New Approaches to ASEAN Regionalism

September 4, 2017

New Approaches to  ASEAN Regionalism

by  Tan Hsien-Li, NUS


Duterte meets with Cambodian PM Hun Sen


Throughout its 50-year history of regional cooperation, legalisation and institutionalisation have not featured all that prominently in ASEAN’s diplomatic repertoire. Especially in its formative years, ASEAN relied on political flexibility and institutional informality, eschewing binding legal relations. Even as laws and institutions were developed in ASEAN, adherence to them remained underwhelming.


While ASEAN regionalism has often been lauded for achieving relative regional security, it has simultaneously been derided as weak and ineffective due to the lack of adequate implementation of its collective vision. But there are clear signs that the organisation has been adapting itself to have stronger laws and institutions since the ASEAN Charter was adopted in 2007.

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Cambodia played to the very successful WEF-ASEAN Open Forum, May 10- 12, 2017. Since joining ASEAN in 1999, the Kingdom under the leadership of Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen has been a very active contributor to ASEAN regionalism.

Alongside political flexibility, ASEAN’s ongoing legalisation and institutionalisation process is a conscious diplomatic strategy that is intended to, and will, have permanence. It is not a collective whim or reaction but a set of long-term cooperation and integration measures that member states have adopted to deal with significant geopolitical exigencies.

ASEAN’s initial foray into legalisation and institutionalisation was tentative as diplomacy and flexibility were prioritised. The five founding members expressly chose to establish the organisation through the ASEAN Declaration (1967), a non-binding instrument. It was only after about a decade of cooperation that ASEAN adopted its first legally binding treaty, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1976), at the first ASEAN Summit. At that Summit, the member states established the ASEAN Secretariat and expanded the scope of regional cooperation beyond security to include economic development. They also developed ASEAN’s institutional capacities to attain these goals.

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Through the years, as ASEAN grew with the membership of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, and the fields of cooperation intensified, regional decision-making modalities remained staunchly politically flexible and non-legalistic. There was a marked preference for consultation and consensus rather than actual compliance with the organisation’s ever-growing body of laws and institutions, especially regarding economic integration. Only an estimated one-third of ASEAN instruments of cooperation were actually complied with in the organisation’s first 40 years.

By the mid-2000s it was recognised that continuing this situation would be a grave strategic error for ASEAN’s reputation and competitiveness. An appointed group of eminent persons tasked with assessing the organisation’s new directions through the ASEAN Charter made three recommendations.

They first advised that for ASEAN to fully realise its primary goal of economic, socio-cultural and political–security cooperation, the informal association needed to become a reliable and ‘structured intergovernmental organisation’ with legal obligations. ASEAN needed to be an entity comparable to other international organisations in an intensely legalised global order. This included taking on legal personality and pursuing legal endorsement of the fundamental values of the international community, human rights and democracy.

Second, they advised that ASEAN should be more actively visible in the international order to take advantage of the economic opportunities brought about by regional economic integration. A coherent economic bloc would attract more foreign investment and enable the region to compete against China and India.

Third, they noted that the overt lack of respect for rule of law and institutions not only tarnished ASEAN’s reputation but also prevented member states from reaping the expected rewards of cooperative endeavours.

Since ASEAN already possessed adequate hard and soft laws, member states simply needed to work on implementing and complying with these commitments in a timely fashion. Further, monitoring and dispute-settlement mechanisms needed to be established across all areas of regional cooperation. In particular, the ASEAN secretary-general and the secretariat were to monitor regional legal and institutional compliance.

These strategies formed the core of the ASEAN Charter as it mapped out the trajectory for the tri-pillared (political-security, economic and socio-cultural) ASEAN Community. In the first decade of this transition, there has been an unsurprising tendency to backslide due to path dependencies. Monitoring oversight has not been exercised by the ASEAN secretary-general or the secretariat, and none of the ASEAN dispute settlement mechanisms have yet been used.

