My August reflections on ASEAN’s 50th anniversary

8 August 2017 is the  50th anniversary of ASEAN, the most successful regional organization of the developing world. To mark this occasion, I have written a number of essays and op-eds. Here are brief summaries and excerpts, along with publication details. Some are free downloads.

The first is a chapter, “The Evolution and Limitations of ASEAN Identity”,  in Building ASEAN Community: Political-Security and Socio-Cultural Reflections (Jakarta: The Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, 2017): 25-38. Available at: http://www.eria.org/ASEAN_at_50_4A.2_Acharya_final.pdf

In this essay, I argue:

…the identity of Southeast Asia as a region should not be confused with the identity of ASEAN as a regional organisation. Although the two identities can overlap and be mutually reinforcing, they also have different sources and distinctive trajectories. Southeast Asia’s regional identity predates ASEAN’s identity; it existed even when ASEAN was a group of only five nations. While ASEAN might have strengthened Southeast Asia’s regional identity, the latter has a wider basis. It was constructed by a combination of outside powers, foreign (at first) and local academics, regional political leaders, and civil society groups, while the ASEAN identity is mainly the creation of the region’s political elite. The Southeast Asian identity is more grounded in historical and socio-cultural factors than the ASEAN identity, which is more of an institutional, political, and strategic phenomenon and is fundamentally statist and elitist in nature. Hence, although both identities have their limitations, the Southeast Asian identity is potentially more robust and enduring than the ASEAN identity, and could outlive the weakening or unravelling of ASEAN. While the two identities converged after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the ASEAN–10, they have recently begun to diverge, due to growing intra-regional squabbles and great power competition. The challenge for the region’s policymakers and civil society is to ensure the convergence of the two identities with policies that sustain ASEAN’s unity and neutrality in the great power rivalry, while at the same time expanding ASEAN’s support base by seeking the participation of the people and the civil society of the region.”

A second essay is part of a book published by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia’s leading think tank. Amitav Acharya,”ASEAN@50: Reflections on Its Past, Present and Future,” in Asean Future Foreword (Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Strategic and International Studies, 2017). The chapter was noted in a recent op-ed in Malaysia. https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/asean-deserves-a-pat-on-the-back-on-its-50th-anniversary-1.617979

The essay begins by highlighting ASEAN’s distinctive features and contributions:

“No regional organization in the world has a more culturally and politically diverse membership and yet has come as far as ASEAN has. Another outstanding feature of ASEAN is its shared or pluralistic leadership. Unlike some regional groups where one or two countries play the disproportionate role, such as France and Germany in the European Union (EU), ASEAN is not directed by one or two dominant members. There is no regional hegemon or wannabe hegemon within ASEAN, such as Nigeria in ECOWAS, South Africa in SADC or India in SAARC.

ASEAN has multiple leaders guiding it in different issue-areas. At different stages, Indonesia (ZOPFAN, which was an outgrowth of the original Malaysian idea of Neutralization of Southeast Asia) and later ASEAN political-security community), Thailand (sovereignty and “flexible engagement”), Malaysia (Neutralization of Southeast Asia), Philippines (civil society engagement) and Singapore (trade) have “led” ASEAN and charted its course. A third distinctive feature of ASEAN is that while none of its members are great powers, Indonesia included, it has attracted the deference and engagement of all the great powers of the contemporary international system. It is a very rare example in the history of international relations in which the strong are ruled (normatively speaking) by the weak; in marked contrast to the standard realpolitik which expects the strong powers to lead and the weak merely to follow. Finally, ASEAN is a regional institution with a global membership. Through ASEAN dialogue relations and “ASEAN plus” institutions, all the major players in the world are engaged with ASEAN on a regular, institutionalized basis.”

But the essay also highlights a number of challenges facing ASEAN.

“…ASEAN’s current problems and challenges result from multiple sources: expansion of expectations concerning ASEAN leadership, and ASEAN centrality; the changing strategic environment with the rise of China, and growing US-China competition, and China’s shifting approach to regional engagement from ASEAN-centric to China-centric regional initiatives. Other sources of ASEAN’s weakness include continued adherence to sovereignty, non-interference, limited capacity relative to growing burdens, and questions over intra-ASEAN unity and cohesion. Faced with these challenges, ASEAN needs to find the right balance between state sovereignty and community-building, between indifference (non-intervention) and collective action and between the ASEAN Way of informalism and the need for greater institutionalization to make regional cooperation more responsive and effective in addressing regional challenges.”

