Friday, November 07, 2008

ASEAN -- "ineffectual talk shop" or "potent regional organisation"?

What follows below is a reproduction of an essay I recently wrote for my PS2250: International Politics in Southeast Asia module in response to the question of: “What are the major achievements of ASEAN as a security organisation?”

Without a doubt, ever since its establishment in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has faced significant and persistent criticism with regards to its supposed weaknesses and deficiencies as a regional organisation, with the harshest criticism perhaps coming from the neo-realists who perceive the organisation as nothing more than “an ineffectual talk shop masquerading as a potent regional organisation”[1].

However, the criticism of ASEAN’s weaknesses, real or otherwise, should not be allowed to blind observers to the significant achievements attained by this organisation in the security realm. Indeed, it may be observed that, upon closer examination, there are perhaps three key dimensions to ASEAN’s achievements as a security organisation. And these dimensions are namely: intra-regional, i.e. between member states of ASEAN, conflict management, conflict management between SEA and external powers and conflict management amongst different external powers.

Hence, with the above in mind, this essay would attempt to, while not forgetting the deficiencies of ASEAN, examine and discuss the success that ASEAN, as an implicit security organisation, has managed to achieve in the three aforementioned dimensions.

It can be observed that much criticism of ASEAN has perhaps centred on the supposed deficiencies of what has been termed as the “ASEAN Way”, which is, as it is usually defined, the formula by which ASEAN operates. And, as many observers have come to conclude, this formula places strong emphasis on the principles of informality, consultation, compromise, consensus-building, mutual non-interference and the settlement of disputes through non-confrontational and peaceful means[2].

The ASEAN Way, as most critics of it have argued, is an inefficient and ineffective way of resolving conflicts and decision-making as it entails a lengthy process in which the interests and opinions of all the parties have to be represented and factored in to achieve a consensus which all parties are able agree to[3]. Critics have also argued that the consensus decisions produced by such a process are usually so broad and general in nature that they become most insubstantial, if not being equivalent to adopting the “lowest common denominator”[4].

Also, critics of the ASEAN Way argue that as a mechanism to manage conflicts and disputes, the ASEAN Way has perhaps, more often than not, only been able to postpone conflicts without fundamentally resolving them. In addition, much criticism has been targeted against the principle of mutual non-interference which critics argue results in ASEAN not being able to ensure compliance to accepted standards of behaviour and rules by its member states[5].

However, while the aforementioned criticism of ASEAN and the ASEAN Way may perhaps be valid to some extent, it should be noted that the ASEAN Way did not emerge out of a vacuum. Instead, it can be observed that the ASEAN Way was perhaps, deliberately or otherwise, crafted to fit the unique purposes and circumstances of ASEAN’s member states.

Indeed, it can be observed that with their shared history of being former colonies (the exception here being Thailand which was never formally colonised), the member states of ASEAN tend to jealously guard their national sovereignty and interests against external interference[6]. Hence, suggestions that members states of ASEAN should pool their sovereignty together to create a supra-national organisation which would have the powers to ensure compliance would perhaps only result in great divisions and discord within the organisation. Such possible divisions and discord have perhaps been avoided through the principle of mutual non-interference contained within the ASEAN Way.

In addition, with its strong emphasis on consensus-building, the ASEAN Way has allowed the member states of ASEAN to not only save face but also maintain “good relations by producing a united ASEAN position on an issue”[7]. Also, it should be noted consensus-building goes beyond producing a “lowest common denominator” as the process involves accommodations and compromises by both those in the majority and those in the minority[8].

Furthermore, it can be observed that while the criticism that ASEAN tends to postpone conflicts without fundamentally resolving them may perhaps be valid to some extent, ASEAN does not postpone conflicts merely for the sake of doing so. Instead, it does so in the hope that as time passes by, more appropriate circumstances may set in that allows a resolution to the postponed conflicts to be found or that the conflicts may perhaps just dissipate automatically on their own[9]. It is also the case that by postponing controversial issues and disputes, ASEAN has been able to avoid being bogged down by such issues and retain the flexibility to move forward in areas of agreement[10].

And moving beyond the ASEAN Way, it can be seen that through ASEAN and the multiple meetings it holds at different governmental levels[11], the government leaders and officials of the different member states of ASEAN have been able to build up a network of strong inter-personal ties which, as the late S. Rajaratnam (independent Singapore’s first foreign minister and one of the principal signatories of the Bangkok Treaty which established ASEAN) had remarked in an interview, “serve as links to hold ASEAN together”[12]. Indeed, it is evident that such a network of strong inter-personal ties has, through allowing decision-makers within ASEAN to have a better and personal understanding of one another’s position and temperament, reduced the likelihood of conflicts arising due to misunderstandings and misinterpretation by ASEAN leaders of one another’s public pronouncements[13].

