The ASEAN Tiger

‘It is important to give ASEAN credit for what it has done and not to blame it for failing to achieve what others, whether they are practitioners or analysts, want it to do.’

Richard Stubbs, Professor of Political Science at McMaster University

Across South-East Asia economies are booming whilst Western economies mis-fire. At the heart of this growth is ASEAN –  a regional collective of 10 states. Since their founding, ASEAN has grown into a political and economic force that pools national power and prestige into a viable unit to achieve global outcomes.

As powerful as it is however, all is not as it seems. In its efforts to prioritize cohesion, ASEAN has capped its own effectiveness. With its founding principles, the ‘ASEAN Way’, dictating the organisations norms, ASEAN has in many ways restricted its own ability to achieve its ambitious goals. This internal cooperation and cohesion are the biggest benefit to how ASEAN is structured. Its core goal, however, of leading regional institution-building, has so far had mixed results and there are many questions as to how much it has succeeded with its limited resources. The group’s effectiveness is ultimately capped by the resistance to change that the ASEAN Way has rigidly implied, and whose principles now guide how it operates.

A meeting of the ASEAN general secretaries, 2005 source:wikicommons
A meeting of the ASEAN general secretaries, 2005 source:wikicommons

The ‘ASEAN Way’

The ASEAN Way encompasses the deep-seated norms that govern how member states act. Unfortunately, it has been argued that these norms are actually counter-intuitive as they limit how much these member states may integrate with one another. ASEAN’s initiatives are, for example, implemented through an informal ‘consensus-based’ system in order to prevent members being ‘coerced to accede to the will of the majority’ – a measure meant to prevent peer-pressure. 

Ultimately, ASEAN is governed by the notion that states prefer to maintain their national sovereignty above all things and seek to limit external influences. As a result, the ASEAN Way encourages a commitment to ‘relations-based governance’ rather than ‘rules-based governance’. In essence, this leads to a system whereby the enforceability of agreements is dictated by the strength of inter-state relationships as opposed to traditional negotiations through formalised processes.

What this system creates is therefore a situation where member state ambitions are checked by one another, and they instead mutually aid each other’s development. The dominance of these norms inherent in the ASEAN Way has not only contributed to regional stability, but it has allowed ASEAN to become an increasingly close-knit organisation. This organisational cohesiveness comes at a cost. Namely, the mechanisms integral to the fulfilment of the ASEAN Way and the norms it advances simply perpetuate a resistance to change. 

US President Barack Obama (C-L) stands with Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and leaders of Southeast Asia during a photo session at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on November 20, 2012. US President Barack Obama was on November 20, set to defy Beijing's protests and use a summit to raise concerns over South China Sea rows that have sent diplomatic and trade shockwaves across the region. AFP PHOTO/ TANG CHHIN SOTHY (Photo credit should read TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (C-L) stands with Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and leaders of Southeast Asia during a photo session at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on November 20, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ TANG CHHIN SOTHY (Photo credit should read TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

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Leaders

Through a focus on the three pillars of a political, economic, and a sociocultural community, ASEAN’s underlying ambition has been to deepen regional integration and to provide leadership with respect to regional institution-building. In doing so, it aims to encourage East Asian states to collectively manage the region’s most pressing economic and security challenges themselves.

ASEAN’s role in leading East Asian regionalism provides a good illustrative example of how the grouping is proving its effectiveness. In 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described ASEAN as ‘the fulcrum of an evolving regional architecture’. Importantly, regional institutions such as the “ASEAN Plus One” and the “East Asian Summit” (EAS), all function according to ASEAN norms encapsulated in the ASEAN Way. This has guaranteed that outcomes are aligned with ASEAN state’s interests and ensures that ASEAN shapes the discussion of issues. Member states host significant meetings where they invariably set the programme for regional institutions since ASEAN enables these countries to be situated at the centre of vast regional networks. ASEAN’s effectiveness, therefore, lies in its ability to set and guide the regional conversation and agenda.

ASEAN's financial challanges, source: http://www.adb.org/news/infographics/asean-infrastructure-fund
ASEAN’s financial challanges, source: http://www.adb.org/news/infographics/asean-infrastructure-fund

East Asia Summit

Aside from agenda-setting, the grouping’s effectiveness in promoting an ASEAN Community is underpinned by the efficacy and social power of ASEAN-led organisations. For example, it is at the East Asia Summit (EAS) where evidence of ASEAN’s leading role in East Asian regionalism is most salient.

Established in 2005, the EAS focuses on broad multilateral issues through the iteration of the ASEAN Way in its mechanisms. And given that the EAS seeks to address regional challenges through co-operative security, Russia and America were subsequently invited to join. However, the United States was reluctant to sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) – one of the conditions of EAS-membership. America’s reservations were understandable given the TAC renounces the use of force with respect to dispute settlement. Therefore, the fact that America eventually signed the TAC carries great symbolic significance, since it reflects the power of ASEAN’s security framework. Malcolm Cook stated that, ‘ASEAN’s claim to its centrality in East Asian and Pacific regionalism is confirmed’. Hence, this highlights ASEAN’s effectiveness since it reflects ‘region-wide acceptance of its normative foundations of regional inter-state conduct,’ which consequently influences Southeast Asia’s security hierarchy. And whilst ASEAN is yet to form the security alliance which could rival NATO, the amalgamation of great powers in this regional security grouping may force a question in the not-so-distant future; to what extent America and Russia work together to achieve regional goals in Southeast Asia?

ASEAN countries have become a hub for international trade and investment thanks to staggering economic development, largely due to cooperation.
ASEAN countries have become a hub for international trade and investment thanks to staggering economic development, largely due to cooperation.

