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ASEAN at 50: Still a Work in Progress; By Carlyle A. Thayer

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

C3S Article no: 0075/2017

Courtesy: Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 17, 2017.

Q1. What is your comment about the progress of ASEAN after 50 years?

ANSWER: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in August 1967 after Singapore separated from Malaysia and after konfrontasi (armed confrontation) between Indonesia against the Federation of Malaysia. At that time, analysts referred to Southeast Asia as the Balkans of the East, meaning it was a divided region prone to conflict. Even after ASEAN was founded its foreign ministers could not meet for over eighteen months because the Philippines laid a claim to Sabah after its incorporation into Malaysia.

Yet ASEAN did not fail. It developed a set of norms and principles known as the ASEAN Way that included respect for sovereignty, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, inclusiveness, consultation, decision-making by consensus, etc. As a result, disputes between ASEAN members have not escalated to armed conflict despite tensions and confrontations over the years.

What has ASEAN achieved over the past fifty years?

First, it expanded to include all independent Southeast Asian states. In 1967 its five founding members included Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Brunei joined in 1984, Vietnam became a member in 1995, Laos and Myanmar were added in 1997 and Cambodia became the last member in 1999. The inclusion of Vietnam was an important turning point because ASEAN members admitted a socialist country for the first time on the principle of respect for each country’s domestic political system. ASEAN is currently considering Timor-Leste as its eleventh member.

Second, ASEAN has been successful in developing a Free Trade Area among its members. Taken as a group this represents the sixth largest economy in the world. Third, ASEAN decision-making has evolved from annual meetings of foreign ministers and occasional summit meetings of heads of state and government to biannual meetings of foreign ministers and biannual summit meetings of heads of state and government.

Fourth, by adopting the ASEAN Charter has ASEAN has acquired a legal personality able to interact with the United Nations and other regional associations and organisations.

Fifth, ASEAN has become a formal ASEAN Community based on three pillars, – economic, political-security and socio-cultural.

Sixth, ASEAN has asserted its centrality in regional security affairs by creating ASEAN related multilateral organizations: ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEM (ASEAN-Europe Meeting), ASEAN Defence Minsters’ Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum, and East Asia Summit. These organisations provide a neutral venue for the major powers to meet annually.

Another way of evaluating ASEAN is to consider the counter-factual: What would Southeast Asia be like today without ASEAN? It is quite clear, despite its faults and shortcomings, ASEAN has been a positive development and Southeast Asia would be much worse without it.

Q2. How about the unity of the block? What do you think about the internal ASEAN differences? Has the division been alarming?

ANSWER: As ASEAN has expanded and become more diversified its consensus-based decision-making process has come under stress. ASEAN has been successful on the economic front by adopting the formula N- x. N represents the ASEAN members who are agreement on expanding economic integration, while x represents those states who are not willing to step up integration. The N countries are able to proceed leaving it up to the others to join when it suits their national interests.

ASEAN has been less successful on political and security matters where one or more countries can undermine agreement by the majority on the basis of the principle of consensus. Since 2012 Cambodia has been a consistent surrogate of China in preventing any statement critical of China from appearing in joint statements after ministerial or summit meetings. Cambodia, as ASEAN Chair, for the first time in ASEAN history, prevented the adoption of a joint statement by ASEAN foreign ministers in 2012 from including references to the South China Sea critical of China. Cambodia sabotaged ASEAN’s agreed position on the South China Sea at the ASEAN-China Special Meeting of Foreign Ministers in Kunming, China in 2016. Most recently, Cambodia (and the Philippines) refused to allow any remarks critical of China from inclusion in the Joint Statement of foreign ministers in Manila in August. ASEAN unity has been severely challenged by China’s efforts to influence individual members such as Cambodia, to undermine ASEAN consensus.

Cambodia’s obstructionism has led to calls within ASEAN to adopt a qualified majority voting system n matters affecting regional security. In other words, the N – x formula at all levels below summit level.

Q3. People said that ASEAN doesn’t have a country playing a leading-role and that’s the reason ASEAN is divided and cannot speak loudly with one voice about major issues such as South China Sea. What do you think about that? And how can ASEAN be more united?

