In November last year ASEAN leaders met with great fanfare and set out aspirations for the Association to 2025 but little action has followed. Munir Majid writes that as geopolitical tensions threaten in South East Asia, ASEAN cannot afford to stand feebly on the sidelines, and argues that strong political leadership is needed to take more decisive action and give meaning to ASEAN centrality.
ASEAN is failing. It is not working in the way grand declarations and pronouncement of community just last year proclaimed it would. Yet, in a pattern of self-deception which has become a regional characteristic, ASEAN – and its intellectual apologists – continue to deny what is plain for all to see.
If not before, it is a piece of fiction now to speak of “ASEAN centrality”. This was again proclaimed when the ASEAN Political and Security Community was pronounced last November. The Association’s foreign ministers even agreed in September on a “work plan” to strengthen this. But, however ASEAN muddles through with on what this centrality means, it is gone.
Surely, the first and foremost thing about centrality must be that it is central to its member states. Is it? Certainly not in respect of how to project and defend an ASEAN position on the South China Sea.
Some have described ASEAN as toothless in this regard. This is unfair. You cannot expect ASEAN to bite or even bark at mighty China. However, you would expect the Association to stand up for its principles and for the sovereign rights of states, big or small. Therefore ASEAN should more appropriately be described as spineless.
This did not use to be the case. When ASEAN declared the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in 1971, through the leadership of Malaysia’s Tun Razak among others, it was in no position to defend it in a very hot phase – the Vietnam War was raging – of the Cold War. Nevertheless it drew a line in a joint commitment to establish a cordon sanitaire.
When ASEAN so creatively promulgated the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 1976 – with leaders such as Indonesia’s Suharto and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew at the fore – it was in actuality the origin of ASEAN centrality: when states from outside the region want to come and treat with ASEAN, they had to accede to the TAC, one of whose main tenets was the legal undertaking to resolve disputes peacefully.
Thus it was that China acceded to the TAC in 2003 and the US in 2009. It is interesting to note that in the joint communique in Vientiane last month, where ASEAN foreign ministers struggled to forge a weak consensus, there was allusion to the TAC – as if, whistling in the dark, they wanted to remind its outside partners, especially in relation to the South China Sea, of their commitment to the peaceful conduct of states.
If there was some agreement in Vientiane not to make big the arbitration award on the law of the sea which so infuriates China, to lower the temperature in a situation that is spinning out of control, to engage in bilateral negotiations with China among the claimant states, but also to return to the Declaration of Conduct of Parties (2002) framework which will be fulfilled by a legally binding Code of Conduct, it would be a good thing.
But where is the leadership in ASEAN to pursue the matter with the commitment that is needed? Leaders and ministers meet and then they go back to domestic concerns. Who follows through? Certainly not the weak secretariat. Who provides the leadership in ASEAN today of the type which saw its establishment 50 years ago, of the panache and imagination of Tun Razak, Lee Kuan Yew and Suharto (to name just a few of the luminaries of ASEAN in days gone by)?
This lack of leadership is the reason why ASEAN is failing today. It has been happily organising meetings, with rotating chairs among its members, with its partners (the so-called “ASEAN Plus” countries), at the ASEAN Regional Forum (established in 1994, now with 27 members) and the East Asia Summit (set up in 2005, now with 18 members), where they all come and attest to ASEAN centrality, which they genuinely believe in while at the same time going on and doing their own thing.
After the hoopla and the linking of arms, there is poor follow up and follow through, except for the organising of more meetings. All too often you hear the assertion: ASEAN will do this and that, will take on the challenge of one thing or the other. Who? Which ASEAN? Doing what exactly?
There is no doubt there are major problems in the region. The biggest is the new regional geopolitics in Southeast Asia informed by strategic contest for influence between China and the US. Weighty academic conclusions have been reached such as Southeast Asia has become “the decisive territory, on the future of which hangs the outcome of a great contest for influence in Asia.”
ASEAN (here we go again, ASEAN as one when there is not any) is not able to contend with this new geopolitical reality. There is now an environment in the region out of the control of the Association’s institutional capabilities, such as they are. Another comment by a regional expert Richard Javad Heydarian: “ASEAN suffers from inherent institutional paralysis.”
Yet the situation was not any easier at the height of the Cold War at the time ASEAN was established, when the Vietnam war was raging, later when the genocidal Pol Pot regime reigned in Cambodia (which was later invaded), the war between China and Vietnam in 1979 – one thing after another – but ASEAN held together and fashioned a regional order even if it did not exclusively determine its remit.
The difference then was there was leadership in the Association to make it possible to talk about an “ASEAN position”. Nowadays even the simplest of things take forever to happen. The leaders talk grandly about being “People-Centric”. Yet they cannot even make sure there are ASEAN lanes at all member airports and points of entry. Nor can they get an ASEAN Business Travel Card issued, despite the fact it is the economy and the movement of people to drive it that could be the saviour of a failing ASEAN.
This is the only true centrality, the promise of a collaborative economy – if it was one. The size, the growth, the demographics are compelling. But problems abound that will only realise a sub-optimal ASEAN economy. The issue of non-tariff barriers in so many sectors remains outstanding despite promises to address them even if only on a prioritised basis.
Regulation hinders use of technology. It hinders finance and the mobilisation of capital in the region. It discourages the free movement of skilled labour. If not for the ingenuity and persistence of business people, the ASEAN economy would not have made what little progress it has.
Even so, a total dependence on economic determinism driven exclusively by the free market can store up the ingredients for a combustible future, as shown in developed countries with huge disparities in income and wealth. The GINI coefficient in all member countries has been increasing. There has to be ASEAN socio-economic leadership as well beyond just going for economic growth to support its maldistribution.
ASEAN leaders treated 2015 as the landmark date which saw the formal establishment of the ASEAN community. Now they should look seriously into how ASEAN is failing and why. If they kick serious problems to long grass – like into 2025 – they might find there is very little to look at that is “ASEAN” then.
A version of this article originally appeared in Malaysia’s The Star newspaper on 30 July 2016. It is reposted with the author’s permission.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid is an LSE alumnus, Chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE IDEAS. He is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.