The End of ASEAN centrality?

August 9, 2012

The End of ASEAN centrality?

By Amitav Acharya

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) suffered a major loss of face, at least in the perceptions of some international media and academic experts, owing to its failure to issue its customary joint communique at its last ministerial meeting (ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, or the AMM) in Cambodia held during July 9-13.

The reason, as has been widely reported, was the refusal of Cambodia as the ASEAN chair to incorporate the positions ofPhilippines and Vietnam regarding their dispute with China over the South China Sea. As a result, the idea of ASEAN centrality, which assumes that ASEAN, rather than the great powers like China, Japan, the US or India, should be the building bloc and hub of developing a wider Asian or Asia-Pacific regional architecture, is facing a severe test. But there may be some silver linings and useful lessons which, if acted upon, can put ASEAN in a better position to move forward.

Much has been made of the infighting and putdowns inside the AMM deliberations, based on leaked accounts, that led to the impasse in Phnom Penh. Many observers have noted that this was the first time ASEAN had failed to issue a joint communique in its 45 years history.

But ASEAN’s rise to regional and international prominence has never been smooth. The ASEAN process ground to a virtual halt in 1968-1969 over the Philippines’ claim to Sabah. Moreover, the expansion of its membership and functions has its costs and consequences.

ASEAN now not only includes all 10 countries of Southeast Asia, it has taken on the additional role of being in the “driver’s seat” of larger regional bodies like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), bodies that include all the great powers of the world today.

In particular, the crisis brings to the fore one of the concerns that some of us had highlighted about ASEAN’s expansion to include the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) in the 1990s.These included the possibility that the entry of Vietnam would make the South China Sea issue even more of a “frontline” issue for ASEAN, as Hanoi was surely to seek ASEAN’s diplomatic backing over the dispute with Beijing, and that the new members may not always obey the traditional norms of ASEAN like the consensus principle.

The crisis also puts a spotlight on the role of Cambodia in ASEAN, which has been a major part of the ASEAN story. It is ironic that the ASEAN’s recent discomfiture occurred in Cambodia, and was the result of Cambodia’s own action in blocking the joint declaration.

Without ASEAN’s role in seeking a negotiated solution to the decade long Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia that ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, there might not be a sovereign Cambodia to day. Cambodia may still be languishing under foreign occupation (under Vietnam’s occupation) or as an international pariah (under Khmer Rouge rule).

Moreover, this is not the first time that Cambodia’s engagement with ASEAN has been problematic. In July 1997, Hun Sen’s “coup” against co-Premier Norodom Ranarridh led ASEAN to postpone Cambodia’s imminent accession to ASEAN.

Hun Sen also alarmed fellow ASEAN members, especially his Thai neighbor, by hosting fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and even appointing him as a personal advisor in November 2009. This went against the established ASEAN principle that granting support to a fugitive from a member state would constitute an act of interference in the internal affairs of that member state.

Will Cambodia go all the way in deferring to China, as American political scientist Donald Emmerson has speculated in an Stanford University article in which he referred to Cambodia’s “spoiler’s role as a proxy for Beijing?” Many hope that Cambodia will put its ASEAN interests first. If Cambodia does pander to China this way, it would incur serious costs. Such an action would severely isolate it from its neighbors.

As Norodom Sihanouk, when he was still the king of Cambodia, once told this author, Cambodia does not want to be a supplicant to a great power and that his country would always need to be watchful about China’s intentions because of China’s size and proximity to Cambodia. I have every reason to believe that Cambodia will always seek to retain its autonomy and not be a sidekick to another power.

But it should show more deference to the ASEAN spirit. In justifying its decision to block the communique, Cambodia has since clarified (in a July 26 note) that “The AMM is not a court that could rule against or in favor of anybody, in relation to bilateral disputes.” But the Joint Communique of the 44th AMM hosted by Indonesia did specifically refer to the Thai-Cambodia border dispute (Part IV, Para 103).

