Ideas for ASEAN going forward

asean flags Flags of member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). iStock/Getty Images

The Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a coalition of 10 Southeast Asian countries formed to promote regional development and security, will mark its 50th anniversary this year. While ASEAN’s longevity is a cause for celebration, it also calls for creative introspection regarding what it can and should do, according to Southeast Asia Program Director Donald K. Emmerson.

“There is a lot that ASEAN cannot do in its present form, under its present leaders, and in presently China-challenged conditions. Yet no one could objectively scan ASEAN’s first fifty years and conclude that the organization has remained the same – once a cow, always a cow.

“Whatever ASEAN does become, its alternative futures should be considered now, carefully and creatively, while there is still time to prefer one scenario over the others and to follow up with steps that make it more likely,” he writes in a paper featured in the February edition of TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia.

ASEAN, he says, needs to reexamine its goals and consider new means to achieve them, to brainstorm better ways of protecting its region from external control, and to reevaluate the nature and efficacy of the “ASEAN Way,” including its self-paralyzing commitment to unanimity as a precondition for collective action.

That commitment has already been breached for economic policy arrangements that allow a “two-speed ASEAN” to exist, where for less developed members, deadlines for economic reform are postponed, while for all other members, the deadlines remain unchanged. So, why not adapt that idea to regional security initiatives as well?

According to Emmerson, the Southeast Asia region is being threatened by China’s efforts to control land features in the South China Sea for the purposes of projecting coercive power. China uses the ASEAN Way’s requirement of consensus by promising economic support to specific ASEAN members in hopes of coopting them into vetoing any move by ASEAN to counter China’s campaign in the South China Sea.

Abetting China’s expansion, he says, are the rival claims to maritime sovereignty by some of ASEAN’s own members. Their failure to settle their own disagreements precludes the bargaining power that a unified ASEAN might bring to the table in talks with China.

Emmerson, who addressed these matters at Stanford in March, argues that a more innovative ASEAN will lead to a more secure region.

Regarding the South China Sea, for example, ASEAN could encourage an effort by its four claimant members to settle their own differences first by drafting an ASEAN agreement, signing it and presenting it to China to sign as well. Even if China refuses, at least ASEAN would have established a common position among the ASEAN countries most directly concerned.

In the paper, he discusses several ways of restructuring ASEAN. They include:

  • ASEAN minus X: A subset of ASEAN members would move ahead on economic or security arrangements with the understanding that the remaining subset would join later.
  • ASEAN Pacific Alliance: ASEAN would work with Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru to create a coalition that would strengthen ASEAN’s trans-Pacific ties.
  • East Asia Summit (EAS): ASEAN would try to elevate this annual gathering of leaders, including China and the United States, into a capstone venue for cooperation on regional security.

Emmerson also urges outside observers to generate innovative policy proposals related to ASEAN and present them for discussion informally or in Track II dialogue formats.

“It’s time for ASEAN watchers to generate ideas for the grouping to consider, including initiatives that could be pursued by one, two or more member countries,” he said in a later interview. “The creative involvement of scholars, journalists, businesspeople and other analysts inside member states could socialize such proposals in local policy circles to make them better known and more feasible.”

In line with this vision, Emmerson is co-organizing a trilateral workshop on ASEAN reform, regional security, infrastructure building and economic regionalism. Hosted by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) and planned for this fall, it will evaluate proposals on these topics generated or compiled by Shorenstein APARC’s Southeast Asia Program and U.S.-Asia Security Initiative; the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore; and the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre in Canberra. Details about the conference will be posted in the coming months.