In Defence of ASEAN
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

In Defence of ASEAN


The strategic geography of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations–wedged between China and India and straddling key trade and transportation networks–has enabled it to play a prominent role in managing stakeholders’ interests in Southeast Asia and the surrounding neighbourhood.

The customised mechanisms put in place by ASEAN have helped to institutionalise habits of consultation and cooperation among regional countries and their partners, while the prestige and recognition accorded to ASEAN have increased a sense of belonging to a region.

However, the ‘evolutionary’ approach to leadership has raised doubts about ASEAN’s effectiveness in a rapidly changing world. Slow compliance and decision-making combined with weak institutions and a lack of action in some cases have prompted criticism over ASEAN’s ability to manage regional and international affairs.

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Yet, ASEAN member states’ leaders have accepted that their respective societies need time and space to connect with outsiders and work with them in mutually beneficial ventures. ASEAN’s mantra of ‘moving step by step, at a pace comfortable to all,’ is therefore rooted in the realities of the diverse cultural, economic, political and social order in Southeast Asia.

This time-tested philosophy is not, as some would suggest, a wishy-washy approach. Instead it reflects the thorough preparation of the issues to be discussed and reconciled–policy options and alternatives are considered, discussed and weighed up carefully by all parties with a stake in the outcome. Relying on cooperation, dialogue and political convergence, ASEAN is still very much an inter-governmental body. Although this has led to slow, sometimes tedious progress, it still requires good conciliatory and political judgements–  leaders need to think carefully about key issues and decide the best moment to join a consensus based upon their own circumstances.

Unfortunately, this consensual method of regional cooperation is not fully understood or widely appreciated. Indeed, the ‘ASEAN way’ has been maligned and dismissed by those in a hurry to achieve their own particular goals. But ASEAN is not alone in adopting this consensual approach–such decision-making processes are the mainstay of every effective, collective discourse. While more established international organisations have formalised precedents and specific rules for reaching a quick decision, ASEAN has just institutionalised this process with the coming-into-force of the ASEAN Charter on December 15, 2008 and the promulgation of blueprints on the building of the ASEAN Community by 2015, based on three pillars-political and security cooperation, economic integration and socio-cultural cooperation.

With the coming-into-force of the ASEAN Charter, ASEAN has become a rules-based regime with a legal personality. Coupled with the increase in resources allocated to the ASEAN Secretariat, the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and several other processes aimed at improving efficiency and effectiveness, ASEAN has indicated its commitment to the transformation of the loose informal grouping into a formal body. The changes should allow ASEAN to become stronger and more able to promote solidarity and cooperation on the regional stage.

Maintaining a cohesive Southeast Asian region will ensure peace, security and stability and cooperation in solving common problems, and expanding regional economic integration will also follow. The blueprints laid out for the establishment of the ASEAN Community, meanwhile, will provide timelines and a roadmap (with scorecards) to help ensure the implementation of ASEAN’s intentions and plans. By becoming more predictable and accountable, ASEAN has enhanced its standing and attractiveness as a reliable partner with those wishing to invest in the peace and prosperity of Southeast Asia.

It would also be simplistic to accept the conventional argument about the diversity of ASEAN member states and how mutual jealousy and suspicion hampers the implementation of ASEAN accords. In reality, the national ego of bigger countries in ASEAN will be a major factor in keeping ASEAN coherent and cohesive. Historically, ASEAN is most successful when both the small and big countries in the organisation rally around a specific cause, especially if there’s a perceived common external threat, such as during the Cambodian Crisis of the late 1970s to early 1990s, the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis and the SARS crisis in 2003.

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