ASEAN: regional stabiliser in Southeast and East Asia?

Author: Beginda Pakpahan, UI

On 8 August 2012 ASEAN celebrated its 45th year. As a mature regional economic organisation, ASEAN can act as a potential stabiliser in Southeast and East Asia. ASEAN’s internal developments affect developments in the East Asian region, so the association stands to consolidate this influence by promoting the resolution of the South China Sea issue and supporting Myanmar’s transition to democracy and economic development.

The association aims to achieve an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015, thus promoting regional connectivity as a means of improving economic development within Southeast Asia. The AEC aims to establish a common market and production base to allow free trade in goods, services, investments, flow of capital and movement of skilled labour. It also integrates the ASEAN market into the global economy. The AEC Council reports that ASEAN has realised 67.9 per cent of the Blueprint, including in relation to the movement of goods across ASEAN countries and the development of the ASEAN Single Window.

ASEAN is also starting to implement the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity. This plan aims to connect infrastructure within ASEAN countries, synergise ASEAN countries’ institutions by dealing with non-tariff barriers, and link people to people within Southeast Asia in order to foster sociocultural connectivity. Advancing regional integration and the ASEAN Community calls for ASEAN to build a more coherent institutional machinery. To this end, the association has made some progress in implementing its charter after it was ratified in 2008, by creating a Committee of Permanent Representatives and by coordinating the development of the ASEAN Community and ASEAN Connectivity.

Moreover, ASEAN has acknowledged the political changes in Myanmar, recognising that it has held free, fair and transparent by-elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. ASEAN has called upon its external partners (in particular the US and the EU) to ease their sanctions against Myanmar in an effort to assist the political transition to democracy and economic development. The United States and the EU have gradually lifted their sanctions against Myanmar, for example in foreign direct investment and financial services.

Despite political and economic progress, differences of opinion among ASEAN states remain. At the recent meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Cambodia, ASEAN could not achieve a unified position on the South China Sea issue because of differences between its member states about China’s sovereignty over the disputed waters.

Thus ASEAN’s internal developments affect East Asian economic and political developments, such as the proliferation of economic activities in East Asia or conflict management of the South China Sea. The progress in regional integration (through the ASEAN Community) and enhanced connectivity would improve economic regional activities in East Asia. Southeast Asia is becoming an attractive region because of its economic environment, a gradually integrated market, abundant natural resources and growing national economies.

ASEAN has taken several regional economic and political initiatives within Southeast Asia and East Asia: it has established the Asian Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN+3. ARF and ASEAN+3 are crucial fora for preserving peace and security within Southeast Asia and East Asia, for example by contributing to maritime security in the Malacca straits, a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in Southeast Asia and a confidence building initiative in East Asia.

EAS also promotes an East Asian Free Trade Agreement and a comprehensive economic partnership in East Asia. ASEAN has also established several free trade agreements with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Therefore, ASEAN can be recognised as an axis of regional cooperation within Southeast Asia and East Asia. The realisation of the AEC would improve ASEAN’s profile in the eyes of both regional investors within ASEAN and foreign investors from outside the association.

Significant political progress in Myanmar can contribute positively to the political image of ASEAN. ASEAN countries can support Myanmar in its transition to democracy and assist in its economic development — a valuable opportunity for East Asian investors given Myanmar’s oil and mineral resources.

These economic and political developments could increase ASEAN’s leverage vis-à-vis its external partners in East Asia and the Asia Pacific. ASEAN may use the Axis of Symmetrical Interests, by balancing regional and global interests when negotiating with and relating to external parties. Regional organisations such as ASEAN can serve as a focal point for inter-regional cooperation based on mutual benefits. ASEAN can strengthen its position as a regional stabiliser between the Southeast and the East Asian regions in order to create balance and synergy among actors — including the US and China. ASEAN can help drive regional forums such as ARF and EAS in order to develop dependability of action within the political and economic cooperation between ASEAN and its external partners.

Despite this notable progress, the South China Sea issue is gradually becoming a problem within ASEAN, potentially putting the association’s unity at risk and jeopardising the establishment of the AEC. To deal with this situation ASEAN needs to manage territorial disputes in the South China Sea by gaining the acceptance of all conflicting parties to ensure the of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is implemented. The internal coherence of ASEAN is essential to its role as peacemaker and mediator, and the association should consolidate its political stance when engaging with external actors.

Beginda Pakpahan is a lecturer at the University of Indonesia, Jakarta, and a researcher at the University of Edinburgh.


