a part in encouraging regional equilibrium or regional institutions for political collaboration or collective defense” (Acharya 2009:5).
In 1966 the governments of the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia all became increasingly concerned about communism within their in individual borders, and through this concern formulated the belief in the importance of working together through regional cooperation and dialogue. On the 8th of August 1967 all five states created ASEAN through the Bangkok Declaration. Yuhuda states the initial goal was to foster the, “…utmost importance on encouraging peace and stability in the region”, and that “…the members committed themselves to strengthen the economic and social stability of the region” (Yahuda 2011:59). ASEAN was effective at opposing communism with none of the five original members succumbing to the political ideology. ASEAN’s initial goal of counterbalancing communism and preventing armed conflicted over territorial disputes between the original five members was effectively achieved.
In order to make an effective judgment on ASEAN it is vital to assess the original aims of the organization. As determined at the Bangkok Declaration in 1967, ASEAN is founded upon seven guiding aims. Although somewhat fallible, the aims attempt to connect and foster a greater understanding amongst member states. The aims include; economic integration; peace and stability; collaboration and mutual support; education assistance; agriculture, economic development and industry cooperation; the improvement of Southeast Asian studies; cooperation with existing regional and international organizations. All seven aims are interrelated, demonstrating the importance of analyzing ASEAN in its entirety. Anthony expresses how the seven aims are regularly discussed, “ASEAN officials do not only get to know each other well, but also develop the awareness of the kind of sensitivities that involve certain political, economic, and security issues. It has been often said that to be apart of the association, one must be able to play golf, sing in karaoke sessions, and eat durians” (Anthony 2005:74).
During the 1970’s and 1980’s ASEAN diverged from the majority of its aims in order to turn its attention to more essential issues. Numerous developments began to preoccupy the newly formed organization, such as, the consequences of U.S withdrawal from Vietnam, Vietnam’s regional objectives and the issue of Cambodia. Initially ASEAN’s economic and educational aims were significantly neglected, however in more recent years ASEAN has again attempted to focus on all seven aims. ASEAN’s aims are an effective way to direct and motivate the organization, however it is not entirely possible to deem them either effective or ineffective without discussing individual institutions within ASEAN.
The ASEAN Way.
Arguably the most problematical institution within ASEAN is that of the ASEAN Way. The ASEAN Way was established during the time of ASEAN’s first great success, displaying unity and drawing international attention to Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. Many scholars primarily conclude their assessment on ASEAN based on its ability to formulate peace and security. Lim states, “Neighbourly disputes and civil unrest threaten and constantly challenge regional peace and security and people’s belief in ASEAN as a body capable of maintaining regional tranquility” (Yoong 2011:34). Regional security throughout SEA is based on a set of six norms, known as the ‘ASEAN way’. The norms attempt to facilitate regional peace and security through informal meetings, consensus building, and non-binding agreements, with Acharya stating the ASEAN way, “…is a mechanism for war prevention and conflict management” (Acharya 2009:58). The norms include; mutual respect and tolerance, quiet diplomacy, the non-involvement of ASEAN to address unresolved bilateral conflict between members, non-interference and non-intervention, renunciation of the threat or use of force, and sovereign equality. However ASEAN is often criticized for violating its own set of norms. Scholars point to situations where ASEAN has obviously violated the ASEAN Way’s most important principle, that of non-interference. In attempting to demonstrate interference, Ruland argues both Malaysia and Indonesia violated the norm by criticizing Burma over their treatment of Rohingya Muslims (Ruland 2000:439). Questions are then directed towards ASEAN’s overall effectiveness, with actions contradicting principles and norms. However in the case of Malaysia and Indonesia criticizing Myanmar, the contradiction can be deemed a positive.
Although there are credible arguments demonstrating ASEAN’s failure in upholding the norms, some scholars demonstrate a convoluted understanding of the norms. Guan, in attempting to criticize ASEAN, argues that the ASEAN Way, “…provides a sense of regional identity only at the intergovernmental level” (Guan 2004:73). However Guan’s fails to appropriately address the set of norms, which primarily emphasize cooperation and communication at a governmental level. Frost incorrectly argues economics is a factor of the ASEAN Way, “…ASEAN’s sluggish, consensus based style of decision making, known as the ASEAN Way, cannot keep up with the rapid pace of economic change and should be reformed” (Frost 2008:136). Chan makes a pessimistic critic of the ASEAN Way, “…conflicts have been tentatively avoided but avoidance is also likely to develop into latent crises which might later become unpredictable clashes (Chan 2002:5).