In addition, it should be noted that while it may be true ASEAN is yet to have a formal mechanism to ensure that its member states comply with certain accepted standards of behaviour, it is perhaps the case that member states would prefer to not contravene these standards due to the moral authority of ASEAN. In other words, ASEAN member states would voluntarily restraint themselves from certain courses of action as they are deterred by the possible criticism and disapproval they would receive from the other member states; to borrow the words of George Yeo, Singapore’s current foreign minister, while ASEAN may not have “teeth”, it does have a “sharp tongue”[14].

And a possible example of the above at work can perhaps be seen in the recent border territorial dispute between Thailand and Cambodia that although both sides already have troops stationed on their respective sides of the border, the dispute did not escalate into a military conflict, possibly because both sides were aware and deterred by the possible criticism from the other ASEAN member states if either of them unilaterally initiated military action.

Furthermore, it may also be noted that another manner in which ASEAN has perhaps being able to prevent intra-regional conflict would be that it, through integrating Indonesia into the regional architecture and perhaps allowing to play an informal leadership role within ASEAN, moderated Indonesia’s geopolitical ambitions. Here, it would be necessary to note that due to its size, both demographically and geographically, Indonesia has the status of being a significant geostrategic power in Southeast Asia, thus making it “crucial to the maintenance of a stable environment” in the region[15]. Hence, by being able to moderate Indonesia’s geopolitical ambitions within a regional framework, ASEAN has been able to ensure that Indonesia fulfils a constructive role in the region and not a disruptive one. In other words, ASEAN has been able to prevent Indonesia from resorting to non-peaceful means to assert its dominant position within Southeast Asia.

Hence, it is perhaps evident from the lengthy discussion above that despite the criticism of it, ASEAN has been able to successfully to manage, if not avoid and prevent, conflicts happening between its member states.

Moving beyond the dimension of intra-regional conflict management, it can also be observed that ASEAN has made a significant achievement in managing, if not preventing, conflicts between itself and external powers.

And it can be observed that one way in which ASEAN has been able to attain the aforementioned achievement would perhaps be through its adroit handling of relations with external powers.

On one hand, ASEAN publicly signalled its intention to keep the region of Southeast Asia autonomous and free from interference from external powers with its signing of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality Declaration (ZOPFAN)[16] in 1971 and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC)[17] in 1976.

However, at the same time, it was astute enough to realise that while desirable, the complete insulation of Southeast Asia from external interference was not realistic, considering the significant strategic value that region possesses due to its geographical location and its abundance in resources and markets. This was especially so during the period of the Cold War when great powers, such as the United States, the former Soviet Union and China, were intensely competing with one another for strategic influence around the world.

Thus, with the above in mind, it may be observed that by adopting a seemingly paradoxical approach of explicitly wanting to insulate Southeast Asia from external interference while implicitly recognising the legitimate interests of external powers in the region, ASEAN was perhaps able to successfully engage external powers without becoming entirely dominated by them and/or having the region be turned totally into a proxy battleground for external powers. Also, it may be noted that ASEAN was particularly astute in how it prevented itself from becoming entirely subordinate to any single external great power through balancing the great powers against one another.

In addition, it should be noted that ASEAN was perhaps particularly successful in getting external powers, such as the United States, China and, most recently, North Korea, to disavow the use of non-peaceful means to settle disputes in the region when it managed to convince them to become signatories of the TAC.

Furthermore, it may be observed that, just as what it was able to do with Indonesia, ASEAN has so far been successful in integrating China, a re-emerging great power, into the regional security architecture through including it in, first, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and, later, the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) dialogue process. By doing so, ASEAN has been able to integrate China “into a peaceful and stable region, by encouraging Chinese leaders to identify concerns through consultation rather than to act unilaterally”[18]. This thus reduces the risk of China to assert its renewed status as a great regional, if not world, power through means which may possibly threaten the peace and stability in the region.

Hence, with the above discussion in mind, it is perhaps evident that ASEAN has, besides successfully managing conflicts between its own member states, also been able to successfully manage, if not preventing, conflicts between itself and external powers and remarkably enough, it managed to do so through peaceful and diplomatic means. To use the terminology which perhaps have been rather fashionable of late, ASEAN, while perhaps lacking in “hard power” when compared to external powers such as United States and China, has adroitly employed its “soft power” to keep at bay potential conflicts between itself and these great powers.

And building on the above discussion, this essay would now move on to examine how ASEAN has successfully provided mechanisms, particularly in the form of the ARF and the APT dialogue process, to manage conflicts between different external powers.

It is perhaps most evident that ASEAN, through its establishing of the ARF and the APT dialogue process and including external powers in these establishments, has not only provided a conduit for the member states of ASEAN to meet with these external powers but also allowed these external powers to regularly meet with one another.

Specifically, it may be observed that both the APT process and the ARF, although the latter is arguably more significant since it involves more parties than the former, serve as critical conduits that allow all the included countries to represent their interests and concerns and to consult with one another about different issues, either officially or informally at the sidelines of meetings. In fact, it can be noted that the three non-ASEAN powers included in the APT process, namely China, Japan and South Korea, hold annual three-way meetings with one another parallel with the APT process[19].

