With the hype and fanfare settled over the recent 20th ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, the ASEAN Secretariat has turned its eyes back to the headquarters in Jakarta, and the 10 heads of state are safe and back to the daily grind of national politics.
But the summer respite leaves us wondering whether the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) genuinely offers benefits to member states. There have been three common criticisms against the organization since its creation in 1967, which are worth considering.
First, it is said that the bloc has been nothing else but an empty shell, pretty much like the quiet corridors of its Jakarta headquarters that buzz only when the coterie of diplomats alight for one of the 300 or so meetings held every year, with little or nil effect on the domestic reforms.
Now politics will always be riddled with detractors and free riders or, indeed, the classical realists who believe that multilateral institutions will always be at the service of the state, so it will be difficult to put up a defense of ASEAN against its cynics.
There are, however, some undeniable facts that ought to make ASEAN pull its weight not only in international politics but also in the management of domestic affairs. From the time ASEAN was conceived, major interstate conflagrations have been avoided.
ASEAN has been an integral part what some scholars have called the decades of “East Asian Peace”, especially since 1989 when Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia.
ASEAN has also been increasingly used as the preferred multilateral forum with the European Union (EU) (called the Asia-Europe Meeting or ASEM), and significantly of late, the Philippines has called for the organization to take the lead in bringing the claimants to the Spratly Islands to a rules-based, multilateral and peaceful resolution of this simmering conflict.
At a time when the region is fast becoming the proxy playing field between the US waning in its imperial might and China on the heels of its ascending star, ASEAN can turn conflict into opportunity.
Second, the grand vision of an ASEAN Community by 2015 is underway but it is turning into either an enclave of an elite group of bureaucrats and retired wannabes from previous national administrations or a closed circle of seasoned diplomats wary of the meddling of the international community — especially of the West — and the hidden agenda of supposedly well-meaning civil society organizations.
The charge that ASEAN continues to be clouded in secrecy seems to me a problem of political perspective. The endless multi-sector meetings that comprise representatives from the various national ministries regularly engage civil society advocates and international institutions.
Civil society organizations in Southeast Asia do not operate like Western NGOs — embedded civil society activists weave in and out of the ASEAN institutions as experts and specialists or as national appointees, wearing two hats but always respecting the imaginary boundaries between these two spheres of action. There is an understanding that most reforms are on account of the strength and experience of these individuals.
The civil society consultations that came out of the Phnom Penh summit (say the Joint Statement of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum 2012) and multilateral trade agreements with long-standing dialogue partners (like the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement — AANZFTA) are clear indications that it would be foolish, nay impossible, for ASEAN to block out either the international donors that help it realize its international projects or the voices of its peoples who have been enshrined in the organization’s constitution since 2008 (the ASEAN Charter).
The great challenge for ASEAN is to stand behind its Secretariat and the region’s more mindful regional media networks to inform its national constituencies of pressing regional debates because national priorities are natural headline huggers of national dailies.
Finally, some quarters have gone as far as saying that all these meetings have now found a way of perpetuating themselves to the satisfaction of those who go on the trips and enjoy the perks and, for better or for worse, are now blind to the dreams of the forbearers of ASEAN.
To admit that ASEAN is turning on itself aimlessly is to dismiss the work of competent and determined individuals comprising the Secretariat, the Country Permanent Representatives and ASEAN senior officials who are liaising with their national ministries to foment trade and commerce, educational and socio-cultural initiatives that are at the essence of bringing money into this regional machine, but who are equally important in constructing a regional identity so that the peoples of ASEAN may relate more easily with regional institutions most akin to their national histories.
Close observers must not lose sight of the fact that there are indeed individuals who are jaded by the copious meetings and the endless reports that have to be hammered out in their wake, but who are hanging in there all the same.
While it is arguably easier to put up and sustain the UN, putting up ASEAN, just like putting up the EU, is a more realistic path in creating institutions from the bottom up if our dream is to create wider, more prosperous and peaceful international communities.
The idea behind the politics of ASEAN was to institutionalize an informal dialogue that would maintain peace and security in the region in the wake of konfrontasi. ASEAN has built on this achievement and I find that the association has evolved from being an “anti-socialist” (the original five — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore) to being a “pro-pluralist” (all the present 10 — now including Cambodia, Burma-Myanmar, Brunei, Laos and Vietnam) organization of sovereign states.
Today, it is in the interest of the 10 to hold together if they want to play on the world stage — and not least of their concerns is to capitalize on their shared natural resources by keeping the US and Chinese influences in the region in check.
ASEAN does not have this mandate but it is working toward a community that could give each of the 10 members the kind of leverage that will command respect from the great powers — ASEAN can dialogue with “pariah states” where the world chooses to look away (think Myanmar), it can afford time for colonies to play up the idea of and build a nation (say Indonesia) and give space for a city to become a powerful state (such as the likes of Singapore).
Without overestimating the contribution of ASEAN, it is so far the most practical, real and sustained effort in building institutions, which have promoted peace, security and a genuine sense of regional identity against the formidable sweep of global forces.
The writer is a university research scholar of East Asian Studies at the School of Politics and International Studies, the University of Leeds, UK. He is the principal investigator of the LIAISON Project — Language and Power in Advocacy in Southeast Asian Networks.