In particular, enthusiasm for legalisation and institutionalisation has not yet emerged in national or ASEAN Secretariat departments that deal less directly with law or handle sensitive issues such as internal economic policies, forestry and agriculture. These departments are understandably more protectionist and are reluctant to move to a structure of rules and institutions. It is unsurprising therefore that the launch of the ASEAN Community was fraught with defensive justifications that the full attainment of community goals needed more time and resources beyond the formal deadline of 31 December 2015.

But ASEAN’s strategic legalisation and institutionalisation is not slated for failure — there are procedural and reputational safeguards that compel progress.

For one, the charter is ASEAN’s first constituent treaty that lays a strong foundation for compliance with regional laws and institutions. It is a permanent fixture in ASEAN regionalism unless it is superseded by a subsequent constituent treaty, which is unlikely due to the grave credibility costs in a highly legalised contemporary international order. The cornerstone ASEAN Community Vision 2025 document reinforces the norms articulated by the Charter.

If they default on the charter and other ASEAN laws, and fail to comply with regional agreements, ASEAN states will be unable to attain the economic profit promised by cooperation. This is in addition to the loss of goodwill and potential retaliatory action when such commitments are broken. Recalling that economic disputes are increasingly resolved through adjudicatory mechanisms, ASEAN’s economic partners would likely use the settlement mechanisms stipulated in ASEAN treaties rather than pursue lengthy diplomatic negotiations to resolve disagreements.

Today, network governance plays a central role in intra-ASEAN relations. A genuine reformative effort can be seen among the officers who work on ASEAN issues in the national ministries and the ASEAN Secretariat. For example, in customs procedures, officers are keen to regularise procedures in line with the rule of law and institutions. Networks of shared experiences among regional counterparts are increasingly built through capacity-building initiatives jointly organised by regional and external stakeholders. Even more encouraging has been the recent establishment of dedicated monitoring units in the ASEAN Secretariat to build each of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community.

The officers of ASEAN and its member states are demonstrating an increasing adherence to the rule of law despite considerable obstacles. Slow as the progress might be, the transformative power of law and institutions once they are set in motion cannot be ignored. Greater familiarity and usage will reinforce and bring more uniformity to regional legalisation and institutionalisation. As this strategy evolves, its particular characteristics will go on to define a unique new model of ASEAN regionalism in the global order.

Tan Hsien-Li is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’.


ASEAN-50: From here on ASEAN Centrality must mean Internal Centrality

August 15, 2017

ASEAN-50: From here on ASEAN Centrality must mean Internal Centrality

by Tang Siew Mun and Jason Salim

In a rare moment of political unity, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) unhesitatingly and with unanimity  urged the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) to “comply fully with United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

Image result for ASEAN CentralityASEAN must be able to navigate through the storm of US-China rivalry in its own backyard


At the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Manila that ended on August 5, the grouping also asked Pyongyang to commit to “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.”

Many have touted this as a sign that the 50-year-old regional organisation has finally come of age as it wades into the high-stakes game of international security.

In retrospect, this is not the first time ASEAN has spoken out against North Korea’s efforts to develop and acquire nuclear weapons, a principled stance consistent with its Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone declaration adopted in 1971. However, some have accused ASEAN of having a track record of “all talk, no action.”

As ASEAN commemorates its golden jubilee, it would need to rectify its credibility deficit by backing up strong words with equally appropriate actions.

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More Action Less Talk

In the case of the Korean nuclear issue, the grouping could collectively take tangible actions to cut off North Korea’s business interests in the region and support other measures approved by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2371. A failure to follow up on this or any of its firm rhetoric would render any ASEAN declaration weak and toothless.

In fact, ASEAN’s privileged position as the convenor of East Asian cooperation can no longer be taken for granted. For decades now, ASEAN has been the leader and innovator in designing and leading pan-Asian collaborative frameworks such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (since 1994), the East Asian Summit (since 2005), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (since 2010).