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  • henry ford

    Agree with the author on your careful analysis of ASEAN maturity process and its future potential. However, you may have hesitated to further mention the biggest threat to ASEAN unity, thus its according international role is China. It was clear to the ASEAN observers that China openly corrupted Cambodia to deflate “the ASEAN way”, which has worked so well during the integrations of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and now Myanmar. A desperate China will continue to intervene further with smaller and weaker members such as Laos… unless, ASEAN changes to a super majority decision making process. Compared to the US, China is an Asian global power that is willing and able to infiltrate regional politics, governance, culture and people to achieve its goal of dominance.
    Times change, actors change and ASEAN must change to remain relevant before China makes it obsolete.

    • Beginda Pakpahan

      I have took into account the differences of opinion among ASEAN member states with regard to the South China Sea. I consider this issue as a challenge which needs to be carefully resolved by ASEAN member states through consensus. I am still thinking that ASEAN may not taking a way as the EU has (a supranational body with a super decision-making system). ASEAN has its own way (including the evolution of the ASEAN way) to solve its challenges. I see that Indonesia as a non-claimant country on the South-China Sea issue and also a de facto leader of ASEAN has a crucial role to play in order to pursue claimants countries within ASEAN to stick together. At the same time, Indonesia also pursues Cambodia to respect and support the the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Therefore, I also argue that the internal coherence of ASEAN is crucial to handle on the South China Sea issue which aims to promote peace and security in the South-East and Asia region.

      • henry ford

        Thanks for your quick reply Beginda! You make me go back and read your article one more time, with the same appreciation for your thoughtfulness but still disagree on how ASEAN may have to simplify/deviate from its decision making process toward a super majority ( whatever the rule that deems suitable: 2 third or 2 third+…).
        Why am I saying this?
        1. I concur the historical usefulness of “ASEAN way” in bringing along different political systems, population sizes, history of conflicts… into current membership. It worked well to recruit and to incrementally mold old, new members into a more coherent present stage.
        2. What changed? Internally, the tragic incident in Cambodia shows crack in the system that was easily exploded with grave consequence. I applauded Indonesia effort that belatedly saved ASEAN image and agree with you that Indonesia is/will be formidable leader in the future. But the mere fact that Indonesia had to reach for that watered down agreement, instead of the customary role of the ASEAN chair speaks volumes of the forthcoming deadlocks. Externally, China has become “too-big-to-fail” actor that ASEAN must be dealing with forever.
        3. Population and economy wise, about half of ASEAN members are smaller than a mid-size Chinese city. Cambodia has over 1 million Chinese immigrants among its 7 millions population while Laos has .75 million Chinese among its 3 million citizens. China already infiltrated smaller nations within ASEAN with dominance over with key industries, education, politics… How long before these nations become client states of China and/or serve Chinese interest? Did Cambodia just show us how and when?
        4. South China Sea is the defining challenge for ASEAN for the foreseeable future. It should not be simply about claimants or non-claimant countries. It’s about whether or not ASEAN has the political system to stand up against the illegal/injustice claim of China for this very strategic passageway? Given how disruptive and relentless China is and will be, I argue that the current ASEAN way, always seeking that elusive unity is insufficient to deal with China. There will be no smooth sailing for AEC in 2015, nor peace and stability in the regions until 600 million members of ASEAN use the majority voice to stand up against Chinese domination.

        • Beginda Pakpahan

          Thank you for your explanation. I appreciate it. I understand with your detailed explanation. There are challenges for ASEAN to consolidate in order to response its current challenges (the South China Sea, the ASEAN Community, etc) in an effective way.

          Generally, ASEAN pursues consultation and consensus based decision-making in its policy-making system. ASEAN countries have employed a flexible and informal approach to view and overcome their collective challenges in previous and current time. In addition to it, there is also what we called the ASEAN Minus X formula in order to flow the decision-making within ASEAN based on consent of all ASEAN member states. This formula was used by ASEAN member states in the adoption and implementation of the economic commitments as mentioned in Article 21 of the ASEAN Charter. It called flexible participation for ASEAN countries on ASEAN on its decision-making. Since the South China Sea consists of political (border disputes) and also economic elements (a trade route) on it. Therefore, we need to wait and see what ASEAN leaders will do consolidate themselves and to negotiate with China in order to ensure the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is implemented. The peaceful and stable South-East and East is a common objective for all parties in ASEAN and also in China as well as other East Asian countries.

          Thank you and best regards,

          Beginda Pakpahan