ASEAN at a crossroads: a new lease of life at 40?

10 March 2008

Barry Desker, Dean of S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, speaking at a Policy Dialogue organised as part of the EPC-Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) ‘Asian Voices in Europe’ series, outlined ASEAN’s key achievements over the last 40 years.

He said that the organisation (the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations) had:

  • kept the region peaceful through its “lowest common denominator approach” of creating cooperation and encouraging informal ties between members;
  • kept the strategic sea-lanes of communication (Straits of Malacca and Singapore) open to international trade and shipping;
  • set up a fledgling Single Market to encourage free flows of trade and investment and free movement of skilled labour and capital by 2020;
  • created a successful multi-cultural entity, encompassing states with Muslim, Buddhist and Christian majorities, and fostered a more moderate branch of Islam than in the Middle East;
  • developed an Asian-Pacific security architecture and facilitated dialogue through various fora in the region.

The ASEAN Charter

Mr Desker said that while the new ASEAN Charter was a positive development, it was also a disappointment as it merely codified existing norms. It had stuck to ASEAN’s guiding principles of non-interference and non-intervention, allowing each member country to forge its own (post-colonial) identity, but had made little other progress.

While the Charter has given the organisation a legal framework, with a clear set of principles and goals, ASEAN’s integrity has been compromised by Myanmar’s participation, since while the Charter stresses the rule of law, good governance, democracy and constitutional government, these are all aspects which Myanmar continually flouts.

The Charter has also failed to take on board the new international norms which argue that countries have a right to intervene in other states’ domestic affairs if they contravene agreed values of what is right and wrong.

In terms of its modus operandi, the Charter continues the ASEAN principle of working by consensus, rather than by binding agreements, even though this has been relatively ineffective in the past. It also introduces a new procedure whereby a single member can now veto moves towards greater economic liberalisation or integration. This, said Mr Desker, was a retrograde step from the previous ASEAN practice whereby some members could decide to move towards greater integration without unanimous agreement.

Another organisational shortcoming concerns ASEAN’s democratic machinery - as it acknowledges the usefulness of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), but fails to give any democratic power.

However, on the positive side, the ASEAN Summit is now the supreme policy-making body and will meet twice-yearly, and there will also be a Coordinating Council of Foreign Ministers, which will meet twice-yearly. The Secretariat has been strengthened, although there will be no additional finance to support its extended role.

The Charter has to be ratified by all ten members to become operational, but Mr Desker doubted whether either Indonesia or the Philippines would agree - Indonesia because of criticisms of the ASEAN bureaucracy, and the Philippines because of concerns about the continued detention of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar.

An Asian model of development?

Renewed self-confidence in East Asia, coupled with the rise of China, has opened a debate on replacing the ‘Washington Consensus’ (stressing the importance of free trade and individual human rights) with a ‘Beijing consensus’ (which places more importance on the state than the individual). Asian leaders and thinkers with the own philosophical traditions will increasingly shape the discourse.

In adopting this Charter, ASEAN leaders have continued the ‘ASEAN method of decision-making’ designed to ensure its members’ security, and have shunned initiatives which might undermine this.

David Fouquet, Director of the Asia-Europe Project, agreed that ASEAN had achieved much, although not as much as had been hoped, as in many multilateral negotiations it had been forced to make compromises.

ASEAN has used a ‘soft power’ approach towards security issues, “soft-peddling” and backing off from a hard negotiating stance over the geopolitical hotspots in the region, as a result of which these remain unresolved.

One of the main potential areas of friction in the region concern territorial maritime issues, said Mr Fouquet. As ASEAN has sought to solve the Vietnamese and Taiwanese disputes with China over ownership of parts of the South China Sea in a “gentlemanly way”, disputes continue to flare up. He pointed out that several European states are actually supplying arms to the countries in the disputes, and suggested they might do better to provide good offices for negotiating a peaceful resolution.

There is also pressure to develop the oil and natural gas fields and the fishing grounds in the maritime regions, which is likely to increase the potential for friction and boost the need to a quick solution.

Given the importance of ensuring the free flows of maritime traffic through the region, the issues might best be solved through an open constructive dialogue, bringing in outside partners such as Japan, the US or Australia.

Seamus Gillespie, Head of Unit for South-east Asia, European Commission, pointed out that in Asia being 40 was seen as the beginning of the age of wisdom, so this was a good moment for ASEAN.

With a population of 600 million, it has the potential to make economies of scale and to strengthen its arm on the diplomatic front, acting as an “honest broker” and a force for regional stability.

As an organisation, ASEAN is a “process” influenced by ten countries at different stages of development, and the process is based on a post-colonial desire not to interfere in another country’s sovereignty.

ASEAN leaders want their populations to have a decent quality of life and employment, and this is likely to hasten the establishment of an ASEAN Single Market and encourage more political integration.

As to Burma/Myanmar and the ASEAN Charter, Mr Gillespie foresaw two possibilities - either ASEAN views Burma as an embarrassment or it uses the Charter to leverage the authorities to move in the right direction. The EU also hopes to exert pressure on the country to meet the benchmarks agreed at the EU-ASEAN Summit.

The EU currently gives considerable support to South-east Asia, including funds directly to ASEAN over the current seven-year period to help close the development gap between its members. While ASEAN’s record on poverty eradication and providing new economic perspectives for its peoples is impressive, income inequality and corruption are increasing, so the EU is working with ASEAN to dispel these problems.

As to a ‘Washington’ or ‘Beijing’ consensus, Mr Gillespie believed that ASEAN was more open to discussions on human rights and quality of life than China. He doubted whether a Beijing consensus would provide a template for the region, as ASEAN might be better at addressing the issues in its own terms.