An article by หางนกยูง (Hangnokyoong)*
With the familiar cross-body handshake of the ten Southeast Asian leaders, the ASEAN Summit held at Hua Hin, Thailand, was concluded two weeks ago. The leaders expressed optimism in the future of ASEAN, lauding the theme: “ASEAN Charter for ASEAN People.” Prime Minister Abhisit, the host of the summit, emphasized the need to “make ASEAN more people-centric” and that the “protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms is a key feature of our community.” The leaders also expressed hope to create an “ASEAN Economic Community” by 2015 and called for advanced economies not to use protectionist measures amid the global economic crisis.
Given all the smiling pictures and wonderfully crafted speeches at the summit, it is easy for a random observer to see ASEAN as entering a new, brighter era in which the association evolves into a rule-based legal entity while its member countries become increasingly integrated. However, I disagree with this optimistic view. As will be argued in this article, the future of ASEAN, very much like its past, lies in its struggle to maintain regional security. Despite the rhetoric, the grouping’s ambitions related to human rights promotion or economic integration are dreams that will not be achieved in the foreseeable future. In fact, ASEAN today faces a number of key challenges that compel the association to struggle hard just to stay “relevant” in international affairs.
The birth of ASEAN
One cannot comprehend ASEAN’s present or predict its future without an understanding of its 42-year history. Turning the clock back to the mid-1960s, all Southeast Asian countries – except for Thailand – were newly independent states that were just embarking on an uphill task of nation building. Not unlike today’s Middle East, Southeast Asia was a region full of conflicts. Malaysia and Philippines were engaging in a territorial dispute over Sabah. The North Vietnamese were fighting the Americans in Indochina. Indonesia, under President Sukarno, launched a “crush Malaysia” military campaign in what was called konfrontasi II (“confrontation II”). In addition, the communist threat was increasing while the Americans and the British were withdrawing their troops from Southeast Asia.
Against this conflict-ridden context, ASEAN was formed in 1967 by five countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The primary reason for the establishment of ASEAN was not to promote economic integration, but rather to stop conflicts, counter communist threat and promote peace in the region so as to enable the weak Southeast Asian states to focus on economic development and nation building. ASEAN members agreed that they would try to form a conflict-free zone based on the principles of consensus, non-use of force and non-interference in internal affairs of other states. These principles, together with minimal institutionalism, are often referred to as the “ASEAN Way”.
The goal of conflict prevention was translated into a 1971 Declaration on an ASEAN Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), with one of its components being the establishment of Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ). As such, the primary function of ASEAN in its early stage was managing diversity of national interests and conflict so that its member states can foster economic growth and consolidate their key domestic institutions. However, it is important to remember that most outside observers of Southeast Asia at the time were largely skeptical about ASEAN’s prospect. That skepticism would begin to change in 1979.
ASEAN and the Cambodian conflict: the golden age of ASEAN
In December 1978, Soviet-backed Vietnam invaded Cambodia and easily overthrew the Khmer Rouge government. A new Vietnamese-backed government was installed in Phnom Penh. ASEAN states, which had been hoping for a peaceful coexistence between non-communist Southeast Asia and communist Indochina, were stunned. Thailand, in particular, became very alarmed that its sovereignty was now under threat from the Vietnamese, who were now right next to the Thai-Cambodian border. Vietnam, at that time, had the strongest army in the region.
ASEAN, whose member states were alarmed by the threat posed by Vietnam and the Soviet Union, responded swiftly to the invasion, denouncing the Vietnamese action and calling for immediate withdrawal of the Vietnamese troops from Cambodia. ASEAN also launched successful diplomatic efforts at the U.N. to get the international community to deny the legitimacy of the Vietnamese-installed government in Cambodia and to impose trade sanctions on Vietnam. As a result, Vietnam was isolated from much of the noncommunist world. Meanwhile, ASEAN also worked closely with China and the U.S. to channel military and financial support to the Khmer Rouge insurgents who were fighting against the Vietnamese in Cambodia throughout the 1980s.
Eventually, the Cambodian conflict was settled in 1991 at the Paris Peace International Conference. Vietnam withdrew its troops and a U.N. peacekeeping force was dispatched to administer Cambodia’s transition to democracy. For the first time since World War II, Southeast Asia was without interstate conflicts, while ASEAN was widely praised for its achievement and touted as probably the most successful regional grouping in the developing world. This positive view on ASEAN, however, would begin to change after the end of the Cold War.
