Assessing ASEAN'S Relevance: Have the Right Questions Been Asked?

AuthorCheok, Cheong Kee
PositionAssociation of Southeast Asian Nations

When ASEAN celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, it was asked if an organization founded on principles appropriate for the 1960s remains relevant today. Its critics point to the organization's recent failures to indicate that continued reliance on the "ASEAN Way" puts it on the road to irrelevance. Its defenders argue that the peace and stability that ensued since the Association's formation are testimony that the ASEAN formula works. Both conclusions are based on what commentators on either side of the debate believe ASEAN's role should be. This paper argues that an assessment should, instead, be based on what its members want it to do, expressed through policy announcements and documents like the ASEAN Charter. It should also consider the totality of its mandate from diplomacy to economics. Viewed in this way, the grouping has accomplishments to be proud of, but also some failures to regret. The "ASEAN Way ", upheld steadfastly by its member countries' leadership, has been instrumental to both its successes and failures. Overall, while ASEAN may not live up to the expectations of its critics, its achievements in some areas do suggest its continued relevance even under vastly changed circumstances, both domestic and external.

Keywords: ASEAN, regional integration, FDI, China.

  1. Introduction: ASEAN at Fifty

    In 2017, ASEAN celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The organization was founded at the height of the Cold War in 1967 by five countries--Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, all part of the "free world". In the half century of its existence, ASEAN has not only survived but expanded its membership to ten countries covering the whole of Southeast Asia. With the Cold War over, it has adapted, taking in countries ruled by political regimes different from those of the founding members. It has broadened its terms of reference and engaged the global powers, namely the United States and China, with the latter according it particular importance.

    Despite these achievements, ASEAN is little known, let alone understood, not only by the citizenry of its member countries but also even less by the outside world. Indeed, in the media and beyond, ASEAN receives publicity for challenges it fails to surmount as commentators define the grouping not by its successes but by its failures. From divergent views over the admission of Cambodia in 1995, through ASEAN's ineffectiveness in dealing with the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-98, to the current South China Sea dispute between China and ASEAN member countries Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, the very relevance of the organization has been questioned. The comment "leading ASEAN experts have begun to question the relevance of the regional organization, bemoaning its lack of resolve before China's repeated acts of provocation against ASEAN members, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam" (Heydarian 2015) exemplifies the narrative of the naysayers. Even more brunt is an editorial of the Manila Standard (2016) with the title "The Irrelevance of ASEAN" that lamented the inability of the Association to respond to China's South China Sea claims. (1)

    ASEAN does have its defenders. Mahbubani and Severino (2014) declared that ASEAN has dramatically raised living standards of the more than 600 million people residing within its ten member countries and brought a host of indirect benefits to billions of others in neighbouring states.

    ASEAN's three greatest contributions are peace, prosperity, and geopolitical stability for Southeast Asia. Each of these accomplishments is remarkable; considered in aggregate, they are astonishing. (2)

    Former ASEAN Secretary-General Severino (2014), in admitting that full economic integration is unlikely to be achieved by ASEAN any time soon, believed "the ASEAN spirit is still going strong".

    These opposing views are premised on contrasting underlying assumptions. The pessimists implicitly assume that ASEAN is a one-dimension organization and that failure in that dimension signals ASEAN's failure. The optimists, on the other hand, assume that any positive outcomes for its member countries are to the credit of ASEAN in ensuring the region's peace and security. Clearly, both are extreme assumptions.

    Situating this debate in theoretical terms, these views belong to the constructivist school which believes that an institution's destiny is in its own hands. This alternative view, rooted in the "realist" school of international relations (Beeson 2016; He 2006; Yuzawa 2006), argues that ASEAN's efficacy is outside its own control and, instead, the product of big power relations. This view sees ASEAN's early success in terms of the power vacuum left by the departure of the United States from the region and the yet to materialize rise of China. In this perspective, although realists concur with the "irrelevance" view, they see no merit in the above debate. This third perspective will be briefly discussed in the conclusion.