The ASEAN Way is problematic; it provides regional peace and security by ignoring bilateral tensions, and prevents conflict from being solved at an organizational level. The diversity of ASEAN’s membership makes coordinated development towards reform difficult. Leviter states, “Critics object that the ASEAN Way’s emphasis on consultation, consensus, and non-interference forces the organization to adopt only those policies which satisfy the “lowest common denominator” (Leviter 2011:159). The ASEAN Way is becoming increasingly challenged as regional stability has become more indeterminate and complex (Acharya 2009:87). With ‘other’ non-ASEAN regional powers exercising more dominance and leadership throughout SEA, and bilateral relationships increasingly becoming important, the ASEAN Way may be hindered.
Amongst some Southeast Asian politicians there is the desire for reform, with former Thai Foreign Minister and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan stating, “…it is time to modify the principle of non-interference…or reach a new understanding on the principle which is too strict” (Anthony 2005:209). However the majority of members declined the request for change, arguing it was against the ‘spirit of ASEAN’. There is also the concern amongst certain ASEAN members that the ASEAN Way could easily be violated by the growing influence of external powers. Thus certain members unofficially violate the set of norms themselves, failing to consult other ASEAN members of their actions (Acharya 2009:86). Haacke states, “In December 1995, Indonesia signed an unprecedented security agreement with Australia that betrayed a limited trust in prospects for China’s socialization as a regional good citizen who would respect the norms of the ASEAN Way (Haacke 2003:79).
However a contradiction exists, as it is vital not to underestimate ASEAN’s security and diplomatic culture and its relationship to the principle of respect and regional socio-cultural norms. Any change or development runs the risk of violating regional cultural and social values. If respect is lost, there is the very real threat of conflict and the use of force. Haacke states, “The norm of non-confrontational behaviour, which is linked to the norm of allowing others to ‘save-face’, is an expression of the norm of respect, but in practice, it is also tied to the norm of quiet diplomacy” (Haacke 2003:7). Mahbabani explains, “…face, is important, and conflict can break out when it is lost” (Haacke 2003:117).
In regards to solving conflict, the ASEAN Way provides little assistance, however no two ASEAN member states have been involved in large-scale conflict, demonstrating the potential effectiveness of the norms. If the ASEAN Way is to be compared or analyzed to that of western values and norms then it is easy to deem the organization ineffective, however when understanding socio-cultural values, and the fragile nature of the region, the ASEAN Way demonstrates elements of effectiveness. The set of norms enable all heads of government of member states to form relationships, facilitating trust and friendship, thus uniquely providing the fundamentals of peace and security.
The proposed community.
Although it is not possible to assess the proposed ‘community’ that will come into existence at the end of this year, is it possible to review the current process that is underway within ASEAN in order to achieve the ASEAN Economic Community' (AEC) desired outcomes. The AEC proposes regional economic integration through the following characteristics; a single market and production base, establishing a competitive economic region, regional and equitable economic development, and the further integrating of ASEAN into the global economy (ASEAN 2013). Although not officially stated, the preliminary focus of the AEC is to achieve closer economic assimilation in response to growing competition from the likes of India and China (Burton 2006). Former Malaysian Prime Minister Badawi stated, “If we do not hasten the creation of that regional single market, ASEAN may run the risk of losing its position as an important investment destination” (Burton 2006).
However similar to that of other institutions within ASEAN, the proposed 2015 Community is problematic. Burton states, “…doubts remain over whether the goal can be achieved given the wide economic disparity and conflicting national interests among the 10 ASEAN members” (Burton 2006). Although ASEAN is the world’s seventh largest market, the gap between poor and rich states within ASEAN is vast, creating challenges for the implementation of the AEC. Little attention has been given to building greater economic capacity within weaker ASEAN states, such as Laos, Burma and Cambodia (Ravenhill 2007). Disagreements also exist between more developed members such as Malaysia and Singapore over areas such as banking and land reclamation policy. However there is also potential for the poorer states to gain more investment, especially from the manufacturing industry, potentially at a detrimental cost to states such as Thailand. Although there is an obvious push by ASEAN at an organizational level there are many contentious domestic political economic procedures that are hindering ASEAN’s economic integration aspirations (Ravelhill 2007). However those quick to mock or criticise the AEC fail to mention areas of potential success. An area of success is the AEC open skies agreement, as it will completely open up the ASEAN aviation market, creating lower airfares, more direct routes and more competition.