Also, China is not an ASEAN member. It has never been an official ASEAN policy to specifically exclude discussion or mention of bilateral disputes involving non-ASEAN members or between an ASEAN member and an outside party. And whether the South China Sea dispute is really a purely bilateral dispute can be questioned, and Cambodia’s stance is inconsistent with ASEAN’s own policy of talking to China multilaterally over this issue.

Cambodia can ill afford to weaken ASEAN. Membership in ASEAN has been about the best thing that happened to Cambodia’s national interest and foreign policy (or for that matter to the foreign policy of other CLMV countries). Only through ASEAN that Cambodia can realistically hope to have any real voice and role in international and regional affairs than what it can manage on its own. Cambodia should learn its own lesson from the crisis and not hold the whole organization to its own interpretation of ASEAN’s interests.

What is more significant that other ASEAN members, including original members Singapore and Malaysia, had supported the ministerial statement that Cambodia managed to scuttle. Indeed, a few years ago, some analysts had believed that Malaysia might defect and support China’s claims in the South China Sea in support for concessions from China, including recognition of its own claims in the disputed area. Yet, this time, Malaysia showed little sign of any special understanding with China on the dispute.

Even if ASEAN Foreign Ministers do not manage to issue the formal communique that was withheld in Phnom Penh, the six-point statement issued by the Cambodian Foreign Minister will help ASEAN to regain some of its lost image. But it is too much to call this as the end of ASEAN.

There is little question that Hun Sen’s refusal to accommodate Philippines and Vietnam resulted at least partly from Chinese pressure. According to a highly placed source, the Chinese specifically reminded the Cambodians that Sihanouk, as the leader of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK), had accepted the Chinese claims on the South China Sea. The CGDK was the resistance coalition of Cambodian factions had fought the Vietnamese occupiers (and the Hanoi-installed Heng Samarin regime of which Hun Sen was a young member) of Cambodia in exile with Chinese, ASEAN and Western assistance. Even if this is true, one should keep in mind that Sihanouk’s stance was made under duress, when he needed Chinese help to fight the Vietnamese occupation.

In the meantime, the mood on ASEAN has soured in Beijing. Chinese officials, after developing a close and positive relationship with ASEAN for decades, increasingly view it (and regional multilateral cooperation more generally) as a threat, rather than a prop, to its great power ambitions. Yet Beijing needs to remind itself, if one was needed, that its soft power and influence in the region depends on working with and supporting ASEAN, not undermining it.

Rising power does not equate to rising influence or respect in the absence of a policy of restraint towards smaller neighbors, something Indonesia has preached and practiced towards its ASEAN neighbors since the fall of Sukarno. Hence, it is appropriate that it was the Indonesian Foreign Minister, who undertook the damage control mission on behalf of ASEAN after the Cambodia setback

The crisis may have some silver linings. It will be a useful wake-up call for ASEAN.  One of the most critical challenges facing ASEAN is the need to strengthen the ASEAN secretariat.

Apparently, three officials from the secretariat, including two Cambodians, were sent to Phnom Penh to spend weeks there before the ministerial meeting. But they provided no forewarning of the coming crisis. This suggests either that the secretariat staff lacked the necessary analytic skills, or that valuable information was deliberately withheld for the sake of parochial national interests.

It shows that ASEAN as an institution is yet to develop a mindset that rises above national positions and serves the common interest of the organization when the situation demands. It is noteworthy that none other than the current ASEAN Secretary-General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, had provided a detailed account (entitled “ASEAN’s Challenges”) of his secretariat’s shortcomings with recommendations for improving its efficiency. These steps need to be urgently implemented.

Cambodia’s handling of its ASEAN chairmanship in 2012 should be a warning to Myanmar, which assumes the chairmanship in 2014. While not all new members have handled leadership positions badly, and Cambodia itself organized a very successful AMM and ARF meeting in 2003, Myanmar should strive its best to restore and advance ASEAN’s image.

ASEAN also should be careful in being perceived as pursuing an overtly pro-US agenda at the expense of China. America’s role at the most recent ASEAN meetings (especially the ARF) has received less media attention in the region that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s intervention at the 2010 Hanoi ARF meeting where she drew the ire of his Chinese counterpart by drawing attention to the South China Sea conflict.

