Many observers of international politics often dismiss the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as increasingly unable to manage regional crises. With the grouping marred by inaction and even a failure to simply issue joint statements over issues, such sentiments on ASEAN are now increasingly commonplace. Just a month after the debacle of its retracted Kunming joint statement on the South China Sea (SCS) disputes, ASEAN barely forwarded a watered-down joint statement on the SCS disputes, to the disappointment of many. The 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Vientiane concluded with a statement that dropped any reference to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s unfavorable ruling against China. Unsurprisingly, this is not the first time ASEAN has failed to act on or say anything meaningful about prevalent regional issues. In 2006 and 2014, ASEAN maintained a deafening silence as the Thai military staged a coup d’ etat and seized government power.
Given this, as one journalist astutely asked, what is the point of ASEAN?
It is a question I often ask myself as I get more and more invested in the regional intergovernmental organization. To understand ASEAN today requires a working knowledge of its historical purpose. ASEAN was primarily organized in 1967 to manage and contain the increasing external and internal conflicts and threats to the region after World War II and during the Cold War. In the context of a bipolar Cold War world order, ASEAN sought to be a “zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality (ZOPFAN)” to hedge against the United States and the former Soviet Union. Intra-regionally, Southeast Asia was fragmented by intra- and inter-state conflict. As a response, the five founding member-states—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines—agreed on a “treaty of amity and cooperation” for the “peaceful settlement of regional disputes” under the principles of non-interference and decision making through consensus, also known as the “ASEAN Way.” A stable regional atmosphere made it possible for member-states to focus on quelling their respective internal conflicts and put all their resources and efforts into the goal of nation-building and economic development, emphasizing national resilience as the road to regional stability.
Today, it is the same consensus-based decision making and non-interference course of action that once ensured regional security and development that cripples any meaningful action and compromises regional stability. No wonder even its own member-states often place ASEAN on the sidelines as a last-resort option to pursue foreign policy initiatives (see, for example, the Philippines favoring a legal strategy on the SCS dispute over ASEAN mechanisms).
Having studied other forms of regionalism elsewhere, however, I believe that regional intergovernmental organizations matter. They play important roles in both regional and domestic affairs.
In Africa, for example, the African Union automatically suspends any member-state that experiences unconstitutional changes in power from regional activities and gives it six months to restore constitutional rule. The chairperson and the secretary general are not only given the responsibility to condemn coup d’ etats, but also the power to impose a wide range of sanctions, as in Mauritania in 2008. In South America, the Organization of American States (OAS) often plays an active mediating role between the opposition and the government in the event of constitutional crises in its member-states, as in Venezuela in 2002. Such interfering actions and meddling statements are unthinkable for ASEAN, which in 2008 found it almost impossible to convince the military junta in Myanmar to open up to international relief operations in the wake of Cyclone Nargis given the regime’s fears about political change.
What makes the difference? A comparative analysis of regional IGOs shows that engagement from regional civil society and think tank networks, supported by an institutionally-strong secretariat and democratic governments, make regional IGOs more proactive and less fettered by the competing interests of individual member states. In Africa, it took the efforts of an active civil society, a network of indigenous lawyers, and an aggressive secretary general to form its progressive legal document on democracy and human rights. In South America, a watchful network of think tanks and civil society, supported by democratic middle power regimes, created among the earliest regional democratic charters. It is important to note that AU member-states are a mix of authoritarian and democratic regimes, yet the group is widely considered to be more progressive than the OAS, which is comprised of democratic member-states. Apparently, democratic member-state regimes are not necessary for a democratic regional IGO.
This is not to say that the relationship between these regional IGOs and civil society is all positive. In Africa, the exclusivity of AU engagement mechanisms shrinks the space for non-conforming civil society organizations. In South America, civil society engagement with the OAS is often limited to non-controversial issues. However, civil society in these regions wields influence because of the unique constellation of actors who created progressive democratic charters that provide for institutional mechanisms for engagement. Civil society participation is guaranteed and protected by specific charter provisions in both the AU and OAS.
ASEAN, on the contrary, represents a textbook negative case. It is characterized by a handicapped secretariat, a regional civil society network skeptical of its value for engagement, and unwilling democratic governments. The running joke in the region is that the ASEAN Secretariat performs more like a secretary than a general. Staffed only by over 300 personnel with limited funding, the secretariat can barely perform its secretary function, much less a more general-like one.
Further, civil society in Southeast Asia is too frustrated at the slow pace of ASEAN action, if there is any at all, to even think of engagement. Some also maintain a domestic strategy of engagement while others fail to raise their issues and advocacies into the higher regional agenda. Severe repression by ASEAN and its member-states, ranging from tactics of sabotaging people’s forums to choking international funding to outright intimidation, also do not help the progressive causes of civil society. Institutional mechanisms for civil society participation are still virtually non-existent. The region’s more democratic regimes in Indonesia and the Philippines are also reluctant to take the reins of de facto ASEAN leadership. Indonesia, the region’s largest country with the most political clout, is slowly moving beyond an ASEAN-centered foreign policy. According to Rizal Sukma, while ASEAN was once the cornerstone of Indonesia foreign policy, it is now only treated as a cornerstone. Without this complex multilateralism of different actors, ASEAN will remain beholden to individual member-state’s interests and limited in its actions in the foreseeable future.
The way forward for ASEAN is to stay true to its mantra of a “people-centered” community. However, to expect this from ASEAN while leaving its hybrid authoritarian member-states in the driver seat of regionalism is a misguided aspiration. Their fears of political change will hinder any move toward intervention and non-consensus decision making. To achieve this elusive community, the Southeast Asian people must take the reins. This means developing more innovative engagement strategies, making alliances with democratic governments and international actors, and strengthening regional coordination and capacities.
To ask whether there is a point to ASEAN is counterproductive. It reduces interest among ASEAN stakeholders and breeds negative attitudes toward engagement. The point of ASEAN does not hinge on what it is now but on what we, the Southeast Asian peoples, can make it to be. It has vast potential to do a great many things–balance superpowers, strengthen negotiation positions, build confidence among mutually suspicious states, cooperate against transnational human security issues, foster people-to-people connections, and even promote democracy and human rights. But to realize these potentials, as a comparative analysis of regionalism shows, requires the people to take ASEAN away from stubborn member-states and make it their own.
In 2017, the Philippines will be the chair of ASEAN in its 50th year. It is at the helm of setting ASEAN’s direction for its next 50 years. Being one of the more democratic states and having one of the most vibrant civil societies in the region, it is incumbent on the Philippines to lead ASEAN toward a new democratic agenda. After all, ASEAN aspires for a “people-centered” community. Such is the point of ASEAN—for it to be made the institutional mirror of its collective peoples’ aspirations.
Kristoffer Daniel Li is a recent graduate of BA in Political Science from the University of the Philippines-Diliman. His fields of interest are on ASEAN and Comparative Regionalism.