Criticizing the AEC before its conception is problematic, as time will tell if it can be deemed effective or ineffective. The challenge in formulating the AEC is considerable within such a dynamic region that lacks strong institutional foundations. However ASEAN does demonstrate aspects of effectiveness as it goes about implementing programs and changes that encourage integration, even if the progress is much slower than desired. The proposed community may also push less democratic states such as Thailand and Vietnam onto the road of democratisation due to the increased easement of moving business throughout the region. Government stability could potentially become increasingly important. A leading Burmese entrepreneur Thaung Su Nyein recently told the Guardian, “I don’t see AEC integration as a date, rather a natural economic and cultural evolution which takes place over decades: a fusing of geographically close neighbours, now accelerated by globalisation and technologies” (Hodal 2015).
The China problem.
A legitimate problem within ASEAN, that scholars rightfully concentrate on, is that of bilateral relationships ASEAN members have with other states. As demonstrated ASEAN does have numerous effective aspects however if larger states are going to control members of ASEAN, problems will arise. China’s relationship with Cambodia has exposed divisions within ASEAN. At the 2012 ASEAN leaders summit in Phnom Penh ASEAN members failed to demonstrate unity over the South China Sea issue, with Cambodia siding with China’s claims. The issue caused a split within ASEAN over how to best deal with China, and blocked ASEAN from issuing a joint statement, the first blocked statement in ASEAN’s history (Hunt 2012). Hunt states, “..the failure also sharply focus attention…on Cambodia’s cozy relationship with China and its desire to deal with any territorial disputes with members on a bilateral basis…” (Hunt 2012). Many scholars and leaders within ASEAN see Cambodia as ‘China’s voice’, with China significantly influencing Cambodian foreign policy.
There is a great disparity in opinion amongst ASEAN members in how to handle China. For ASEAN to display disunity enables China more room to move within its bilateral negotiations with ASEAN member states. Baohui suggests, “…(China) has argued that any conflict is bilateral. To this end, Beijing has succeeded by using a few Southeast Asian countries to prevent the emergence of a united ASEAN agenda or strategy” (The Diplomat 2012). China deep-rooted and historical knowledge and understanding of the Southeast Asian region assists in its growing economic and diplomatic influence.
However ASEAN has also been relatively effective in bringing both China and the United States, as well as other regional powers, together, peacefully. ASEAN needs both regional powers to support its norms and values in order to strengthen the organization. In recent years states such as Australia, Canada and the likes of the European Union are all lining up, eager to join numerous ASEAN forums and summits. Chan states, “regionalism provides a political umbrella for member states to negotiate with external powers so that individual members do not have to bargain with ‘Great Powers’ on their own (Chan 2002:5). Although ASEAN’s ability to assist in solving conflict is poor, forums and intra-state relationships ASEAN fosters, demonstrates an effective countermeasure.
It has been established that ASEAN in its entirety much be discussed before formulating any conclusion. What has been demonstrated so far is that ASEAN is a complicated and highly complex regional organization. ASEAN’s original aim of counterbalancing communism, ensuring regional dialogue, and preventing regional hostilities has been relatively effective. However a strong argument can be made that numerous problems within the organization exist, including, economic disparity, the growing influence of China, and the non-settlement of bilateral and regional disputes. ASEAN does effectively position itself with the fabric of regional social and cultural values and norms. Although reasonably problematic, both the ASEAN Way and ASEAN’s aims are arguably the ‘best possible outcome’ for such a diverse region. It has been established that for ASEAN to progress or redevelop itself to be deemed ‘more’ efficient and/or effective, could potentially hinder the very nature and reality of the organization.
With ASEAN becoming more dominant on the global stage, and through the facilitation of regional dialogue ASEAN is increasingly becoming more effective. However, as demonstrated, ASEAN has numerous challenges. Having ASEAN has a regional organization, with its desires, goals and aims is effective in itself, even though certain aspects and institutions within ASEAN can arguably be deemed relatively ineffective.
Research Fellow - Centre for ASEAN Studies (CAS), Chiang Mai University
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