    Some scholars are of the view that none of these theories can fully explain the ASEAN experience (see Driver 2018; Emmers 2003). Others go further to argue that the Association adheres to neither school, the theories of which are "characterized by significant conceptual and empirical flaws", (Khoo 2004) a point also made by Kang (2003) and Katzenstein (1997).

    Rather than adding to the theoretical debate, this paper can more usefully answer the question posed in its title through a fact-based empirical review. In assessing the effectiveness of ASEAN as an organization, answers to the following questions provide a much better basis for judging its efficacy:

  2. What are the objectives of ASEAN as conceived by its founders and member countries?

  3. What strategies and approaches did ASEAN adopt mat had a bearing on its effectiveness?

  4. How has ASEAN's evolution affected its objectives and their achievement?

  5. What changes in circumstances, both internal and external to ASEAN, have occurred that can affect ASEAN's effectiveness?

  6. How has ASEAN responded to these changes?

    The next section looks back at the founding of ASEAN as well as the circumstances that precipitated its founding and shaped the objectives its founding members had. The third section deals with ASEAN's expansion and increasing organizational complexity, and ensuing consequences for its mandate. The following section discusses the changes, especially in the external environment, spanning from ASEAN's founding to the present day. In the final section, the Association's responses to these changes are assessed in the light of the changes in context. How it responded tells as much about ASEAN's adaptability as its efficacy.

  7. Establishment of ASEAN, Its Objectives and Guiding Principles

    The period just prior to the establishment of ASEAN and its predecessors was fraught with tension and uncertainty. First, the end of the Second World War saw the decolonization of Southeast Asia and the emergence of new nations. The road to independence entailed both armed conflict and peaceful negotiations. The former path was trodden by Indonesia and Vietnam. Indonesia came into being after an armed conflict by Indonesian nationalists that lasted four years, beginning with the declaration of the Republic of Indonesia in 1945 and ending with the Netherlands formally ending its colonial rule and recognizing the Republic in 1949 (Friend 2003). Similarly, Vietnam finally defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 and ended the latter's colonial rule, eight years after nationalist Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent in 1945 (Ness and Cope 2016). Other Southeast Asian countries won independence more peacefully. Myanmar, formerly Burma, won independence from Britain in 1947, leveraging its role in fighting the Japanese during the Second World War. About the same time, the United States and the Philippines signed the Treaty of General Relations on 4 July 1946, which recognized the latter as a fully independent nation, although this recognition came with unequal terms disadvantaging the Philippines. (3 ) In Indochina, faced with increasing difficulties in Vietnam, France agreed to independence for Laos in 1949 and Cambodia in 1953. Like the Philippines, Malaya gained independence from Britain without bloodshed, becoming the Federation of Malaya in 1957. Singapore's route to independence began with self-rule granted by Britain in 1959, then becoming part of Malaysia in 1963, and finally an independent republic after its separation from Malaysia in 1965. Among all Southeast Asian countries, Thailand alone remained independent through deft diplomacy.

    The youth of almost all Southeast Asian countries meant that the leadership of each had to manage its powerbase of elites, constituents and vested interests as their first priority. These interests were associated with the rise of nationalism and the struggle for independence. Differences in the way independence was achieved meant considerable variation in national leaders' and power elites' perspectives regarding their former colonial masters and the world at large.

    A second development was no less material in shaping these perspectives. The beginning of the Cold War shortly after the end of the Second World War divided Southeast Asian countries into two camps -the Communist and the "free world". Vietnam and Laos (4) became members of the former camp while the countries that were eventually to form ASEAN remained "free". Even so, their perceptions of the West varied considerably. Indonesia, with its history of armed struggle fanning nationalist fervour, was most anti-West. Thailand and the Philippines were U.S. allies, providing military bases for American troops during the Vietnam War. Malaysia, itself fighting a communist insurgency since 1948, was supported by British and Australian military forces, but played no part in the Vietnam War.

    A third factor of importance is the emergence of strong leaders who led...

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