These fora have exemplified ASEAN’s long-standing desire to work with major and other middle powers outside the region for the security and stability of the region, but the regional organisation now faces an uphill task to accommodate the whims and wishes of these same powers.

In the face of such pressure, ASEAN must realise that the idea of “centrality” must mean more than merely being in the “centre of the action” or acting as organiser and chauffeur.

ASEAN can hold on to its vaunted centrality only if it continues to have the trust of the major powers as an honest and impartial interlocutor. At the same time, if ASEAN allows the interests of the major powers to solely dominate and overpower these fora’s agendas, these ASEAN-led processes would face the real threat of obsolescence, to the detriment of the region.

Moving forward, it may not be enough for ASEAN to be impartial. Impartiality often means neutrality, and that would lead to “silence.” ASEAN is hard-pressed to balance between the imperative of impartiality and being a relevant regional entity guided by long-standing principles. In other words, there is no point for ASEAN to be “at the centre” if centrality serves only to perpetuate the interests of the major powers at the expense of ASEAN’s own.

All 10 member states must be willing to let ASEAN speak with a clarion voice that may at times contradict some of the major powers. ASEAN should act and speak on an even keel with all of its dialogue partners and hold its own.

ASEAN serves two important purposes for its members. First, it is bound by the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As a grouping of mostly small states, the collective voices of 10 countries in unity and solidarity are more audible and louder than speaking individually — something ASEAN has more often than not succeeded in facilitating over the past 50 years.

Second, ASEAN allows member states to register their stance in a collective setting for situations that might not allow them to do so in individual capacities.

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ASEAN is the best strategic mouthpiece available for individual member states to speak out under the protective and safe umbrella of collective action. However, as commendable as ASEAN’s decision to take a firm stand on a security issue outside Southeast Asia may be, it should seek to avoid double standards particularly when it comes to intra-ASEAN security issues.

The Rohingya crisis, human trafficking and the growth of radical Muslim fundamentalism are just some of the lingering security issues closer to home in which ASEAN should take the lead in addressing.

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Although ASEAN centrality has almost always referred to ASEAN’s position relative to the “outside”, ASEAN should work hard to address the issue of “internal centrality.” There is no point in ASEAN gaining traction outside Southeast Asia when the grouping in effectively invisible within the region.

ASEAN has to address the critical issue of making itself matter to Southeast Asians, and let ASEAN’s citizens understand and own the concept of “community.”

Moving forward, the disconnect between ASEAN and Southeast Asians is one of the major challenges for ASEAN. Without support and stakeholdership from the people, the hard choices to make community-building work would be difficult, especially if leaders fall into the temptation of relapsing into nationalistic stances.

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This would require having the political courage to perhaps even selectively set aside ASEAN’s “most cherished” principle of non-interference for the sake of the common good.

If ASEAN is to be a community in the fullest and truest sense of the word, it has to be able to equate domestic security with regional security, and take collective action whenever necessary.

Outlining firm and principled stances towards external developments are all well and good, but cooperating on common security threats in tangible ways would make ASEAN even more relevant to the public. Let that be our shared vision for ASEAN as it trudges on towards the next 50 years, and the next 50. — TODAY

* Dr Tang Siew Mun and Jason Salim  at ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

ASEAN@50–Finding the Right Equilibrium

August 6, 2017

ASEAN@50–Finding the Right Equilibrium

by Syed Hamid Albar

Image result for Founding Fathers of ASEANThe Founding ASEAN Leaders on August 8, 1967

ASEAN is a rule-based regional organisation, but the challenge now is to introduce mechanisms compelling member states to play by the rules.

ASEAN embraces its golden jubilee this year. The time is right to understand what worked and what we could have done better, and how do we move ahead as one cohesive alliance against the backdrop of ever-shifting global dynamics.