Many Chinese officials believe that America’s “interference” has internationalized the South China Sea conflict and harmed China’s national interests. This perception is of course in correct, but ASEAN, including Indonesian Foreign Minister Nataleawa, should convey to Beijing that ASEAN is acting on its own interests, not America’s no matter how much the two coincide.

Next, ASEAN’s original members have a special responsibility to rise up to the occasion and guide ASEAN at this critical juncture. Indonesia has done that, but Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines and Brunei (which joined ASEAN in 1984) also need to enhance their role to prevent future setbacks such as that happened in Phnom Penh.

Some of the recent commentaries on the Cambodia AMM have missed the fact that the Phnom Penh, ASEAN adopted the terms of reference for the ASEAN Institute of Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR). Even more important, just after the Cambodia AMM, Thailand and Cambodia pulled out their troops (to be replaced by their border police pending an International Court of Justice verdict on the dispute next year) from the disputed Preah Vihear temple area, thereby diffusing a major point of intra-ASEAN conflict for the past years.

Finally, the degree of cohesion expected of ASEAN, including by experts who had suddenly taken an interest in the organization because of its growing prominence during the past few years, is unrealistic. It is useful to keep in mind what regional organizations can and cannot do. ASEAN is an intergovernmental organization of sovereign states.

Witness the current disarray within MERCOSUR, another prominent subregional group in the world which is often compared with ASEAN, over the suspension of Paraguay (over the legal impeachment of its President) and its induction of Venezuela as a member. And after three years, the European Union the “role model” of regional organizations is still struggling to contain an deteriorating economic crisis with a show of unity and efficiency.

To conclude, the idea of ASEAN centrality is under challenge, but it is too early to pronounce it as dead. Critics are right to question whether ASEAN has the ability to shoulder such a responsibility and ASEAN should draw lessons from the Phnom Penh AMM. But one should not jump to conclusions about ASEAN’s future on the basis of the embarrassment it suffered in Phnom Penh.

Amitav Acharya is Professor of International Relations at American University and Chair of its ASEAN Studies Center. These comments are strictly in his personal capacity. A longer version of this article will appear in his blog

(Copyright 2012 Amitav Acharya.)

16 thoughts on “The End of ASEAN centrality?

  1. Cambodia has a history of allying herself with China to counteract Vietnam which has a history of not being friendly with China. Your enemy’s friend is my enemy mentality.
    Cambodia also has good relations with Vietnam. –Din Merican

  2. ASEAN should not hire a “gunslinger” and have to pay the gunslinger afterwards. ASEAN should not legitimize the interposition of the “gunslinger” in the heat of anger or ectasy for solace.

    Who knows if Phillippines and United States may already have designs but simply using the dispute as an legitimate excuse. ASEAN members certainly do not want to find the US Seventh Fleet at their harbour all the time.

  3. I think you are forgetting the key US allies in East Asia viz ROC, S.Korea and Japan. The Philippines just happens to the westernmost portion of a major strategic route, through which much of world trade is conducted. The reason why the S.China Sea dispute threatens – is not only because of hydrocarbon lust or pieces of coral – but has much wider geopolitical implications. The issue is actually way beyond ASEAN-PRC to resolve. Of course, the world’s sheriff wants a say.

    You guys are overly parochial and myopic if you think ASEAN can keep the Western Allies out of this SNAFU. Right now, the USN has probably more assets hanging around Okinawa and Guam than the rest of the world.

  4. Several years ago,some fat and stupid Japanese (as claimed by professor Tommy Koh of Singapore) started talking about Asian Monetary Unit and predicted confidently about its inevitable success as Euro,they talk no more.
    ASEAN started off by taking EU as its model,and was and is very confident about its success.
    So ASEAN leaders can sit and watch what happens to EU in the coming months Unless they believe that South East Asia is more homogeneous than EU and as some leaders have claimed its success is inevitable.

