On February 15th to 16th, U.S President Barack Obama hosted the first U.S-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit in Sunnylands, California. The summit marks a remarkable ascent for ASEAN considering how it has been and continues to be derided as ‘weak’ and dismissed as a ‘talk shop’. The year of 2016 also marks a major milestone for ASEAN as 1st January was the date that the ASEAN Economic Community was realized and came into effect. Most significantly, however, is that ASEAN has, thus far, achieved one of its primarily goals which is to ‘to promote regional peace and stability’ – its raison d'etre.In its short 49 years of existence, ASEAN has managed to preserve peace within Southeast Asia in a geopolitical domain that has a less than peaceful history and, in recent times, proceeded to take on a more prominent role in East Asia.
Strength from weakness
Ironically though (and this should be of interest for institutionalization scholars) its achievement is down mainly to its very loose and weak institutionalization. This looseness create a setting where major powers are comfortable with engaging ASEAN and all the overlapping ASEAN fora as long as these instruments prove useful and as long as it, as one senior diplomat from Singapore observed, “does not frustrate their most vital interests”. This relative weakness ensures that major powers, here referring mainly to the United States and China, remain engaged to the point where they perceive that they can exert considerable influence but also not be influenced unduly by these institutions. This is not to understate the inherent attractiveness of ASEAN, as some have done, for surely there is some quality within ASEAN – economically, geopolitically and culturally, to be an end in itself. But equally important, one must be clear-eyed on the strategic intent of major powers cultivating ASEAN. Here, the ASEAN-led institutions of the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) amongst many others have had some success. The ARF, for instance, is an annual event that draws in 27 countries in the Asia Pacific and has become an important venue for security dialogue. The East Asia Summit involves all ten ASEAN countries together with South Korea, China, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Russia, the United States and India.
The ability of ASEAN to embed itself within the wider Asia-Pacific context and bring others into the ASEAN fold is an important accomplishment and is critical to its continued relevance. The overlapping ambit of the many summits and fora is not, from ASEAN’s point of view, mere bureaucratic inefficiency but a rather clever way to have multiple points of engagement with major powers and to maintain visibility and relevance. Additionally, the intersecting and loose structure of ASEAN and ASEAN-led institutions provides many opportunities for sensitive topics that could not be undertaken bilaterally to be aired. The Japanese Foreign Minister, for instance, held a rare high level side-line meeting with his North Korean counterpart at the ARF in 2014 as this is one of the only international multilateral forums the North Korean Minister attends. That is why critics saying that the overlapping institutions of the EAS or the ARFcontribute nothing to security in the region does not have a good intellectual grasp of ASEAN and are missing the point entirely. It is precisely because of the dialogic, consensual and ‘relaxed’ nature of ASEAN and its steered institutions that does not require a great deal of political and diplomatic investment that makes it a convenient and useful fora for security and economic issues.
More work to be done
The woes of the EU today should be a clear sign that deeper, stronger integration does not necessarily make an inter-governmental organization more robust. Indeed, as argued here and in many other places, it is the looseness of ASEAN that gives it strength. This nebulousness affords leaders in mainly illiberal democratic Southeast Asia the flexibility and political space to, firstly and primarily, concentrate on nation-building and in securing domestic legitimacy and, secondly, to integrate into ASEAN without compromising its autonomy and sovereignty.
The challenges facing ASEAN, whilst not in danger of having any country leaving (whether voluntary or otherwise) are formidable. Here, I will highlight two. The first is the danger of a major power cultivating individual countries within ASEAN thus threatening whatever unity and cohesiveness it has built.One recalls the July 2012 fiasco, where ASEAN failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in its history as Cambodia, widely believed to be working under the auspices of China, blocked all references to the disputes in the South China Sea. This could have been the crack in the carapace but as Cambodia, ASEAN (and even China) came to realize – this was unacceptable and subsequent reports noted that Cambodia was taken aback by the public and private criticism it faced. Fortunately, it has rehabilitated its image and recompensed. In the 48th Foreign Ministerial meeting of ASEAN held on 4th August in 2015, the joint communique noted that land reclamation activities had “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability” – a striking statement and a clear signal to China considering the problems ASEAN faced in 2012.
The second major challenge that prevents further integration is the latent mistrust and suspicion still present between countries in Southeast Asia. As I have argued elsewhere, ASEAN’s lacklustre response in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) in both Typhoon Haiyan and in the search for the missing flight MH 370 were instances not of HADR capability deficits but of ASEAN norms and of latent mistrust and suspicion present amongst countries. Admittedly, there are no easy solutions to this. What is clear though, with countries so geopolitically diverse in Southeast Asia, it is imperative that countries are allowed to integrate at a pace comfortable to them whilst not impeding the further integration and institutionalization of ASEAN.
Although it can and should do more than being a ‘talk shop’, ASEAN should continue talking, building consensus and retain its looseness. For it is this constant stream of official and unofficial conversations and the back-channel private diplomacy that builds norms and brings major powers into the ASEAN fold by providing an important yet unthreatening environment. And this has made a modest contribution to peace and stability in the wider Asia-Pacific region.