The Role of ASEAN's Identities in Reshaping the ASEAN--EU Relationship.

AuthorXuechen, Iris Chen
PositionCorporate and social identities of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - Report

From a geostrategic point of view, for decades the relationship between the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was relatively insignificant. However, over the past decade ASEAN's strategic importance in the EU's external relations has grown. The EU has significantly upgraded the scope and quality of its relations with ASEAN, actively seeking opportunities for cooperation in security and defence areas, while also expanding political dialogue and development-aid programmes with the organization.

In 2007, ASEAN and the EU adopted the Nuremberg Declaration on an EU-ASEAN Enhanced Partnership. (1) The Declaration aimed at establishing a long-term vision of and commitment to cooperation, and represented a major milestone in ASEAN-EU relations. More importantly, 2012 is recognized by the EU as a turning point in the inter-regional relationship. As Xavier Nuttin points out, it was in 2012 that the EU "shifted to a different gear and placed ASEAN firmly on its radar screen". (2) In July 2012, the EU acceded to ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and adopted the Plan of Action to strengthen the ASEAN-EU enhanced partnership. (3) In 2015, the EU initiated a Joint Communicatio (4) calling for an ASEAN-EU partnership with strategic purpose and appointed an ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta.

These changes in the dynamics of the ASEAN-EU relationship have received increasing attention from policy circles in both Europe and Southeast Asia. The existing literature argues that Brussels' increasingly proactive policy towards Asia--especially its changing position towards Southeast Asia--should be understood as a result of multiple endogenous and exogenous factors, ranging from the EU's evolving foreign and security policy derived from Europe's internal priorities and systemic changes in economic and political domains, (5) to external geopolitical factors such as US President Barack Obama's so-called "pivot" or "rebalance" to Asia, the deteriorating security environment in the South China Sea and the rise of China. (6) However, the academic literature still lacks a satisfactory explanation of recent developments in ASEANEU relations. The reason is twofold. First, although some recent analyses have sought to explain the evolution of the relationship or the recently increased approximation between ASEAN and the EU, (7) these arguments remained largely fragmented and descriptive, offering insufficient theoretical insights. Second, most theoretically informed empirical research on the ASEAN-EU relationship has been confined to the field of EU studies. That is, most studies of ASEAN-EU inter-regionalism have been embedded in broader debates about the EU's role as an international actor and its normative power in global politics, (8) and the extent to which the EU can serve as a model for regionalism. (9) Hence, such research has assumed that the EU is the primary driving force for the development of this inter-regional relationship, reducing ASEAN's role to that of a recipient or follower of EU norms. In short, these studies have largely neglected ASEAN's role in shaping ASEAN-EU relations.

In order to address the limitations of existing research, this article posits the following questions: Why has there been a greater level of engagement and approximation between the EU and ASEAN? In particular, why has the EU, which had long been reluctant to recognize ASEAN's importance in the Asia-Pacific region, changed its policy towards the latter? Looking beyond the conventional EU-centric arguments, the article draws on constructivism--which focuses on the role of perceptions and identities in shaping international politics--and argues that ASEAN's identities have played a significant role in reshaping the EU's perception of and resultant behaviours towards ASEAN. Specifically, it maintains that ASEAN's corporate and social identities have contributed to the EU's revised attitude towards ASEAN, which has in turn led the EU to modify its policy towards the latter. By doing so, this study emphasizes that recent developments in the EU's policy towards ASEAN derive not only from the EU's internal systemic changes, its projection of ideational power, and geopolitical factors, but also from ASEAN's perceptions and identity formation.

By employing the methods of content analysis and qualitative interviews, this study draws on various forms of primary data, including official announcements and policy papers published by ASEAN and EU institutions, as well as 12 personal interviews with senior officials and scholars from both the EU and ASEAN. The study also adopts secondary material, including think-tank policy reports and scholarly publications on International Relations and ASEAN-EU relations.

