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Tang Siew Mun

August 3rd, 2017

ASEAN’s Growing Pains and Challenges


Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Tang Siew Mun

August 3rd, 2017

ASEAN’s Growing Pains and Challenges


Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marks its golden jubilee this year at a time when regionalism and multilateralism have suffered rollbacks. The shock of Brexit is a wake-up call for even the most ardent supporters of regionalism and integration. The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement — an initiative led and pushed forward by the Americans — raises the question of the future of multilateral trade agreements.

At face value, the outlook may look pessimistic.

However, ASEAN has marched on with its ambitious regional agenda with gusto. Support for the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — an ASEAN-led initiative — remains strong, notwithstanding the fact that it has missed several self-declared deadlines for concluding the negotiations. In fact, the Chairman of RCEP’s Trade Negotiating Committee and Director-General for International Trade Negotiations at the Indonesia’s Ministry of Trade and Industry Mr Iman Pambagyo unabashedly stated a point that is manifestly clear to many in the region: ‘RCEP is the only game in town’. Likewise, the apparent interest from Mongolia and Turkey to join ASEAN, however implausible it sounds, is an indication the widening of interest in ASEAN.

Southeast Asia remains one of the few bastions of regionalism and multilateralism.

As other regions seem to be wary of regionalism, Southeast Asia remains one of the few bastions of regionalism and multilateralism. However, regional cooperation does not run on faith alone, and neither does multilateralism. ASEAN is by no means perfect and has its fair share of challenges. Some of these challenges are decades old and could be traced back to its foundation in August 1967, while others are more recent manifestations of ASEAN’s growing pains.

First, ASEAN continues to labour under the burden of the ‘ASEAN way’, including the deeply entrenched norm of non-interference and consensus decision making. To be sure, non-interference is not peculiar to ASEAN as this doctrine is central to the practice and respect for sovereignty. Arguably, the strict application of non-interference has helped the ASEAN member states to keep the peace in the region by removing one aspect of inter-state conflict. This norm will continue to persist as long as sovereignty remains the principle organisation of international relations.


A community, in the truest sense, entails a fluid application of political boundaries to enable the free movement of ideas, people and trade. More importantly, the community is defined by its sense of common purpose and security. While proclaiming itself as a ‘community,’ ASEAN has not internalised the ramifications of its actions. The consensus decision-making model is ripe for change but there are no indications for even an open discussion on this critical matter.

While proclaiming itself as a ‘community’, ASEAN has not internalised the ramifications of its actions.

This a legacy issue that has returned to haunt ASEAN. While high-level practitioners are quick to point out to outside observers that consensus does not equate to unanimity — which suggests that this mode of decision-making can and does accommodate differences — such reminders do not account for the high-profile fallouts that ASEAN has produced, especially in the political-security domain. The Phnom Penh debacle in 2012, which saw ASEAN fail to issue a communique for the first time in the history of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM), is one such episode. ‘Consensus sans unanimity’ works when there is close coordination and rapport among the ASEAN leaders, a feat which was easier to accomplish when ASEAN was smaller and more coherent. In this respect, ASEAN’s expansion from 5 to 10 members has had a material impact on its unity of purpose and actions. The divergence of national interest and strategic misalignments are not unexpected considering ASEAN’s diversity. Its largest economy (Indonesia) is US$857 billion (Indonesia) and its smallest economy is US$12 billion (Laos). The economic gap can also be seen from another perspective: Singapore’s GDP per capita is US$52,744 and Cambodia’s is US$1,198. Politically, ASEAN is no longer as ‘compact’ as it was during the Cold War.

Rather than as a mechanism meant to foster inclusivity and encourage compromises, the consensus decision-making model has evolved into a politically-convenient tool which can be used by any leader at any time to stymie unified responses. The conundrum for ASEAN lies in its seeming inability to arrive at decisions in the event of a political deadlock, which at times forces ASEAN to endure the ‘tyranny of the minority’. The use of the veto to block majority positions has a detrimental effect on ASEAN in two aspects. In the first instance, it erodes the regional organisation’s ability to make difficult positions. It also engenders a sense of distrust against holdouts, further deepening the sense of disunity among the member states. It would only be a matter of time when these feelings of distrust weigh down on ASEAN and erode its sense of ‘community’. Although a break-up is unlikely, it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that disenchanted member states might pursue their interests outside of the ASEAN framework.


ASEAN’s woes are further compounded by the apparent lack of leadership in its midst. It has ten leaders and no followers. Very few among them have offered or showed a sustained degree of leadership to drive the community-building efforts. The regional organisation has operated on the basis of ‘collective leadership’ where practices like consultation played a key role in building support and consensus for collective action. But in the current age of populism and economic nationalism, few leaders have the interest nor the inclination to spend scarce political capital on regional issues. The days when ‘traditional’ ASEAN stalwarts like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and even Brunei, led the pack to drive ASEAN forward are sorely missed.