ANSWER: Initially, after ASEAN was formed Indonesia under President Suharto played a leadership role in ASEAN by promoting the value of consultation and consensus. But now Indonesia, like Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, pays more attention to domestic matters than regional affairs. The importance of domestic issues has served to undermine any country’s ability to lead ASEAN.

If Indonesia once again played a leading role it would not solve ASEAN current disarray. It is quite clear that Cambodia and the Philippines under Duterte are undermining ASEAN unity hoping for financial rewards from China in the form of concessional loans and investment.

ASEAN is not united on the South China Sea because seven members have no direct interests in the maritime disputes. Of the four other claimant states, Malaysia and Brunei have played a low-key role. The Philippines and Vietnam were front line states.

But since Duterte’s pivot to China Vietnam has been isolated. ASEAN unity can only be restored if a qualified majority decision-making system was adopted, where the majority would determine ASEAN policy. This would have to be approved at Summit level, however.

Q4. In your opinion, which country can lead ASEAN?

ANSWER: No single country can lead ASEAN. ASEAN leadership will be determined in part by which country is the ASEAN Chair. Singapore replaces the Philippines next year, for example, and ASEAN may take a stronger stand on the South China Sea. The key is not leadership by a single country but leadership by a coalition of countries on particular issues. For example, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore could form a leadership group and perhaps attract support from Myanmar and Thailand.

That would leave Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines in the minority. ASEAN has not yet reached the stage where its members believe “all for one, one for all”. Countries like Cambodia only pursue policies in their interest and not the collective interest. That is why consensus-based leadership in ASEAN is so ineffectual.

Q5. In recent time, Vietnam has showed a strong stance in South China Sea issue. Can you comment about Vietnam’s role in the joint statement of AMM 50 and building COC? Do you think Vietnam can lead ASEAN or at least now Vietnam is ready to escape from China’s shadow? (I mean “thoát Trung” in Vietnamese)

ANSWER: Vietnam has always played a strong role in ASEAN in general and on the South China Sea issue in particular. However, the election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines has change the dynamics. The Philippines is now pivoting towards China for financial gain and this has left Vietnam exposed. Vietnam can no longer rely on the Philippines to use international law to constrain China. Vietnam played a constructive role in trying to get strong language written into the joint statement in Manila. In the end Vietnam has to bow to the consensus. In future, however, Vietnam could reverse roles and prevent an ASEAN consensus that harmed Vietnam’s interests. For example, Vietnam could refuse to accept a Code of Conduct that was not legally binding. Vietnam cannot lead ASEAN on the South China Sea issue, however.

There have been calls in Vietnam to thoát Trung or exit China’s orbit (or come out from under China’s shadow). But this is impossible because the two countries share a common border and also because Vietnam has a huge trade deficit with China, over $32 billion. Vietnam has always balanced its relations with China with other major powers such as Russia, Indian, Japan and the United States. But the Trump Administration’s engagement with Southeast Asia in general and Vietnam in particular is uncertain and cannot be taken for granted. In practical terms, only the U.S. can balance China.

Vietnam cannot burn its bridges until they are crossed, in other words, Vietnam cannot escape from China’s orbit and pivot to the United States unless Washington is willing to play a strong role in countering China.

Q6. What do you think about the future of the COC? Can it be achieved this year and be legal binding? How will China act in the coming months?

ANSWER: China has set a condition on the commencement of formal discussions on the Code of Conduct scheduled for November this year at the ASEAN Plus 1 (China) leaders’ summit. Chin a’s condition is that the South China Sea situation remain stable. China can use any pretext to delay discussions such as U.S. freedom of navigation patrols. The discussions on the Code of Conduct will not be brought to fruition until the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) is fully implemented. So far little progress has been made on the five areas of cooperation outlined in the 2002 DOC.

China will not agree to a legally binding COC, that is, a COC that is ratified by national legislatures and deposited with the United Nations. As China consults on the COC it will further consolidate its presence in the South China Sea and try to limit the role of the United States. China will work to isolate Vietnam.

The COC will be a useless document if China’s Coast Guard and Navy can enforce their will against local states. Vietnam must continue to modernize its military to deal with South China Sea contingencies. At the same time, Vietnam must lobby maritime powers such as the United States, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea and European states such as France and the United Kingdom to counter-balance China in the South China Sea.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. All his background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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