2017 is a year of commemoration and stock-taking for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU), as they celebrate their 50th and 60th anniversary, respectively. To add to these festivities, the two organizations also celebrate 40 years of EU-ASEAN cooperation. It is therefore time to reflect on a partnership which has grown ever closer over the years. However, instead of popping champagne corks, Southeast Asian governments need to face a hard truth: with their societies in distress, they might just be missing out on a huge opportunity.
In 1977, ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to established formal ties with the European Community. This ushered in a partnership which, throughout the first two decades, was a highly asymmetrical relationship focusing almost exclusively on economic cooperation and development. However, in recent years, the two sides have not only explored new areas of interaction but also begun to rethink the principles of their relation. Backed by increasingly powerful economies, Southeast Asian leaders developed the vision of ASEAN as an important international actor and started demanding a relationship on equal footing with the EU.
Their European counterparts have willingly acknowledged this claim, as it promised to more evenly spread the costs and benefits of cooperation. The Foreign Affairs Council of the EU emphasized in 2015: “A strong and cohesive ASEAN proceeding with its own integration is beneficial for regional prosperity, stability and security, and creates new opportunities for cooperation on regional and global challenges.” Internalizing this new paradigm, diplomats of the EU and its member states practiced the mantra that they didn’t want to lecture their ASEAN counterparts but also to listen and learn from them.
Ask those diplomats what exactly they would like to learn, however, and the answer was usually vague or evasive. In 2014, the EU enhanced its program for policy dialogue with ASEAN called E-READI. But E-READI was still designed as a place to convey European know-how in integration, rather than a forum where both sides actually see eye to eye in a process of mutual learning. Whether this was due to a residual arrogance on part of the Europeans or simply a lack of imagination, it shows that ASEAN had not been able to convey what it had to offer in the relationship apart from its huge economic potential.
This only changed very recently, and the EU’s domestic challenges were a main driving factor in the change of perspective. With Europe governments under pressure from populist and xenophobic reactions toward the increased immigration by displaced persons from outside the continent, ASEAN suddenly appeared to hold many lessons for the EU. After all, in contrast to Europe’s relatively homogenous nation-states in terms of ethnicity and religion, most Southeast Asian countries are a host of diversity.
Just like that, EU policymakers have become very interested in how countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines managed to keep conflict between people of Malay, Sinic, and Indian ethnicity, Christian and Muslim belief, or indigenous and immigrant origin at bay. And they are recognizing a “considerable scope for deepening the dialogue” in areas such as counter-radicalization. When asking diplomats Brussels what they can learn from ASEAN, the ability to manage highly diverse societies is now high on the list.
Luckily, the ASEAN side seems to have recognized this interest and portrays itself as a well of expertise in dealing with socio-cultural heterogeneity. Already back in 2011, its ministers for culture and arts adopted a declaration on the protection of the region’s diverse cultural heritage in order to foster a common identity as a community of pluralistic values. ASEAN and its member states have also started to project these values more actively in relations with the EU. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, for example, has offered to share best practices in counter-radicalization and dealing with the consequences of immigration during his visit to Europe in April 2016. In fact, his government is now running an exchange program for EU staff, who can come to Indonesia and learn about measures for de-radicalization. Showcasing the success of ASEAN’s efforts, EU and ASEAN foreign ministers agreed in October 2016 to intensify exchanges on “diversity, tolerance and moderation” and to strengthen interfaith dialogue.
Through these initiatives, ASEAN has definitely started to develop its own “normative power” – a term political scientists originally coined to describe the EU’s ability to influence others’ ideas and create a beneficial international environment by projecting its values abroad. ASEAN appears to have found a unique selling point beyond its trade potential, and this has brought the organization closer to the goal of a level playing field with its European partners. The EU continues to offer itself as a source of funding and lesson-drawing for ASEAN’s integration process, but it realizes that ASEAN and its member states also have something to offer to the EU beyond trade: they can help Europe in developing strategies for social inclusion as well as preventing radicalization and inter-ethnical conflict.
