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50 years of ASEAN: shadow and substance, the dignified and the drives

Posted By on May 15, 2017 @ 06:00

To ponder 50 years of the Association of South East Asian Nations is to see the constant interplay of shadow and substance.

On the shadow side, ASEAN always talks a good game and promises much. At the same time, quietly and slowly, the Association strives to piece together substance to solidify the shadows. The declaration of the ASEAN Community in 2015 is a classic of the genre. ASEAN announces the deed is done with the birth of three Communities: the Political-Security Community, the Economic Community and the Socio-Cultural Community. Having created and established Community, ASEAN then sets off to build substance worthy of the title.

Much substance already glows within the shade. For a start, the ASEAN Economic Community is ‘collectively the third largest economy in Asia and the seventh largest in the world’. The hard road ahead will be to make the Community more collective in its functions. The Economic Community churns through reports, summits, blueprints and action plans, and merrily monitors as it guides integration and investment. Many meetings. A plethora of plans. Ample announcements. Some movement. It’s the ASEAN way. Ditto for the Security Community, although the metrics are more nebulous.

I’ve used the shadow/substance framework to understand ASEAN since I plunged into reporting the multi-dimensional maze of the Cambodia peace process in the 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, ASEAN’s six members prodded and pulled warily at both China and Vietnam, while China and Vietnam bashed each other. Add in the four Khmer factions and the Soviet Union in its last moments, plus the UN Security Council, and stir and stir and simmer and simmer. Amazingly, something palatable emerged from the witches brew. Substance was created from much wayang work.

Admiration for ASEAN’s ability to play a weak hand with skill was one of many reasons Vietnam quickly became the Association’s seventh member at a ceremony in Brunei in 1995. It took two decades from ’75 to ’95, but the Vietnam domino did finally fall—not to crush Southeast Asia, but to join it. 

My defining memory of that 1995 gathering in Bandar Seri Begawan is Vietnam's Foreign Minister, Nguyen Manh Cam, walking on stage to be greeted by the other ASEAN foreign ministers. Sitting impassively in the front row of the audience was China's Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen. As the Vietnamese minister turned to face the audience, his eyes went directly to the face of the Chinese minister. Vietnamese grin met icy Chinese stare. Here was a moment of Sino-Vietnamese history with a prelude of thousands of years, a triumphant moment of Southeast Asian regionalism mingling with the complex ancient relationship with China.

As ASEAN reaches its 50th birthday in August, the shadow/substance frame deserves updating. ASEAN’s achievements decree that the wayang way needs a reboot.

My fresh version is to adopt William Bagehot’s 19th Century division of the English Constitution into the dignified and the efficient. The dignified bits, the great hack wrote, are used to inspire the people and preserve reverence. The efficient side is the part which actually works and rules.

Practical men often dismiss the artifice and ceremony of the dignified side as useless—ASEAN gets that all the time, with the cry of ‘all process and no product’. As Bagehot observed, those urging mere utilitarianism miss the way the two elements are essential to the whole.

The dignified parts of government, Bagehot wrote, create the force: ‘They raise the army, though they do not win the battle.’ Without that ability to create and assemble, the efficient side would have no force to deploy. Bagehot’s categories work well in understanding ASEAN. The only problem is that word ‘efficient’; the understanding is right, the label wrong. Efficient carries engineering baggage, suggesting elegantly made and smoothly running machinery. In the economic realm, efficient is about productivity and the best possible use of resources. Elegance of operation and maximum output isn’t what ASEAN offers.

My tweak is to keep dignified while labelling the working side drives. This captures what drives ASEAN and what it’s driving for. So, from shadow/substance to dignified/drives.

The dignified parts are all there in the foundational document, the ASEAN Declaration signed in Bangkok on 8 August 1967: economic growth, regional stability, equality and partnership.

The dignified language of the Declaration translates into security drives to give Southeast Asia autonomy and safety and the organisational purpose of ASEAN centrality.

ASEAN has built a region with a set of agreed (dignified) purposes. The first strategic expression of Southeast Asia was Britain’s South East Asia Command during WW2; America’s cynical yet accurate translation of SEAC was ‘Saving England’s Asian Colonies’. The dignified drives of ASEAN have given substance to a regional imagining that unites Indochina and maritime Southeast Asia.

ASEAN’s greatest achievement is internal: the creation of a set of mutual guarantees that have become important strategic and political norms for the ten members. As the European Community makes another war between France and Germany so remote as to be unthinkable, ASEAN builds its own version of Community, to imbed and integrate the disparate states of a region about to celebrate its 50th collective birthday.

ASEAN’s dignified drives have delivered for its members. Today, the deepest angst is how that internal achievement can be directed outwards, to deal with the big beasts roaming across the Asia–Pacific.

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[1] ASEAN Community: http://asean.org/asean/about-asean/

[2] ASEAN Economic Community: http://asean.org/asean-economic-community/

[3] wayang: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayang

[4] defining memory: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/china-haunts-aseans-dreams

[5] ASEAN Declaration: http://asean.org/the-asean-declaration-bangkok-declaration-bangkok-8-august-1967/

[6] South East Asia Command: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_East_Asia_Command

[7] angst: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/50-years-asean-angst/