Following the failures of the Association of South-East Asia (ASA) and Maphilindo  Greater Malayan Federation (MAPHILINDO), have the aims and visions of the five original ASEAN member states which signed the Bangkok Declaration on August 8, 1967 to chart a new future for the region been fulfilled?

The crisp answer would be yes. With 10 members now, the coalition has weathered the ups and downs of member state relationships anchored upon a set of core values.

We call this the “Asean Way”, striking a balance between consensual decision-making and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs in a show of mutual respect.
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We can take pride that the ASEAN region is principally stable and peaceful. The measured pace has helped it to attain this position and ASEAN has done well, taking into account the fact that the region is a microcosm of various religions, languages, ethnicities and cultures.

However, the inter-subjective structure of ASEAN has proven to be a stumbling block in resolving potential flash points or conflicts that could destabilise the region and ASEAN unity due to exposure to geopolitical happenings such as overlapping land and maritime claims, China’s advancing presence and the alleged “cold war” between the United States and China.

Additionally, member countries do not appear to share a common view on what is democracy or human rights. ASEAN is still sensitive on the question of non-interference and its treatment of human rights issues. Reticence to take a firm collective stand, for example on the Rohingya issue in Myanmar, has been a thorn on our side, questioning the very values that ASEAN stands for.

There is undoubtedly a need for deeper examination on challenges confronting ASEAN as it embraces democracy and economic liberalism. Continued denial on this subject will not bode well for sustaining Asean’s credibility and integrity.

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The ASEAN Economic Community has been firmly established and an integrated people-centred ASEAN has been declared, based on the three pillars of ASEAN under the Bali Concords I & II. But what do these mean?

Has ASEAN been able to build a cohesive and united body, consistent with its Charter? Has it succeeded in building trust and understanding in order to create an ASEAN identity?

For too long, we have made this an exclusive “talk shop” platform for government-to-government dealings, but the time has come for us to recognise that as a political platform, ASEAN must take sustainable and constructive steps to make a firmer collective stand on issues affecting the region.

The institutional and government-centred character of the past must be shed to make way for inclusiveness and relevance to civil society.

These are important to resolve as we have seen how different member states have varying interpretations of the relationship between the individual, state and civil society, and sometimes, the core values of freedom.

Due to rigidly sticking to the issue of sovereignty and non-interference as a regional organisation, ASEAN has been, in critical instances, slow to give its collective or common response to natural disasters like the tsunami, Cyclone Nargis and the haze. If these were a test of our effectiveness, we failed, and it is sometimes quite a wonder how member countries are able to rise above conflicting areas to register healthy political and economic growth.

Malaysia has used the slogan of unity and diversity as a source of its strength. ASEAN must do the same. Otherwise, the differences and diversities of ASEAN can be a threat to peace, stability and security.

There are also frustrations about the rigid application and inflexible processes of ASEAN’s decision-making and yet, we have witnessed how hope and optimism steered the evolution of this organisation.

Beginning its initial journey based on a loose framework of rules, over the years, ASEAN has grown into a full-fledged legal and rule-based regional organisation guided by its Charter. The challenge moving forward will be to introduce mechanisms and enforcement tools compelling member states to play by the rules.

It is encouraging that ASEAN leaders, previously criticised for leaning towards “golf diplomacy”, are more willing to come to the table to confront intractable issues. However, discussions alone will not be enough.

In grappling with complexities the future will bring, we must form meaningful responses to the needs of a changing world. Our actions must not just resonate with governments but also with civil society from all walks of life.

As leaders, we must have the courage to act with gravitas and gumption in the interest of the greater good for the continued growth of our region.

The value proposition for standing together as one coalition is strong. With a total population of 628 million and a combined gross domestic product of US$3 trillion (RM12.9 trillion), the ASEAN region today is a formidable global power bloc from economic, political and security perspectives.

We stand on the cusp of an era that will see Asean leadership make its way into the global order. Thus, in mulling the existential narrative for ASEAN over the next 10 years, we must build greater resilience in our region and tackle existing challenges with all the seriousness we can muster.