Again, ASEAN has plenty of leaders but little leadership.

The ‘collapse’ of collective leadership puts the onus on the ASEAN Chair in compensating for the lack of leadership. The effectiveness of the Chair is dependent on the quality and interest of the holder. A major problem with ASEAN’s rotational leadership is the lack of continuity from one chair to another. Chairs typically reflect their national agenda onto the regional agenda and use their one-year tenure as windows to pursue these aims. Besides having the discretion to set the ASEAN priority during their tenure, Chairs also have some latitude to drive and influence regional discussions through their ability to control the meeting agenda and draft important documents such as the Chairman’s Statement and Joint Communique. This unique position makes the Chair an enticing target by external parties which might harbour interests of constraining or controlling ASEAN’s collective positions.

External Relations

ASEAN’s most vexing problem concerns its management of its external relations, especially with the major powers. China’s shadow loom large in Southeast Asia. It is ASEAN’s largest trade partner, but it is not an easy relationship. Nine out of the 10 ASEAN states run a trade deficit with China, which has increased from US$6 billion ($8.4 billion) in 2010 to US$77 billion ($108 billion) in 2015. Close to 74% of the respondents in a recent survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute recognised China as the most influential country in Southeast Asia, but 72% of these respondents also have little or no confidence in China to ‘do the right thing’ in contributing to global peace, security, prosperity and governance. Interestingly, the same survey ranked Japan as the most trusted among the major powers. About 62% of the respondents are ‘very confident’ or ‘confident’ that Japan would do the ‘right thing’. America’s favourability is as poor as China’s, with 72% of the respondents having negative views on US’s willingness to ‘do the right thing’. ASEAN is left with the strategic conundrum of living beside a very powerful neighbour — China — that it does not trust. At the same time, it holds Japan in high regard but doubts it has the political will and capacity to lead. The US is the world’s leading power but its influence is not felt as strong in the region, nor is it roundly trusted.

ASEAN centrality rests with its ability to be relevant to the all the major powers.

China’s ascendancy is bad news for ASEAN in a strategic sense. ASEAN centrality rests with its ability to be relevant to the all the major powers. It facilitates and mediates major power relations — and their rivalries — by providing each the space and outlets to pursue their interests in the region. If and when China achieves dominance in the region, it can side-track ASEAN and deal with the ASEAN member states bilaterally. At the same time, if the US is disengaged from the region, it would give China a freer hand to exert its influence in the region. In fact, the majority of the respondents (51.4%) contend that the US has ‘lost strategic ground to China since Donald Trump took over the US presidency’. The shifting strategic balance could have grave implications for ASEAN. Centrality is less about ASEAN’s pretensions of regional leadership. It has never aspired for such a role. Centrality is a defensive position to maintaining ASEAN’s independence by facilitating and anchoring the major powers engagement in the region. This strategy relies on sustaining the interest of all the major powers. China’s growing strength, coupled with US’s perceived decline and Japan’s strategic coyness puts this strategy in jeopardy.

ASEAN at 50

ASEAN’s golden jubilee has not generated much excitement in the region, and this itself is a reflection of the degree of awareness and interest it has on the larger Southeast Asian citizenry. But this phenomenon is again to be expected in a region where nation-building remains a pressing challenge. It is unrealistic to expect Malaysians to transfer some degree of loyalty to a regional entity when the question of their own national identity is as yet unsettled. At the same there must also be a realisation throughout Southeast Asia that ASEAN does not ‘feel’ 50. Cambodia — the last country admitted to ASEAN — has only been an ASEAN member for 18 years.

Nevertheless, ASEAN cannot dodge the question of its institutional maturity. The economic plane of its community seems to be in full flight — although not without its share of challenges — but the political-security community would most likely remain a long cherished aspiration. It would also not be easy for the socio-cultural pillar but fostering understanding and building bridges of friendship will always be less divisive than territorial disputes. ASEAN remains a work in progress, but it is useful to examine what works and what does not for ASEAN to advance to the next step of community building.


* This post has been published as part of a series of papers that were presented at the LSE Southeast Asia Forum (SEAF) in May 2018. This annual event provides a unique opportunity to engage with Southeast Asia’s most critical issues, network with renowned experts and participate in high-level debate. For more information, please click here.

*The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

* Banner image is from chuttersnap

About the author

Tang Siew Mun

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Head of ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, where he is concurrently Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme and the Managing Editor of ASEANFocus. His primary research interests are Asian security, ASEAN’s relations with the major powers, and Japanese foreign policy.

Posted In: Governance

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