And it is important to note that the fact that these two establishments are anchored by ASEAN is perhaps essential to the success of these establishments. This is considering that with the seemingly “neutral” and “moderately powerful” ASEAN playing host, major powers, such as the United States, China or India, perhaps feel more comfortable and thus more inclined to attend the meetings organised for both the ARF and the APT process. It would perhaps be a different situation if some other country or organisation, for example: Japan or any of the aforementioned major powers, was playing host.

Hence, it is perhaps most evident that, just as what ASEAN has done for its member states, the APT process and the ARF, with ASEAN playing host, have allowed the various parties involved to successfully address and resolve potential disputes amongst themselves in a non-confrontational and diplomatic manner. Also, just as how ASEAN member states are deterred from resorting to drastic and non-peaceful actions due to possible criticism from their fellow member states, the same effect is also perhaps relevant for those countries involved in the ARF and/or APT process.

And though one may dispute this as being an unfalsifiable claim, it is nonetheless reasonable to argue that formation of ASEAN is already a significant security success in itself. This is considering that if ASEAN has not been established, it is highly likely that the security situation in Southeast Asia would perhaps be in a state much worse than the current state, bearing in mind the intra-regional differences existing within pre-ASEAN Southeast Asia and strategic interest in the region by external powers. For all its weaknesses and deficiencies, Southeast Asia is better with ASEAN than without it.

Hence, in conclusion, it can be observed that although it may be true that there are various areas in which ASEAN can and ought to improve in, it has not been the dismal failure which some of its harsh critics have claimed it is. Indeed, it can be seen from the points presented above in this essay that ASEAN has achieved significant successes in the three aspects of intra-regional conflict management, conflict management between SEA and external powers and conflict management amongst different external powers.



[1] Eaton and Stubbs 2006, pages 137-138
[2] Caballero-Anthony 2005, pages 72-73, Chow 2005, pages 303-304 and Eaton and Stubbs 2006, page 138
[3] Caballero-Anthony 2005, pages 72-73
[4] Desker 2008
[5] Collins 2003, pages 141-144 and Eaton and Stubbs 2006, page 136
[6] Caballero-Anthony 2005, pages 49-55
[7] Collins 2003, pages 133-134
[8] Koh 2008
[9] Caballero-Anthony 2005, page 76
[10] Caballero-Anthony 2005, page 76
[11] Ibid, pages 55-57
[12] Chan and Ul Haq 2007, page 486
[13] Caballero-Anthony 2005, pages 74-75
[14] Goh 2008
[15] Ganesan 2005, pages 81-83
[16] ASEAN Secretariat 1971
[17] ASEAN Secretariat 1976
[18] Leheny 2005, page 238
[19] Collins 2003, page 178-179



ASEAN Secretariat. 1976. “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia”. 24 February. Retrieved from: Date of access: 28/9/2008

ASEAN Secretariat. 1971. “Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality Declaration”. 27 November. Retrieved from: Date of access: 28/9/2008

Buzan, Barry. 2003. “Security Architecture in Asia: the interplay of regional and global levels” in The Pacific Review, Vol. 16, No.2. Pages 143-174

Caballero-Anthony, Mely. 2005. “ASEAN Mechanisms of Conflict Management: Revisiting the ASEAN Way” in Regional Security in Southeast Asia: Beyond the ASEAN Way. ISEAS Publishing. Singapore. Pages 49-82

Chan Heng Chee and Obaid Ul Haq. 2007. “S. Rajaratnam: The Prophetic and the Political”. Second Edition. ISEAS Publishing. Singapore.

Chow, Jonathan T. 2005. “ASEAN Counterterrorism Cooperation Since 9/11” in Asian Survey, Vol. 45, No.2. Pages 302-321

Collins, Alan. 2003. “Security and Southeast Asia: Domestic, Regional and Global Issues”. Lynne Rienner Publishers. Pages 127-187

Desker, Barry. 2008. “Where the ASEAN Charter comes up short”. Straits Times. 18 July.

Eaton, Sarah and Stubbs, Richard. 2006. “Is ASEAN Powerful? Neo-realist versus constructivist approaches to power in Southeast Asia” in The Pacific Review, Vol. 19, No. 2. Pages 135-156

Ganesan, N. 2005. “Realism and Interdependence in Singapore’s Foreign Policy”. Routledge. Pages 81-100

Goh Sui Noi. 2008. “ASEAN Charter ‘makes each member that bit stronger’”. Straits Times. 18 July.

Goh Sui Noi. 2008. “Busy Year for S’pore as chair”. Straits Times. 18 July.

Katsumata, Hiro. 2006. “Establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum: constructing a ‘talking shop’ or a ‘norm brewery’?” in The Pacific Review, Vol. 19, No. 2. Pages 181-198

Koh, Tommy. 2008. “Response to Barry Desker’s Criticism of ASEAN Charter: Not perfect but charter is a good start on road to regional progress”. Straits Times. 21 July.

Leheny, David. 2005. “The War on Terrorism in Asia and the Possibility of Secret Regionalism” in Pempel, T.J. (ed.) Remapping East Asia: The Construction of a Region. Cornell University Press. Pages 236-254

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