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.