ASEAN integration remains an illusion

Author: Barry Desker, RSIS

For the ASEAN member states, the benchmark of successful regionalism has been ASEAN’s effectiveness in bringing the region closer. The lack of interstate conflict has been credited to ASEAN’s success in moulding a greater regional consciousness among policymakers. But while the region has been performing well since it adopted the ASEAN Charter in November 2007, integration is still an aspiration that remains unfulfilled.

Statistically, 90 per cent of the three ASEAN Community Pillars’ targets — political security, economic and sociocultural — have been achieved. The focus has been on concluding and ratifying inter-governmental agreements, adopting work plans, undertaking studies, forming committees and other similar actions. There is less attention on the effectiveness of these measures and the extent of implementation. Little has been done to reduce transaction costs, increase intra-ASEAN flows and improve the pace and depth of ASEAN integration.

ASEAN’s great achievement has been in facilitating regional relationships with the major powers, as well as with international and regional groupings. The East Asia Summit (EAS) — made up of ASEAN plus the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and India — and ASEAN+3 — that is, ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea — are central institutions in these relationships.

One problem has been the competing proposals for regional economic integration, with the EAS promoting the Comprehensive Economic Partnership for East Asia and the ASEAN+3 pushing for an East Asia Free Trade Agreement. The launch of negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2012 was a step forward. ASEAN could avoid a choice between the two alternative economic visions.

More significantly, as a multilateral agreement, RCEP offers the opportunity to avoid the trade-distorting aspects of single-country free trade agreements, as ASEAN’s partners — Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea — are states which have already concluded FTAs with ASEAN.

But the presence of India in the group is a point of concern. India has often been the cause of deadlocks in multilateral trade and economic negotiations. Despite the pro-business thrust of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, the government will need to overcome the instincts of the Indian bureaucracy if RCEP negotiations are to be successfully concluded.

A key concern is that ASEAN’s key concern beyond 2015 is that integration remains an illusion. ASEAN is a diplomatic community with little impact on the lives of most people in its 10 member states. Its members have diverse political, economic and legal systems and are at different levels of economic development.

There is a real worry that a ‘two-stage’ ASEAN is emerging. The six earlier members plus Vietnam are leading the way while Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos remain mired in their least-developed country status. Within the member states, loyalties and affinities are centred on the local state level.

There is hardly any ASEAN mindset except among policymakers, academics and journalists. Most businessmen resist closer economic cooperation if it undermines their existing market dominance, but are keen on opening the markets of their neighbours. ASEAN policymakers appear to have tunnel vision. The three Community Pillars are discussed within silos and there is poor cross-sectoral interaction.

What is lacking is a ‘whole of government’ approach. ASEAN policymakers focus on their individual sectoral responsibilities and are unable to relate their concerns to the issues affecting other sectors of society. While there is considerable discussion of ASEAN connectivity, difficult issues of ‘behind the border’ integration need to be addressed. Critical aspects include harmonising customs standards, standardising legal regimes and developing info-communications technology infrastructure.

Even when proposals are made that appear intended to promote closer integration, they fail to take reality into account. At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in January 2015, Malaysia reiterated the call for a common ASEAN time zone for the capitals of ASEAN countries. But Timor Leste is in a time zone two and a half hours ahead of Myanmar; aligning with a common ASEAN time zone would make little sense. Does this mean that the door is closed to Timor Leste’s future membership?

A growing worry is the fragile state of ASEAN unity. External parties are able to shape the positions of ASEAN members on regional issues such as the competing maritime claims in the South China Sea. This could undermine efforts to create an agreed ASEAN view.

As China exerts its influence on ASEAN members to prevent any decisions which could affect its preference for bilateral negotiations, it will be increasingly difficult to reach an ASEAN consensus.

In July 2012, Cambodia blocked the inclusion of any reference to the South China Sea disputes, resulting in a failure to issue a communique for the first time after an ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. This development is a harbinger of future trends.

There will be pressures on ASEAN states to avoid criticisms of external powers, and the more vulnerable ASEAN members may feel obliged to agree with their external patrons. ASEAN communiques could therefore see a papering over of critical differences. The appearance of ASEAN unity is concealing sharp differences in points of view.

Barry Desker is Distinguished Fellow and Bakrie Professor of South-east Asia Policy at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article was first published here by RSIS. 

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