Again, take Indonesia as an example. At a meeting between EU and Indonesian policymakers in November 2016, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini spoke of the diverse society of the archipelago as a “source of inspiration” for Europeans: “We indeed have a lot that we can learn from each other, also in the ways in which our societies can keep this diversity and keep this unity.” As a consequence, the EU just launched an exchange program for interfaith dialogue between religious scholars and leaders from Indonesia and the EU. A similar initiative has already been in place between the German and Indonesian governments for a couple of years. No wonder German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier confessed his admiration for the Indonesian model of religious and ethnic tolerance and how it counters radicalization during a visit to Jakarta in 2014, saying that it had “Strahlkraft” for Germany and the whole world. The German “Strahlkraft” roughly translates to “radiance” and refers to the ability of appealing ideas to spread from one place to another – this is normative power par excellence.
But while normative power ASEAN has begun to gain traction, it is not going to sell itself. Most researchers believe that credibility and consistency are essential prerequisites for normative power to work. Nothing tarnishes it more than the accusation of hypocrisy. Who will believe a preacher who doesn’t follow his or her own standards? If that is true, then ASEAN is currently at risk of losing one of its biggest assets in its relations to the EU.
Following recent news on Southeast Asia and reading the 2017 World Report released by Human Rights Watch, there is no denying that the social fabric holding together its multicultural societies has been more precarious than many would like to acknowledge, and is now showing serious cracks. In Malaysia, religious sectarianism is on the rise and religious minorities are under increasing pressure. Indonesia has become the site of Muslim hardliners such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), which fuel intolerance and the repression of non-Sunni Muslims as well as people of non-Islamic faith, as highlighted by the attacks on and persecution of the Ahmadi community as well as the blasphemy case against Jakarta Governor Ahok. In the Philippines and Thailand, long-standing conflicts between the state and separatist Muslim minorities are ongoing and intensifying. The Vietnamese government has just introduced a new law which effectively forces all religious groups to choose between official registration and surveillance or suffering heavy repression, including imprisonment and forced renunciations of their faith. Both Buddhist and Christian communities have suffered from this repression.
Arguably the most abhorrent case of ethnically and religiously motivated discrimination and violence is the brutal and indiscriminate crackdown by security forces on the Rohingya community in Myanmar. The case also shows most vividly the effect mounting social divisions have on ASEAN’s fledging normative power, especially when it is government-sponsored. It only took a few weeks of acquiescing into the security forces’ actions for de facto political leader Aung San Suu Kyi to go from political rights hero to a complicit in racial brutality – maybe even genocide – in the eyes of European observers. Undermining its own image as a beacon of hope for democratic transformation, Myanmar has retaken its role as the greatest obstacle to a fundamental reconfiguration of EU-ASEAN relations.
True, not all of these developments are actively supported by ASEAN’s political leaders. Racism and religious intolerance are powerful social forces which are sometimes promoted by civil-society actors such as ultraconservative religious movements and can only to some extent be controlled by the state. But even where the government is not an active party to violence, many high profile figures have put up a poor show – either by instrumentalizing tensions for political gain, as when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak spearheaded protests against the Myanmar government with clear racist undertones, or by failing to speak out against division and intolerance, as Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has been accused of doing. If they don’t start sending a message of reconciliation and pluralism, these and other leaders might exacerbate tensions even if they do not want to.
None of this is to deny that the EU needs to bring its own house in order. Its handling of the so-called “refugee crisis” is every bit as hypocritical as ASEAN’s claims of unity in diversity, and the consequences for its own credibility as a normative power equally real. Neither should there be doubt that the main victims of the disconcerting developments in Southeast Asia are vulnerable social groups. But ASEAN governments also need to understand that they might be losing out on a big chance internationally if they continue to appease or promote the forces of division over reconciliation and tolerance at home. Normative power for ASEAN might be stillborn.
Dr Kilian Spandler is a political scientist and Executive Board member of the Young Initiative on Foreign Affairs and International Relations (IFAIR), a Germany-based think-and-do tank led by students and young professionals. He is a co-founder of the EU-ASEAN Perspectives Dialogue, a project promoting youth exchange and policy advise on interregional affairs. Spandler holds a P.h.D from the University of Tübingen, Germany.