  5. “loss of face”? “ASEAN centrality”? What the hell is the writer on about?

    The recent pow-wow on the sea dispute was just one in a series that is going to last a very long time. Making such a meeting seem a big issue does not help anybody…

    The dispute is a purely Asian affair (I know… say Isa and his wishful thinking) and before anything else ASEAN would do well to ensure it stays that way. Otherwise within a decade or so every country will be off-loaded with (very expensive) arms and one problem will turn into two.

  6. ASEAN can’t even agree where their borders are. They can’t even put their own houses in order and they want to tell others how to put theirs in order?? Gimme a break!

  7. EU appears to be a model for everyone to copy but at the same time everyone is wishing secretly that EU will fail miserably! funny people
    don’t worry la, if we(EU) go broke we will definitely take all of you with us FOC!
    the idea of EU started before 1945 and ASEAN is just 45 years old therefore we have to give ASEAN more time to consolidate itself.

    ASEAN refuses to look for commonalities but only differences between the member countries. maybe the next try should be a ASEAN Parliament just like the EU Parliament giving the people of ASEAN a chance to participate to become closer. at the moment it is only for the politicians and diplomats.

  8. It is unfair to blame the host Cambodia. In April 2012 Summit in Phnom Penh, President Aquino and his colleagues agreed on a common position on the South China Sea. But after the his visit to Washington, his Foreign Minister took a different tag at the recent AMM (ASEAN Ministerial Meeting).Rather odd isn’t it? But then the Philippines has always been a joker in the ASEAN pack. I remember the problems we Malaysia had over their frivolous claim to Sabah, which nearly broke ASEAN. Vietnam too played a different game by embracing the US, its former enemy. Leon Panetta’s trip to Vietnam further cemented relations between the two former combatants.

    Cambodia has learned well its lesson on dealing with the French, the US and China. One has to read Sihanouk’s”My War with the CIA” to understand what happened during the years leading to the Lon Nol coup in 1970, and also the Nixon-Kissinger secret bombings of Cambodia and the havoc that created in Sihanouk’s “Oasis of Peace”. Under Lon Nol, Cambodia abandoned its neutrality. The rest is history and tragedy. It is one of the reasons why Cambodia (and former King Norodom Sihanouk was initially reluctant and had to be convinced) agreed to join ASEAN.

    Watch this:

    Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak’s final message to the Nixon Administration in his letter to then Ambassador John Gunter Dean (1975) is not lost on the Cambodians. Here is what Sirik Matak wrote:

    “I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.

    As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave us and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.

    But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.

    Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.

    S/Sirik Matak”

    Source :

  9. The US 7th Fleet has been the Sheriff in the Pacific since they landed on Okinawan shores 68 years ago…No surprise if they intend to dominate the SCS with its vast natural resources of ‘black gold’…Will China dared venture into uncharted waters to confront Uncle Sam ‘nuclear powered’ might??..Cambodia’s intense border issues with neighbour Thailand and Philippines persistent encroach into disputed seas doesn’t augurs well for ASEAN solidarity. Despite all these ‘teething’ problems, ASEAN no doubt has vital role ensuring the peace and stability of the region and avoiding into ‘war zones’ of the mighty with vested interest.

  10. “…avoiding… war zones of the mighty with vested interests…” BARRY.

    Yes, absolutely correct. And why ASEAN should insist that the sea issue is an Asian affair and refuse to be drawn into anything else.

  11. Does your ‘Asian’ also include Australia/NZ, Russia, Japan, ROC and S.Korea? Or only India, ASEAN and PRC? How do you define ‘Asia’ – geographically, politically, economically or as a zone terrain? No nation can stand alone unless all connectivity – trade or otherwise, is abolished.

    Get real, the world is as is! Asian ‘values’ are as false as the face-water, that they are based on. Tempurungitis or Hermit Crabitis, is as bad as meningitis and as fatal.

  12. Who mentioned Asian “values”?

    And connectivity in trade is different from a borderless world and its tragic counterpart – globalisation.

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