Building a new South East Asia

The capacity of ASEAN to operate effectively in its role concerning East Asian regionalism is somewhat of an anomaly. In every major regional organisation outside of East Asia, regional integration has been shaped by that region’s chief powers. And whilst ASEAN neither enjoys extensive material power, nor does it comprise of any major military or economic powers, ASEAN members have been ‘at the centre of East Asian regionalism’. 

It is ASEAN’s centrality which can help explain the organisation’s ability to maintain its pivotal role in region-building, the result of the organisation’s linkages to the variety of regional networks. Importantly, it has heightened the quality and amount of procedures for investigating methods to better administer regional matters. This has been supported by the willingness of major regional powers to cede region-building authority. Several academics have urged that no major regional power, be it America, China or Japan, would allow one of their own circle to take leadership in East Asia. Kesavapany summarised this notion when arguing that, ‘Unlike the major powers, ASEAN is militarily weak, neutral and objective…it is strategically located but is no threat to anyone’. In other words, ASEAN meets the expectations of surrounding states in managing regional integration. Therefore, there are reasons for genuine optimism with respect to ASEAN’s ongoing effectiveness.

The 20th ASEAN Regional Forum was held in Brunei. (Photo/CFP)
The 20th ASEAN Regional Forum was held in Brunei. (Photo/CFP)

Rules that bind

Despite its effectiveness, a principal challenge for ASEAN is to meet demands for institutional enhancement in the face of constraints imposed by the ASEAN Way.

 After its adoption, the ASEAN Charter was viewed as a ‘watershed for regionalism in Southeast Asia’. Among many other aspirations, it was hoped that the Charter would strengthen economic integration by ameliorating ASEAN’s dispute settlement mechanisms and tighten sanctions on states that contravene trade agreements. However, the resulting Charter scarcely extended regional community building – instead at most affording ASEAN a legal personality.

The Charter’s updates either further ingrained ASEAN’s problems, or bolstered pre-existing proclamations. As such, the Charter made no formational improvements to reduce concerns over the unenforceable nature of agreements. There is a problem surrounding how the norms of the ASEAN Way promote ‘weak’ instruments that lack enforceability and therefore fail to compel members to integrate. Consequentially, the Charter’s proponents desired a code that would eliminate the barriers to economic integration caused by the ASEAN Way. For example, Article 2.2 sets out that economic agreements will be conducted through a rules-based system. Whilst this represents an apparent success for ASEAN, any benefits brought about by the new system are negated by the drawbacks elsewhere. The Charter, for example, does not specify the form of economic arrangements, and the inherent flexibility allows members to sidestep commitments should they clash with domestic pressures.

The challenge associated with reducing the ASEAN’s constraining capacity is surprisingly inevitable. The Charter could only advance non-obligatory declarations regarding ASEAN’s guidelines. This demonstrated the ever-present function of the ASEAN Way as a ‘force for the status quo’ in the region. It also demonstrated ASEAN’s ultimate tendency to follow suit. The Charter could never have been overly innovative since ASEAN is designed to check those exact compulsions. The expectations for the Charter were, therefore, unrealistically inflated. Hence, ASEAN’s flaws with respect to economic integration, at least, symbolises more than mere organisational defects. They are the inescapable results of a grouping wrestling with the ASEAN Way as a corrective force.

A dispute over rights to the South China Sea scuttled ASEAN regional talks with China which maintains that it holds sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea source: France24
A dispute over rights to the South China Sea scuttled ASEAN regional talks with China which maintains that it holds sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea source: France24

Time to change

ASEAN must reassess its negotiating principles in light of the obstacles they present for institution-building. While ASEAN’s relationship-based regimes help harmonise disparate state preferences, these norms are likely to inhibit organised, rapid reactions to future unexpected regional occurrences. With respect to ASEAN, this would mean avoiding the ASEAN Way approach to decision-making, which necessitates near-unanimity, and moving towards majority-voting on chief unification matters.

Furthermore, analysts should adjust their expectations to a more realistic level regarding what the grouping promises. ASEAN may exercise influence over individual issues and policies through various regional organisations, but this should not be misinterpreted as a commitment to take leadership on every substantive matter with which member’s are faced. Therefore, expectations must be managed so they remain realistic and reasonable. ASEAN plays an effective role in region-building, yet assuming ASEAN will solve each major economic or security-based issue due to its structural position, is expecting too much.

Joko Widodo delivers his state-of-the-nation address. Photo: EPA Indonesia has recently moved to rapidly expand its military capabilities in contravention with its ASEAN commitments.
Joko Widodo delivers his state-of-the-nation address. Photo: EPA
Indonesia has recently moved to rapidly expand its military capabilities in contravention with its ASEAN commitments.

This raises several questions as to how it would affect ASEAN’s cohesiveness. In permitting members to execute arrangements with great flexibility, ASEAN allows every state to progress at its own, unique pace. The outcome is a grouping that evolves into a vehicle for variance on a myriad of issues, be they economic, political, or social. The argument is therefore that, in opposition to bolstering cohesiveness, the ASEAN Way allows member-states to drift apart. Whilst the overall cohesiveness of ASEAN would most likely remain strong, as discussed above, this counter-argument is nonetheless noteworthy.

Whilst the ASEAN Way acts to bind the grouping closer together, it imposes undesirable checks on the institutional capacity of ASEAN. There is an irony in the fact that the force driving cohesiveness among the regional organisation, simultaneously limits its effectiveness. Yet, to this point, ASEAN’s cohesiveness and efficacy has enabled it to gain the reputation of being the most eminent indigenously created regional grouping in the developing world. For ASEAN’s claim to region-building to retain its authority; it must address the aforementioned principal challenge, even if this entails adapting long-held institutional norms.

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