ASEAN cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of security in past glories. Instead, we must take a brave, no-nonsense approach to finding that point of equilibrium that will further elevate our standing amid new realities in the international system.

*Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar was former Foreign Minister. This is one of a special series of articles to mark the 50th anniversary of the regional grouping by the ASEAN members of the Asia News Network. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords:Asia News Network , Asean 50




August 3, 2017


by Kishore Mahbubani*

*Professor Kishore Mahubani is Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

We live in troubled times, with pessimism clouding even the most prosperous parts of the planet. Many are convinced that the international order is falling apart. Some fear that a clash of civilizations is imminent, if it has not already begun.

Yet, amid the gloom, Southeast Asia offers an unexpected glimmer of hope. The region has made extraordinary progress in recent decades, achieving a level of peace and prosperity that was previously unimaginable. And it owes much of this success to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which marks its 50th anniversary this month.

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Dean Kishore Mahbubani and Singapore’s Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kausikan

Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most diverse regions. Its 640 million people include 240 million Muslims, 120 million Christians, 150 million Buddhists, and millions of Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists, and Communists. Its most populous country, Indonesia, is home to 261 million people, while Brunei has just 450,000. Singapore’s per capita income of $52,960 per annum is 22.5 times that of Laos ($2,353).

This diversity puts Southeast Asia at a distinct disadvantage in terms of fostering regional cooperation. When ASEAN was founded in 1967, most experts expected it to die within a few years.

At the time, Southeast Asia was a poor and deeply troubled region, which the British historian C.A. Fisher had described as the Balkans of Asia. The Vietnam War was underway, and the Sino-Vietnamese War was yet to be fought. Many viewed the five non-Communist states that founded ASEAN – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – as dominoes, set to be tipped over by a neighbor’s fall to communism or descent into civil strife.

But ASEAN defied expectations, becoming the world’s second most successful regional organization, after the European Union. Some 1,000 ASEAN meetings are held each year to deepen cooperation in areas such as education, health, and diplomacy. ASEAN has signed free-trade agreements (FTAs) with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and established an ASEAN economic community. Today, ASEAN comprises the world’s seventh-largest economy, on track to become the fourth largest by 2050.

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As I explain in my book The ASEAN Miracle, several factors have underpinned the bloc’s success. At first, anti-communism provided a powerful incentive to collaborate. Strong leaders, like Indonesia’s Suharto, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, held the group together.

It helped that as ASEAN was getting off the ground in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the strategic interests of America, China, and the bloc’s members converged. But even when the Cold War ended, the region did not erupt into conflict, as the real Balkans did. ASEAN countries maintained the cooperative habits that had become established in Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact, ASEAN’s erstwhile communist enemies – Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – decided to join the bloc. So, too, did Myanmar, ending decades of isolation. ASEAN’s policy of engaging Myanmar attracted criticism from the West, but it helped lay the groundwork for a peaceful transition from military rule. (Compare this to the West’s policy of isolation toward, say, Syria, which certainly won’t lead to a similar outcome.)

To be sure, ASEAN is far from perfect. Over the short term, it seems to move like a crab – two steps forward, one step back, and one step sideways.

Yet ASEAN’s long-term progress is undeniable. Its combined GDP has grown from $95 billion in 1970 to $2.5 trillion in 2014. And it is the only reliable platform for geopolitical engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, unique in its ability to convene meetings attended by all of the world’s great powers, from the United States and the European Union to China and Russia.

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ASEAN continues to face serious challenges. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have created deep divisions, and the intensifying geopolitical rivalry between the US and China poses a further threat to cohesion. And domestic politics in several member states, including Malaysia and Thailand, is becoming increasingly chaotic.

But ASEAN’s history suggests that the bloc can weather these storms. Its impressive resilience is rooted in the culture of musyawarah and muafakat (consultation and consensus) championed by Indonesia. Imagine how other regional organizations, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council or the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, could benefit from adherence to such norms.

