ASEAN needs to develop stronger leadership and become more democratic. Failure to do this will mean it continue to be fragmented and vulnerable to the danger of ‘breaking up’
Recent crises in the European Union, from Brexit to the recent Italian Constitutional referendum have sparked debate about the future of the EU, not only in the Europe, but also outside Europe. This debate, and the crises that triggered it, will not only affect European states, but also some EU-like regional organisations outside Europe, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In this context, recent developments in south east Asia need to be taken into account. With the meteoric rise of Rodrigo Duterte in Phillippines, the unfinished dispute over territorial claims in South China Sea, the continuing rise of China, and the emergence of popular nationalism in Southeast Asian states, some analysts suggest it might be possible that ASEAN will be driven to follow the crisis in the European Union and risks breaking up.
However, such analyses will be pertinently misleading if we do not consider some institutional and geopolitical backdrops that would lead ASEAN to a similar path with the EU.
Firstly, what is at stake? Let us begin with the historical origins of ASEAN. Established in 1967 as a ‘venue’ to discuss stability in Southeast Asia, ASEAN was transformed into a ‘regional community’ at the ASEAN Summit in 2003, having survived the Asian financial crisis half a decade before.
ASEAN has seemed to follow the EU’s path by establishing three fundamental pillars that underpin the organisation: economic, political security, and social cultural community. However, it is also evident that ASEAN has relied upon a strong state presence in maintaining day-to-day activities, albeit with some space for non-state actors (such as civil society organisations or business actors) to engage in decision-making processes. Even though ASEAN member states have been committed to establish more advanced cooperation in, for example, removing trade barriers or enhancing economic growth in the region, overall ASEAN’s decision-making process is still heavily dominated by state representatives.
This institutional characteristic leads ASEAN to some degree of crisis. The latest ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, held recently in Vientiane, Laos, demonstrated this problem. ASEAN’s failure to reach a consensus to deal with disputes over the South China Sea has been caused by the absence of ‘common ground’ among states to propose a roadmap to overcome the crisis.
This problem illustrates how ASEAN is vulnerable to crises if as a regional institution it cannot maintain unity in dealing with crucial issues. Some analysts have warned that ASEAN will be put in a state of uncertainty if its member states cannot collectively resolve crises.
Two issues need to be addressed. The first, and the most obvious issue is the crisis in the South China Sea, related to territorial claims in the sea. The problem lies not only with the lack of intra-regional solution to overcome the disputes, but also with the presence of external actors, such as China and the United States.
ASEAN is also vulnerable in development issues. While ASEAN is not vulnerable to financial crisis, it currently faces a problem related to the development gap between the ‘ASEAN-6’ (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Philippines) and their Indochinese counterparts (Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). In addition, macroeconomic indicators have showed an uneven trend of GDP growth in these countries, although the Indochinese states showed positive trends during 2015-2016.
These political and economic issues need to be addressed by ASEAN. So far, ASEAN’s approach to both political and development issues seems to be state-centric, leaving the region to be governed by no common platform.
Institutionalists might argue that the failure to build a common regional platform could be caused by the absence of an institutional backdrop in ASEAN, due to the state-centric nature of the regional organisation. However, I argue that this is not the case. Even the European Union, which has stronger institutional power than ASEAN, has to face internal crises, most recently with Brexit and the refugee crisis.
ASEAN’s main problem lies within the absence of a leadership to maintain order and this leads to ASEAN’s ineffective role in East Asia and, more broadly, world politics.
What is at stake here, as shown by the South China Sea disputes, is not that recent diplomatic arrangements have failed to produce a clear statement to overcome the crisis, which is a difficult thing to do, but that they have abandoned ASEAN centrality as an approach to peacefully settle the ongoing dispute and instead recommended dealing with it through a state-to-state business.
It is true that ASEAN does not have a strong institutional binding to deal with such issues, and that ASEAN-based regional order has been limited. But it does not necessarily mean that ASEAN is less important in world politics. Instead, with the rise of China and crises in the Euro-American world, ASEAN needs to be institutionally re-strengthened by its member states.
Due to ASEAN’s state-centric nature, the South China Sea disputes demonstrate that ASEAN needs leadership from a particular member state to maintain stability and cooperation in the region. The lack of leadership might lead ASEAN to follow the EU’s path if it is not solved by the major states such as Indonesia. Brexit, for example, reflects the contentions between members of European Union that could not be solved through the EU’s institutional mechanisms.
Overcoming disputes within international institutions is essential in establishing order. Failure to do so, especially if there is evidence of contention between states, leads to the break-up of regional institutions.
I argue that ASEAN should learn from recent crises in the European Union. Two aspects are essential. First, ASEAN needs to create strong and democratic ‘institutional ties’. It could be done through the improvement of ASEAN’s constitutional basis that binds all of its members through democratic rules and procedures.
Second, creating a strong and democratic institution is not enough for ASEAN to establish order. It should be accompanied by a legitimate support, not only among elite or diplomatic representatives, but also from grass-root communities. Brexit revealed the gap between the EU and the British people. ASEAN should also learn from this by making the regional institution a truly ‘people-centred’ and ‘people-oriented’ institution.
Nevertheless, ASEAN should not be overly worried about crises in the EU. Even with Brexit, as Laura Allison-Reumann and Philomena Murray has pointed out, the EU remains strong and will continue to strategically engage with ASEAN. What ASEAN needs to worry about is the way it manages conflict and dispute. Without a united stance, ASEAN will be fragmented and is vulnerable to the danger of ‘breaking up’.