The remainder of the article consists of four sections. The first discusses the application of constructivism to the context of ASEAN-EU relations and provides an analytical framework for the study. Drawing on the concepts of corporate and social identity, the second section discusses how ASEAN views itself in world politics and in the context of ASEAN-EU interactions, as well as how the EU perceives ASEAN's identities. The third section analyses how the EU has modified its policy based on its revised understanding of ASEAN and identifies the challenges the inter-regional relationship faces. The last section concludes the paper.

Social Constructivism and the ASEAN-EU Relationship

This section provides an analytical framework for the study, drawing on constructivist concepts of corporate and social identity. Before explaining how constructivism is applied to the ASEAN--EU relationship, this section offers a brief discussion of how constructivism is understood in this study.

International Relations studies have exhibited a lack of consensus on how the term constructivism should be defined. Given its theoretical elasticity and pluralism, constructivism can be subdivided into different categories ranging from modernist and conventional to critical and postmodern. (10) However, constructivist scholars do share "an ontology that depicts the social world as intersubjectively and collectively meaningful structures and processes". (11) As Alexander Wendt argues, "Material resources only acquire meaning for human action through the structure of shared knowledge in which they are embedded." (12) This ontology is the basis of several fundamental constructivist assumptions. First, the social world is constituted by inter-subjective understandings, knowledge and material objects; (13) second, social facts rely on the "attachment of collective knowledge to physical reality". (14) Moreover, constructivist approaches acknowledge the mutual constitution of agents and structure in international politics. Contrary to rationalist theories, constructivism emphasizes that inter-subjective ideas and knowledge have constitutive effects on social reality and attaches primary importance to how ideas, norms and identities impact the material interests and behaviours of international actors. (15)

Whereas early constructivist literature focused mainly on theoretical studies, recent years have witnessed the growth of empirical constructivist research in International Relations, in which two schools of thought can be identified. The first focuses on the role of "norms"; that is, "how people apply norms to classify the world is relevant to the matter in which world politics unfolds". (16) The second, which considers identity the driving factor in shaping national and transnational interests, (17) provides the framework for this study.

In fact, over the past two decades, a large volume of scholarly literature on ASEAN-EU and EU-Asia relations has been influenced by constructivist ontology. Nevertheless, most of the research on EUAsia relations derives from EU studies. These studies, exemplified by the literature on Europe's normative power and the EU's normdiffusion practices in world politics, have drawn heavily on social constructivist perspectives. (18) Consequently, most studies of ASEANEU relations have concentrated on the EU's ideational influence on ASEAN and ASEAN-EU cooperation. (19) Although this literature has prioritized the role of EU norms, ideas and international identity in shaping ASEAN-EU interactions, the extent to which, and the way in which, ASEAN's ideas and identities have impacted this inter-regional relationship have gone largely unexplored.

Departing from the Eurocentric perspective, this article explores how ASEAN's ideational factors have contributed to reshaping the ASEAN-EU relationship. In line with the second camp of constructivist research, this study takes the view that the perceptions and identities constructed by an actor determines that actor's material interests, which subsequently shape its behaviours as well as other actors' perceptions and behaviours towards it. (20) This study therefore draws on the constructivist concepts of corporate identity and social identity in order to illuminate the impact of ASEAN's identities on ASEAN-EU interactions.

According to Wendt, corporate identity is "constituted by the self-organizing, homeostatic structures that make actors distinct entities", which distinguish the "self" from the "other". (21) The construction of corporate identity in international actors such as states involves a sense of "we" or "group self" based on the formation of a narrative of "ourselves". Having an "auto-genetic" quality, "corporate identities are constitutionally exogenous to Otherness". (22) Wendt further argues that corporate identity generates four types of interests--physical security, predictable relations with other actors, recognition and development--and that these interests are common to all geopolitical actors. (23) Accordingly, constructivism also focuses on how social identities are constructed and impact international interactions.

Distinct from corporate...

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