ASEAN at 50: time to fulfill the promise
8 Aug 2017|

As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations marks its 50th anniversary today, its 10 leaders should pause from the inevitable self-congratulation to reflect on the organisation’s failings as well as its successes. ASEAN has notched up many achievements worth celebrating. But its leaders need to recognise that its institutional structures are not fit to meet the region’s looming political and economic challenges.

To secure ASEAN’s future relevance, it’s time to reconsider bold institutional reform.

In the process, ASEAN should look honestly at its record. On the positive side, it helped keep peace between neighbors of very different ethno-cultural, religious and political traditions, even as the post-war US presence acted as the main guarantor of interstate security. It was a strong supporter of a global economic order based on market opening that produced a remarkable pace of development and lifted tens of millions of its citizens out of poverty. It forged a nascent sense of regional identity and common purpose, albeit largely among elites.

Yet in the face of crises, both security and economic, it has too often looked weak and contracted solutions out to other organisations or nations. When confronted with the ravages of Pol Pot on ASEAN’s then border in Cambodia (until Vietnam’s unilateral decision to end Khmer Rouge butchery) or the vengeful destruction of East Timor, it looked indecisive.

When regional economies melted down 20 years ago, ASEAN lacked local solutions. It mostly turned to money and not-so-bright ideas dished out by the representatives of the rich industrial north.

More recently, ASEAN has struggled to develop a credible position on China’s de facto takeover of the South China Sea. At the close of talks among ASEAN leaders in Manila at the end of April, President Rodrigo Duterte, as this year’s ASEAN chairman, delivered a statement that skipped any mention of China’s construction of military and other installations on disputed territory.

The best they could agree on after lengthy debate, including at a retreat to the aptly named ‘Coconut Palace’, was to take note of ‘concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area’.

Foreign ministers, meeting in Manila on Saturday, again baulked at a Vietnamese request for a tough statement on the Chinese build-up.

As a clock on ASEAN’s website counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the anniversary, the organisation shows all the signs of a mid-life crisis. But critics who say that ASEAN now serves no ‘useful purpose’ miss the point.

A strong ASEAN is needed now more than ever.

Security threats from the South China Sea to the Korean peninsula, international system-changing phenomena, like the rise of China and India, and changes to commerce caused by technological innovation and a resurgence of nationalistic economic policies are more effectively faced by a unified Southeast Asia that speaks with a strong voice. But that will require ASEAN to submit to a reinvigorating make-over.

A decade ago, just before ASEAN’s 40th anniversary, a group of 10 Southeast Asian elders anticipated the security and economic challenges ahead and came up with a practical set of ideas to ensure that ASEAN offered more value to its members and exercised a bigger international role. Their report recommended dramatic changes to the principles that had governed ASEAN since the Bangkok Declaration in 1967.

The proposed reforms to the ASEAN charter and organisational operation had three main threads: a break with the sacrosanct tradition of achieving consensus on all decisions, the creation of a dispute-settling mechanism backed by the sanction of suspending ASEAN benefits to individual members, and the transformation of the Jakarta-based ASEAN secretariat into a policy-capable decision-maker and enforcer.

One corollary was that ASEAN members would have to drop their insistence on ‘non-interference in areas where common interest dictates closer cooperation’. The report still favored decision-making by consensus, especially on sensitive political and security issues. But if consensus couldn’t be achieved, ‘decisions may be taken through voting’ based on rules to be determined. One idea was to establish whatever solidarity was possible by adopting a formula of ‘ASEAN minus X’ or ‘2 plus X’. The ultimate goal was to take the concept of an ASEAN community all the way to an ASEAN union.

The report’s authors had vast experience of ASEAN summitry and a realistic view of the opportunities and limitations posed by reform to ASEAN. They included former Philippine president Fidel Ramos and several distinguished former foreign ministers. Then ASEAN chairman Abdullah Badawi, the former Malaysian prime minister, had given them licence to be ‘bold and visionary’. What they presented would have been the biggest reform to ASEAN since its inception. Still, they concluded that their recommendations would be ‘practical to implement’.

Ten years later, ASEAN is still contemplating charter reform, yet without the visionary ideal. The chairman’s statement issued by Duterte on 29 April revealed tepid interest in reform. He noted that the consensus was for a ‘precise and cautious approach’—code for avoiding measures that place any pressure or penalty on a member who’s out of step.

But that’s precisely what ASEAN needs. The 2006 eminent persons group understood that, without greater discipline and cohesion, ASEAN risked condemning itself to irrelevance. Too often, states sacrifice the collective good to avoid a domestic political fight or advance a separate foreign policy agenda.

It will take imaginative reform and strong political will for ASEAN to be fit to manage the big economic and security challenges in the decades ahead.

Otherwise, plans for greater economic integration of the market of 650 million people will continue to slip. China will continue to capture ASEAN states nearest its border, giving Beijing de facto veto power over any ASEAN decisions it doesn’t like.

This isn’t in the interests of Southeast Asia. It also isn’t in the interests of the US and its regional allies, who will benefit from an economically open and prosperous Southeast Asia and who worry about China’s growing ambition.