The third essay is a commentary on “ÁSEAN Centrality: Myth of Reality,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol.39, no.2 (2017). pp.272-79.

The essay begins with clarifying a few myths about the concept of ASEAN Centrality.

“First, contrary to what many observers may think, ASEAN centrality is not an entirely novel or distinctive term. Rather it’s related to a number of similar concepts: ASEAN as the “leader”, the “driver”, the “architect”, the “institutional hub”, the “vanguard”, the “nucleus”, and the “fulcrum” of regional processes and institutional designs in the Asia-Pacific.”

A second popular misconception about ASEAN centrality is that it’s about ASEAN itself. More accurately, it’s really about the larger dynamics of regionalism and regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific and even beyond.

A third myth about ASEAN centrality is that it’s the exclusive handiwork of ASEAN members. It’s not… ASEAN centrality is as much a product of external players in Southeast Asia as of the ASEAN members themselves. In fact, one suspects that its emergence had more to do with dynamic of major powers relationships than to any projection of ASEAN’s internal unity or identity.”

I concluded the essay by arguing that ASEAN must seriously rethink its centrality.

“…the concept of ASEAN centrality has been somewhat ambiguous, ambitious and impractical from the outset. It has imposed serious burdens on ASEAN and raised expectations of its performance that the organization was not created to meet. It’s possible for someone, like this author, to be a firm believer in ASEAN but skeptical about ASEAN centrality. ASEAN has a critical relevance in dealing with issues in Southeast Asia which do not require the principle of ASEAN centrality in the wider Asia-Pacific security. The Association will survive the loss of ASEAN centrality. But if it wants to keep faith with the idea, then it must accept that ASEAN centrality must be earned than merely assumed, and that there can be no ASEAN centrality without ASEAN unity and ASEAN neutrality in dealing with great power rivalry. Unless ASEAN’s members take this seriously and respond accordingly, the days of ASEAN centrality may soon be over.”

I also wrote two op-eds on ASEAN. The first one, “Can ASEAN cope with the changing world order?,” East Asia Forum, 1 August 2017, www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/08/01/can-asean-cope-with-the-changing-world-order/, argues:

“The future of ASEAN and ASEAN-led multilateralism in the multiplex era will be more complex, messy and uncertain than in the bipolar era, the ‘unipolar moment’ or the old-fashioned multipolar system. A strategic approach to multilateralism must begin by recognising the limitations — and the possibility of obsolescence — of the existing ASEAN-led architecture, which faces major external and internal challenges…while it cannot entirely avoid getting involved in great-power rivalry, ASEAN needs to reconsider its role in the wider Asia Pacific, particularly its policy of engaging all the great powers on an ASEAN platform. Some degree of self-isolation, or strategy for avoiding a deep entanglement with great power geopolitics, has to be revived. ASEAN could also think of forging closer ties with Japan, India, Australia and the EU to create some strategic space between itself and Beijing and Washington.”

The other op-ed was published as “Time for Thailand to step in and lead Asean (again),” Bangkok Post, 7 August 2017. http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1301295/time-for-thailand-to-step-in-and-lead-asean-again- It’s a tribute to Thailand’s contribution to ASEAN, which is often unacknowledged. In this I write:

“Thailand has played a proactive and productive role that has been central to the foundation, consolidation and transformation of Asean. What is also remarkable is Thailand’s support for Asean has been maintained throughout its domestic oscillations between military and civilian rule.Now that Asean is facing another turning point in view of the escalating great power rivalry in Asia, will Thailand once again step in to move Asean forward? Thailand’s role is ever more important today given Jokowi’s Indonesia has scaled down its role as a leader of Asean. Thailand’s role in the creation of Asean, and its previous ideas for reforming Asean such as “flexible engagement”, mean that should Bangkok so desire, it can emerge as a major player in injecting Asean with a new sense of purpose and vitality to ensure its continuing relevance. This remains a major challenge for Thai governments.

To conclude, while I remain a firm admirer and believer in ASEAN, I also think ASEAN, like any international institution which has been around for a while needs to adapt to the realities of a changing world order, which I call a Multiplex World.

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