ASEAN as a political, not economic, grouping
From 1967 to 1991, it is clear that ASEAN member states were bound together by their common political/security interests, not by the desire to integrate their economies. In the early stages, ASEAN states wanted regional stability that would allow them to deal with domestic problems. During the Cambodian conflict, ASEAN states needed to counter the perceived Vietnamese threat. Moreover, a remarkable success of ASEAN is the fact that its members have not fought a war with one another since its formation in 1967. ASEAN has been successful in preventing bilateral conflicts in the region from escalating into military clashes. It should be noted though that bilateral conflicts among ASEAN member states are rarely resolved; ASEAN is a mechanism for conflict avoidance rather than conflict resolution.
Indeed, it is obvious that ASEAN’s success has always been political and security in nature, whether in fostering a response to a shared external threat or in preventing the escalation of bilateral conflicts among its member states. ASEAN has always been a diplomatic tool that its member states use to pursue their own national interests. It has never been a force for economic integration, let alone human rights promotion. When the national interests of ASEAN states clash, ASEAN has been much less successful in putting its act together. For example, bilateral tensions between Malaysia and Singapore and between Thailand and Cambodia occasionally arise.
Moreover, ASEAN has largely failed on several occasions to react effectively to nontraditional threats, such as its failure to collectively deal with the “Haze” caused by uncontrolled forest fires or the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. The grouping was also silent following Indonesia’s gross human rights violation in East Timor in 1999, and it has not been able to induce a more moderate policy stance in Myanmar. Even today, although ASEAN states have called upon advanced economies not to use protectionist measures, some ASEAN countries, particularly Indonesia, have actually become more protectionist themselves. All the above instances reinforce the view that when the national interests of ASEAN member states are at odd with the collective interests of ASEAN, national interests will always be accorded higher priority. In other words, ASEAN is effective only when national interests of its members converge.
ASEAN’s key challenges
Since the end of the Cold War, ASEAN has faced at least three key challenges. First and foremost, there has been an absence of a common purpose. The old political cement, particularly the perceived Vietnamese and Soviet communist threat that glued ASEAN states together during the later stage of the Cold War, no longer exists. The end of the Cold War has thus left ASEAN without a clear focus. With this lack of a clear political/security focus, ASEAN states have found it more difficult to foster consensus because of their naturally diverse national interests. Without an obvious external threat, why would Thailand, or any other ASEAN state, need ASEAN in its pursue of national interests? In this regard, ASEAN, to some extent, faces the problem of relevance.
Second, ASEAN today lacks effective and responsible leadership. This is mainly a product of the dramatic political change that has taken place in Indonesia since 1998. Until 1998, President Suharto provided ASEAN with strong and responsible leadership. Suharto was the firm believer in ASEAN and on several occasions he played an important role in mediating bilateral conflicts among other ASEAN states. Thus, since the end of Suharto’s 33-year authoritarian rule in 1998, there was a vacuum in ASEAN’s leadership as Suharto’s successors were more preoccupied with solving domestic economic problems and political unrest. Because Indonesia is the largest and most influential country in ASEAN, without her leadership, it is difficult for ASEAN to progress or even to stay relevant. In recent years, however, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been relatively successful in consolidating democracy and fostering economic growth in Indonesia, and this should be a positive sign to ASEAN. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Indonesia’s leadership in ASEAN today is less predictable than in the past.
Third, the enlargement of ASEAN, with its new CLMV members (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam), has generated even greater challenges for ASEAN. For one thing, these new members are some way behind the ASEAN original members in terms of economic development. More importantly, however, is the huge difference between the political regimes of the new and the original members. The political systems in CLMV countries are much more narrow and closed, with the political elites holding tightly to their power. In the eyes of these political elites, regime survival is synonymous to state survival, and they will definitely not allow ASEAN to interfere with their business and threaten their power.
Thus, it should not be a surprise when some human rights activists were barred from talks at the recent ASEAN Summit after Myanmar and Cambodia threatened to walk out. The idea of establishing a meaningful human rights body in ASEAN is still a dream that will not be realized any time soon. Furthermore, ASEAN enlargement, particularly the inclusion of Myanmar, has also made it more difficult for ASEAN to work with Western countries. The U.S. has at times been frustrated with ASEAN’s slow pace while European countries have been annoyed by ASEAN’s recognition of Myanmar. In addition, the CLMV countries’ involvement in ASEAN, with countless meetings one after another, has put a lot of strains on the bureaucratic capacity of these countries.
