The state of Southeast Asian regionalism

(A collaborative essay by Danielle Renee M. Nacpil, Ijy James Lomibao, and this columnist.)

INITIALLY built upon the notion of withstanding the communist expansion in Southeast Asia, the establishment of ASEAN cooperation underwent many changes throughout the course of its history.

However, what has remained in its operation as noted by A. Acharya in The Quest for Identity: International Relations of Southeast Asia and D. E. Weatherbee in International Relations in Southeast Asia: The Struggle for Autonomy, is the core essence of consultation, consensus, and the general sense of non-interference which, unlike other regional organization, forms the ASEAN Way.

Both authors discussed the state of Southeast Asia through the lens of international relations encompassing security, political, and economic considerations. Acharya believed that Southeast Asia is not an invention of the West or a recent development, contrary to what many scholars believed – that the idea of regionalism came about in World War II.

From its foundation on Aug. 8, 1967 with just five founding member-states, up to its expansion by accepting Brunei in 1984; Vietnam in 1995 highlighting the closure of the political divide between communist and non-communist Southeast Asia; granting observer status to Laos in 1992 (although Laos formally joined ASEAN on July 23, 1997); Cambodia in 1994 (although this was moved to a later date because of the political turmoil happening in the country initiated by Hun Sen’s coup); and finally Myanmar in 1996 (which obtained its share of Western and its allies’ criticism because of Myanmar’s ruling military junta’s human rights violations but which also formally joined ASEAN on July 23, 1997), ASEAN has firmly established itself as a regional bloc – accepting members based on geography and how beneficial they will be to the Association.

Weatherbee explained that “although ASEAN can rightfully claim that all of Southeast Asia has been brought under ASEAN’s normative tent”, it doesn’t follow that policy directions made by individual states are congruent with the collective decisions made by the group. The new threat environment is more complex and non-traditional with a multidimensional array of political, economic, social, and cultural challenges, he further said.

Initially conceived for discussions on traditional security needs, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has expanded to include agreements, programs, and other efforts, that encompass non-traditional security concerns directed at capacity building, information sharing, and bilateral/multilateral coordination. ARF addresses the non-traditional security concerns in climate change, natural disasters, transnational crimes, among others.

The challenge therefore for ASEAN, is to maintain solidarity to aid its transformation from a balance-of-power mechanism to a political, security, and economic community as it reinvented itself legally via the 2007 ASEAN Charter.

The scholars said that ASEAN, with all its rhetoric, declarations, and decisions, is still hampered by the protectionist behaviour of the individual states. Moreover, the association is still asserting the principles of sovereignty, non-interference, and informal dialogue and consensus, creating a loose regionalism where there is no regional organizational authority over the member states’ policies or behaviour.

Weatherbee describes this as “not a problem-solving mechanism”; but rather, a “conflict-avoidance system.” As such, postures made by the organization are political in nature rather than a legalistic recourse.

Even with the failures of expectations as expounded by scholars from both the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, and even the 2007 ASEAN Charter, ASEAN has gained relative successes, said Weatherbee. These can be gleaned from ASEAN’s international relations through the state to state bilateral levels and the ASEAN multilateral levels. Southeast Asia has become a player in the international system.

This came about in three interrelated developments: a) key regional states’ increasing capabilities and national ambitions; b) creation of interdependencies as the region integrates into the global economy; and c) acknowledgement that Southeast Asia hosts great power rivalries and competition for influence.

Another area of success is ASEAN member states’ collective acceptance of the norms of peaceful change and non-use of force in international relations. Weatherbee expressed that ASEAN’s real achievement is its contribution to a regional international political order that has promoted a climate for economic assistance, trade, and foreign direct investment supporting national development programs.

All things considered, ASEAN still has a long way to go before perfecting the concept of a “healthy regional environment”, given the diversity of interests of its member-states. Each member will prioritize its own plans and goals – benefits and consequences of which will be raised and discussed in ASEAN Summits, meetings, and other platforms – but for now, it is crucial for conflict not to arise. Hence, we can safely say that the establishment of the organization brought much needed stability in the region enabling its member-states to prosper through economic trade and security assurance.


For comments, you may reach the writer at [email protected]./PN


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