The EU once amounted to the gold standard for regional cooperation. But it continues to struggle with a seemingly never-ending series of crises and weak economic growth. Add to that the impending departure of the United Kingdom, and it seems only prudent to seek other models of cooperation. ASEAN, however imperfect, provides an attractive one.

The EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. But ASEAN’s approach may turn out to be the way of the future, enabling other fractious regions to develop sturdy bonds of cooperation, too.

ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy underpins regional stability

June 19, 2017

ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy underpins regional stability

by Kishore Mahbubani, Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) stands next to Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) during the opening of World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Phnom Penh on May 11, 2017.

Try imagining a world where the Middle East is at peace. The thought seems almost inconceivable. Imagine a world where Israel and Palestine, two nations splintered from one piece of territory, live harmoniously. Impossible? This is what Malaysia and Singapore accomplished. After an acrimonious divorce in 1965, they live together in peace.

Imagine a world where Egypt, the most populous Islamic country in the Middle East, emerges as a stable and prosperous democracy. Impossible? Then ask yourself how it is that Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country in Southeast Asia—with more than four times as many people as Egypt—has emerged as a beacon of democracy. Egypt and Indonesia both suffered from corruption. And both experienced decades of military rule, under Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Suharto in Indonesia.

Yet Egypt remains under military rule while Indonesia has emerged as the leading democracy in the Islamic world. What explains the difference? The one-word answer is ASEAN. ASEAN’s success in practising strategic diplomacy over the past 50 years has been one of the most undersold stories of our time.

If one were looking around the world to find the most promising region for international cooperation, Southeast Asia would have been at the bottom of the list. Home to 240 million Muslims, 130 million Christians, 140 million Buddhists and 7 million Hindus, it is the most diverse region in the world. In the 1960s, when ASEAN was formed, the region had garnered a reputation as ‘the Balkans of Asia’, due to its geopolitical rivalries and pervasive disputes.

Today, ASEAN is more important than ever. It has become more than an important neutral zone for great-power engagement. Its success in forging unity in diversity is a beacon of hope for our troubled world.

As the ASEAN dynamic gained momentum and the organisation moved towards creating hundreds of multilateral meetings a year, the Southeast Asian region became more closely connected. Webs of networks developed in different areas of cooperation, from trade to defence.

ASEAN camaraderie has defused many potential crises in the region. One shining example of the success of ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy occurred in 2007. In August that year, the world was shocked when monks in Yangon were shot during street protests after the unexpected removal of fuel subsidies led to a drastic overnight rise in commodity prices. Since ASEAN had admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997, there was pressure on ASEAN countries to make a statement criticising these shootings.

As an ASEAN member state, Myanmar had two options. It could have vetoed an ASEAN joint statement or disassociated itself from such a statement. Then there would have been a statement among the remaining nine countries criticising Myanmar. Many, including the nine other ASEAN foreign ministers, expected this to be the outcome.

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ASEAN–Building Strategic Partnerships for Peace, Stability and Development

To their surprise, Myanmar’s foreign minister, Nyan Win, agreed that all 10 countries, including Myanmar, should endorse the statement. This was a truly remarkable decision—the statement said that the ASEAN foreign ministers ‘were appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used and demanded that the Myanmar government immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators’.

In short, even when there were sharp disagreements between Myanmar and its fellow ASEAN countries, Myanmar decided that sticking with ASEAN was preferable to opting out. Clearly the ASEAN policy of engaging the military regime in Myanmar with strategic diplomacy had succeeded. This story of engagement almost reads as a foil to the EU’s disastrous policy of isolating Syria.

ASEAN’s ability to foster peace extends outside its member states. In an era of growing geopolitical pessimism, when many leading geopolitical thinkers predict rising competition and tension between great powers—especially between the United States and China—ASEAN has created an indispensable diplomatic platform that regularly brings all the great powers together. Within ASEAN, a culture of peace has evolved as a result of imbibing the Indonesian custom of musyawarah and muafakat (consultation and consensus).