Because of the above three factors, an enlarged ASEAN with more diverse interests but without effective leadership has found it more difficult to derive at any kind of consensus and to move forward beyond nice talks. ASEAN’s struggle to stay relevant can be seen from its attempt to establish the ASEAN Charter, which supposedly would make ASEAN a more rule-based legal entity with some dispute settlement mechanism in place. However, despite the rhetoric, one only need to read the Charter to find out that consensus and non-interference still remain the ultimate principles of ASEAN. Some kind of dispute settlement mechanism will be established but it will be used only when the parties concerned agreed to do so. In essence, the Charter should be seen as an attempt to make ASEAN “look good”, albeit only on the surface, and to stay relevant in international affairs following years of declining relevance and underachievement.
The future of ASEAN: dead or alive?
So, given all the challenges it face, is ASEAN still alive? My short answer would be yes, ASEAN is still alive, but it is apparently less lively than before. Despite the lack of an obvious common goal among ASEAN members, there is at least one important but less visible common interest to be pursued: the need to ensure regional stability and peace at the time when China is rising as a major regional and global player. Despite the relatively peaceful rise of China thus far, there are uncertainties about China’s long-term regional intentions. Indeed, a recent CSIS survey found that in the view of foreign policy elites in East Asia, China represents the greatest security threat in East Asia today.
China’s potential threat to Southeast Asian nations can be seen in two forms. First, China does have territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. For decades, China and several Southeast Asian nations have had disputed claims on sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Islands, where potentially large oil and gas reserves could be found. Despite ASEAN’s attempt to engage China and peacefully preserve the status quo of the territorial claims in the South China Sea, China on occasions have acted unilaterally by sending its armed forces to occupy some islands. The dispute over the South China Sea thus remains probably the most contentious dispute between China and Southeast Asian states. ASEAN states involved have found that ASEAN is an important diplomatic tool that they can use to engage China to settle these disputes peacefully. The second form of China’s threat is the fear of Chinese intervention in domestic affairs of ASEAN states. This is a concern for basically all ASEAN states, regardless of whether they share borders with China. Myanmar does not want to be seen as a client regime of China, just like Singapore does not want its own affairs to be interfered by China.
Given the concern over China’s long-term intentions in the region, ASEAN does have a role to play. Southeast Asian states have tried, bilaterally and regionally through ASEAN, to engage with external powers that could balance the rising Chinese power and guard against any potential hegemonic behavior of China. The most important source of this countervailing force is, of course, the United States. Following the termination of American bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s, ASEAN has tried very hard to keep the American presence in the region. In particular, ASEAN has tried to put itself in the “driver’s seat” in organizing various multilateral dialogue forum that involve outside powers. These forum are the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN+3, and the East Asia Summit.
Although these forum are sometimes referred to as “talk shops” that do not produce anything concrete, ASEAN members hope that multilateral engagement with the big powers – the U.S., China, Japan and India – will be able to ensure regional peace and stability. However, given ASEAN’s challenges described above, Southeast Asian countries will not put its faith totally in ASEAN to do its job. Singapore, for example, has pursued its national interests by allowing American forces to use the military facilities in Singapore, thereby ensuring continued U.S. presence in the region.
To conclude, ASEAN has always been a tool that its members use to pursue their own diverse national interests. ASEAN has been most successful in arriving at a consensus when the national interests of ASEAN members coincide with one another. The grouping has often failed to act collectively when these national interests diverge. Thus, given an enlarged ASEAN, national interests of the ten member states have become more diverse and currently do not appear to converge on the issues of increased economic integration or human rights promotion. As such, ASEAN is unlikely to see substantial progress in economic integration or in inducing a policy change in Myanmar in the near future.
Indeed, ASEAN’s present and future, just like its past, lie in its members’ struggle to maintain regional peace and stability. Securing regional peace through diplomatic efforts geared toward sustaining the involvement of all relevant external powers has been the most important function of ASEAN, and this looks likely to remain true in the many years to come.
*The writer is currently a graduate student studying Southeast Asian affairs.