ASEAN and the Logic of Collective Action


The ten member states of ASEAN aspire to “One Vision, One Identity, One Community.” Their foreign ministers meeting in Laos this July demonstrated again how far the distance is between goal and reality. Like the European Union, the regional organization of Southeast Asia is pulled apart by the divergent interests and priorities of each member. ASEAN’s many  cultures and political systems are much more variegated than those in the EU; wealth differences are also much greater. The Europeans differ somewhat in their responses to the threat posed by an expansionist Russia, but ASEAN states are even more divided as they confront a rising China.

Across the globe there are webs of  interdependence—defined by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye as mutual vulnerability, a relationship so close that actors can harm or help one another. For real interdependence, however, there must be some kind of parity. Thus, France and Germany are quite interdependent; France and Greece, less so. Ties between every ASEAN state and China are quite asymmetrical.  China is a giant—far larger in nearly every way than ASEAN members alone or together. The combined populations of ASEAN number about 640 million—more than Europe but roughly half of China. If ASEAN were a single country, its GDP would make it seventh in the world, while China’s is second (or third, if you count the EU states as one unit). In short, most ASEAN countries are far more dependent on China than vice versa. For most ASEAN states the big picture is dependence on China—not interdependence.

Dependent or  interdependent, states can choose which strategy to take—pursuit of mutual gain or one-sided gain. Those who feel strong may try to exploit others for unilateral advantage. Experience shows, however, that the exploitation of others may yield short term gains but tends over time to boomerang. Individual as well as shared interests are optimized by policies aimed at mutual gain.  Compare, for example, the outcomes of the 1919 Versailles treaties and the 1947 Marshall Plan. Those who feel weak may attempt just to save themselves–sauve qui peut. They will join the “bandwagon” rather than balance with others against a superior force. Wise actors—call them “owls” rather than hawks or doves—will seek win-win solutions to shared challenges and opportunities—contingent on reciprocity by their partner competitors.

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If cooperation for mutual gain is wise, why do individual members of ASEAN follow such diverse policies toward China? They are tempted to succumb to what Mancur Olson called the logic of collective action. This logic, according to Olson, leads actors to appear cooperative but, in reality, to maximize individual interests—even to cheat. As an example, several factories (or governments) might pledge to install expensive equipment to limit pollution. If one factory cheats and continues to pollute, it will be spared the cost of new equipment but its owners can still benefit from a common good—cleaner air and water.

The logic of collective action is to behave as a parasite. This kind of self-seeking leads to the “tragedy of the commons.” If a plot of common land will support one hundred farms with just one grazing cow each, a rancher who sneaks in an extra cow will degrade the commons slightly but his cheating may go unnoticed. But if ten other ranchers also cheat in the same way, the commons may be destroyed. Parasitism hurts even the parasite.

Parasitic logic also wreaks havoc with burden sharing. When common security is at stake, the logic of parasitism leads ostensible allies to let the strongest power do most of the work and  to pay more than its fair share for defense, while keeping their own inputs as low as possible. Most NATO allies have similar levels of wealth, but most spend barely 2 percent of GDP on defense while the United States pays out more than 4 percent. The strongest power has a deep interest that keeps it in the game, but it may pull out if it feels that its good will is being abused.

Burden sharing in Southeast Asia is more complicated. Wealth differentials are much greater within ASEAN than within NATO.  Apart from Singapore and Brunei, the economic gaps between most ASEAN members and their potential supporter, the United States, are much larger than within NATO. Disparities can be altered when ASEAN members offer bases to American forces. Still, the logic of collective action suggests that each putative partner should do as little as possible for the common cause.

Several ASEAN members that border the South China Sea are threatened by Beijing’s efforts to claim virtually the entire sea for itself. The growth of Chinese power could permit Beijing to take the dragon’s share of the sea’s resources and even curtail freedom of navigation and flight. China’s expansionist ways threaten all ASEAN states bordering the South China Sea, from Indonesia and the Philippines to Vietnam. (Thailand and Myanmar face the Gulf of Thailand and Bay of Bengal, where China makes no claims.)

Non-littoral states such as Laos and Cambodia have their own priorities in dealing with China. To be sure, the well-being of Laos and Cambodia can also suffer from China’s destruction of the environment and activities along the rivers that course from the Himalayas southward. But China can also offer these less developed countries both economic assistance and diplomatic support. Most ASEAN countries share with China an allergy to scrutiny of their human rights performance.

The ten ASEAN countries could resist and balance against an expansionist China.  To do so, they would have to discard the parasitic logic of collective action. Beijing does not wish to face a united front in Southeast Asia. Instead, it labors to divide and subdue. Dealing with these states one by one permits Beijing to choose from its quiver of soft and hard power, potential concessions and hammer blows. Facing China one by one, individual ASEAN members have little leverage. If they acted as one interdependent community, they could enhance their individual as well as their shared interests. Presenting a united front, they could even encourage China to rise in harmony with others.

Walter Clemens is Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Boston University.  He wrote North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2016).  

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