Now ASEAN has begun to share this culture of peace with the larger Asia Pacific region. When tensions rise between China and Japan and their leaders find it difficult to speak to each other, ASEAN provides a face-saving platform and the right setting to restart the conversation. In particular, ASEAN has facilitated China’s peaceful rise by generating a framework that moderates aggressive impulses. In short, ASEAN’s strategic culture has infected the larger Asia Pacific region.

One of the miracles of the Asia Pacific is that significant great-power conflict prevented, even though there have been enormous shifts of power among the great nations in the region. Of course, the reasons for this lack of conflict are complex. ASEAN’s neutrality, which helps the organisation retain its centrality in the region, is one factor in keeping the region stable and peaceful.

This is why it is important that in the growing Sino–US geopolitical competition, both sides should treat ASEAN as a delicate Ming vase that could easily break. US and Chinese interests will both suffer if ASEAN is damaged or destroyed—delicacy in dealing with ASEAN is critical for both sides.

ASEAN is far from perfect—its many flaws have been well documented, especially in the Anglo-Saxon media. It never progresses in a linear fashion, often moving like a crab, taking two steps forward, one step backwards and one step sideways. Viewed over a short period, progress is hard to see. But despite its many imperfections, in a longer view, ASEAN’s forward progress has been tangible. In these interesting times, ASEAN’s policies and practices of strategic diplomacy deserve appreciation and study by the global community.

Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and co-author of The ASEAN Miracle

An extended version of this article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’.

ASEAN: The Meanings Behind Words

June 6, 2017

ASEAN: The Meanings Behind Words

by Bunn

AUGUST 8 this year is the 50th anniversary of ASEAN.

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ASEAN season is already upon us, with member nations busily hosting international seminars, workshops and conferences about the regional organisation.

Some of these events were held in close succession in Kuala Lumpur recently. As a prime mover and founding member of ASEAN, how can Malaysia and Malaysians do any less?

Chief among these was ISIS Malaysia’s Asia-Pacific Roundtable (APR), the largest annual event of its kind in the world: a Track Two (non-official conference on official security matters) convention on current regional concerns.

Anything concerning ASEAN would involve concepts, terminology and inevitable layers of diplomatic nuances behind and between them. It is an established ASEAN sub-culture.

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Thus, the first APR session saw two former ASEAN Secretaries-General on the panel concluding by looking back on the term “constructive engagement.” One of them denied a suggestion that he had coined the term.

Participants seemed to have forgotten that “constructive engagement” was the positive spin President Ronald Reagan gave to continued US dealings with Apartheid South Africa, in the face of international criticism and calls for a boycott.

Later, when Western criticism was aimed at ASEAN members for dealing with the pariah nation of military-ruled Myanmar, ASEAN leaders replied by calling it constructive engagement too. Verbal jousting runs both ways.

However, this did not sit well with a younger and more idealistic generation of ASEAN leaders at the time. A cabal of younger ministers then, including the one on the recent panel, cast around for another term.

One called for ASEAN’s “constructive intervention” in Cambodia which seemed then to have a disintegrating coalition government. It was a bit much for ASEAN’s Old Guard, strictly abiding by the principle of non-intervention.

Another ASEAN leader called instead for “constructive interactions,” which would soften the interventionist element. However, it did not seem to go anywhere. Yet another ASEAN leader advocated “flexible engagement.” But then it seemed too wobbly to be effective.

Finally, ASEAN and its leaders settled on “enhanced interaction,” which contained all the right positive notes without any conceivable setbacks. And so the work of regional diplomatic wordplay was done.

However, the situation on the ground in Myanmar, Cambodia and elsewhere remained much the same. The problems abated only with time, and with these countries’ eventual accession to ASEAN membership.

