Features | Economy | Southeast Asia

In Defence of ASEAN

By Invitation: Ambassador Ong Keng Yong

By Ong Keng Yong for

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.

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

In this respect, recent talks by regional experts and scholars on the need to move faster in the development of regional architecture, and not get bogged down by ASEAN’s consensual politics, have aroused anxiety and bewilderment. It is clear that the ASEAN framework and community building have enriched the organisation’s standing, notwithstanding the imperfections of the regional body. This in turn has enhanced the political and strategic position of each member state. It is therefore in the interest of the entire membership to strengthen ASEAN’s cohesion and not divide the group.

One issue that has hampered ASEAN’s engagement with major trading partners has been the divisive issue of what is happening in Myanmar. Myanmar’s attitude towards ASEAN’s commitment to democracy, good governance, rule of law and human rights will be an important factor in how ASEAN solidifies. The anticipated general election in Myanmar therefore has the potential to usher in a new era of cooperation and development for Myanmar’s economy and society. In the meantime, ASEAN’s role in regional peace and stability will be enhanced by positive moves in Myanmar towards political reconciliation and opening.

Another potential difficulty for ASEAN is the management of competing interests of several countries in the South China Sea. Six ASEAN Member States have some sort of claim to islands in the South China Sea, while China claims many of these islands. If ASEAN member states are able to maintain the solidarity that brought about the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, it’s likely that a peaceful cooperative arrangement can be obtained from the complicated negotiations impinging on the situation in this vital area of international trade and shipping.

One underdeveloped regional mechanism for political and security dialogue has been the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Given the renewed interest of the United States in ASEAN, and the desire of China to maintain a substantial relationship with the group, the ARF is a useful forum for addressing issues on regional peace and security and a place where meaningful diplomacy can be undertaken to manage the potential tensions and conflicts in Asian hotspots. However, if the ARF is not deployed strategically by ASEAN, regional diplomacy will become much more demanding and non-ASEAN-centric mechanisms will be developed and embedded for such purposes.

Nothing to Fear from Rising China, India

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

So far, the rise of China and India has been positive for ASEAN and the regional interests of China and India intersect with those of the United States, Europe, Japan and Russia. ASEAN has rich experience of managing such stakeholders’ interests and the ‘ASEAN Plus’ processes such as ASEAN Plus Three (the ten ASEAN countries, China, Japan and the Republic of Korea) and the East Asia Summit (ASEAN, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand) have engaged these stakeholders in orderly and mutually rewarding exchanges and transactions. Consequently, ASEAN’s role is recognised as ‘central’ and ASEAN is also acknowledged to be ‘the primary driver’ of regional architecture development.

However, if ASEAN wants to ensure its strategic usefulness is maximised it will have to make full use of its persuasive powers. The longer it takes for decisions to be made, the lower the level of efficiency. Some ASEAN member states yearn for faster processes and want to see immediate results, but by its nature ASEAN relies on individual countries finding common interests and working together. This is, of course, time consuming and an issue that will need to be addressed going forward if the rest of the world is to continue to engage productively with ASEAN.

Individual member states of ASEAN will also need to have the political will to support the processes and procedures laid down. This key factor will determine the future success of ASEAN and push its ten member states into solidifying its plans for the building of an ASEAN Community. The centrality of ASEAN in regional architecture has placed it in the midst of different proposals for either an East Asia community or an Asia Pacific community, and  with a number of countries wanting to take the steering wheel, there’s no certainty of success. The current lack of clarity and consensus on how to move forward, with various countries involved wanting to ensure that their own interests are well served, means a careful step-by-step process that balances national sensitivities must be undertaken. Ultimately, ASEAN must gain from such moves or risk irrelevance.

The fumbling and quarrelling that sometimes occurs within ASEAN must not distract from the fact that four decades of skilled management has reaped dividends. The ingenuity of ASEAN has been its skilful use of its strategic geography and engagements with those who matter for the region. This skill has fostered confidence among outside powers who now trust that ASEAN can deliver relevant initiatives in tune with their own interests.