More ASEAN terminology arose from attempts to bring ASEAN to the people of south-east Asia. ASEAN’s albatross had long been the closed intergovernmental nature of its being, operating essentially for elites to sustain the status quo.

In time, a sense of ASEAN’s mortality prompted efforts to make ASEAN “people-oriented” or “people-centred.” Unfortunately, undue confusion reigned.

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A view persists that “people-oriented” came first, which then developed progressively with Malaysia’s urging into the more substantive “people-centred.” Another view presumes the opposite.

These terms originated in the recommendations of two separate panels appointed by ASEAN to provide inputs for the prospective ASEAN Charter: The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) and the High-Level Task Force (HLTF).

Some academic references add to the confusion by tracing these terms only to 2008. Others cite how several hopeful civil society groups responded positively by offering their views, but found the EPG indifferent and only the HLTF was encouraging.

A closer examination would reveal the opposite. The HLTF seemed officious while the EPG, chaired by former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam, was more positive.

The result was the 2006 EPG document “Report of the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter.” This 49-page report contains one reference to “a people-oriented ASEAN” and three subsequent references to “a people-centred organisation.”

This may have served to credit Malaysia for spearheading a humanistic approach to a new improved ASEAN. But it was also enough to worry undemocratic ASEAN regimes, only too mindful that their leaders were occupying positions that were not the will of the people.

These leaders could just about tolerate “people-oriented,” which would still mean top-down changes they could control, but “people-centred” would be too much for them. Ordinary citizens could well get the idea that they could choose their government.

Upon closer inspection, however, a serious tussle within ASEAN between the two terms did not develop into a full-blown affair. Documents such as the 2015 “Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-oriented and People-centred ASEAN” contain both terms.

The terms that would unite all ASEAN leaders, whether budding democrats, residual autocrats or hybrids somewhere between, relate to ASEAN’s “centrality” in occupying the “driving seat.”

This involves ASEAN’s aspirations to exert an influence outside its immediate region. Such ASEAN-led institutions as the 18-member East Asia Summit and the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum already exist for this purpose, even when sometimes seeming rudderless.

The problem may not be in the choice of metaphors, but in what the metaphors unwittingly imply, reveal or foretell.

Centrality (leadership) may not come with being in the driving seat, and driving the vehicle may not mean deciding on the destination. This is as true of a chauffeured VIP limousine as of a common taxi or a bus.

Passengers who pay decide where they wish to go, and passengers who pay more also decide on how to get there. Not least among ASEAN’s concerns is whether member nations have sufficient economic clout to decide on the region’s destiny.

South-East Asia as a region is a subset of the larger East Asia, where major global powers roam. How do AAEAN members measure up in a time of growing interest from China, Russia, India and Japan, besides the US?

Then came a term for this region not unique to ASEAN: “arms race.” Typically, it was from conference participants unfamiliar with the region’s security situation. Government officials everywhere dislike the term either because it calls undue attention to their arms trade, with or without shady deals, or it alarms and scares off investors for fear of regional instability.

But seriously, is there an arms race in this region? There are clearly increased defence budgets for several countries, but does that necessarily amount to an “arms race”?

The same question had been asked some 25 years before with even greater intensity. And the answer, from the late Australian security specialist Prof Des Ball, was a firm no.

I then published a paper in Singapore explaining why there was no arms race here. There is still none today, not even after half a century of ASEAN – perhaps partly because of Asean.

As some conference participants explained, increased defence budgets do not equate squarely to increased arms purchases. The bulk of defence expenditures typically pay for the salaries, allowances and benefits of personnel.

A “race” is a competitive relationship between two or more players. Even when arms purchases grow, the motivation could just be having more to spend, or some threat perception or contingency – whether justified or not.

Unless and until the sole or primary motivation is to outdo the other country or countries in arms acquisitions, there is no race to speak of. There is still no reason for such a race.

Even if all the 10 ASEAN countries can put their military strength together, and double it, that would still be no match for the major global powers in East Asia.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.