Let’s talk briefly about Asean. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was formed nearly half a century ago against a backdrop of worsening armed conflicts primary in the Indo-Chinese peninsula. The primary fear then was that the possible fall of South Vietnam into communist hands would precipitate a “domino effect” that would sweep through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and even the Philippines – all Southeast Asian nations saddled with domestic communist insurgencies to various degrees – and bring down their existing governments one by one, or even simultaneously.
So the idea of Asean was at first a more strategically oriented one, a not too heavy-handed attempt at “pooling” together the defense capabilities of its initial five members for mutual assistance in case of strategic emergencies. There were, of course, other similar but more explicitly defense-focused mechanisms that were either already in existence (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, SEATO) or about to emerge (Five Powers Defense Arrangement in 1971), but these others were mostly driven by foreign powers such as the United States or the United Kingdom. Asean was the first substantial Asian regional grouping that was initiated from within its member states.
Nevertheless, the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam and the almost immediate communist takeover of South Vietnam did not result in the aforementioned domino “falls” of Southeast Asian governments. At about the same time, the urgent need to propel Southeast Asian countries’ economic and social developments was becoming evident to all responsible Asean member states, which started to welcome massive foreign direct investments.
Asean thus gradually and subtly shifted gear to become a more economically oriented regional grouping, ushering one after another essentially free trade agreement over the years, removing or reducing tariffs and non-tariff barriers among its member states, as well as with other important foreign trading partners such as China, Korea and Japan. This culminated, of course, in the inauguration earlier this year of the Asean Economic Community, which is a bold attempt to build a common market and production base for the still relatively thriving manufacturing hub that is Southeast Asia, so that the region’s economic development can be further freed from the shackles of man-made cross-border costs.
Along the way, Asean picked up new member states. Brunei came in the 1980s after achieving independence. The so-called CMLV countries of Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam followed suit a decade later. And Asean did not forget its “strategic” roots, almost always insisting on so-called “Asean-centric” regional security mechanisms, through its numerous strategically important platforms such as the Asean (Plus) Summits, Asean Regional Forum, and Asean Defense Ministers Meeting (Plus).
Asean makes its most important decisions in the famed “Asean Way,” which is in essence a consensus-seeking deliberation process. This Asean Way is often physically embodied in the famous cross-arm hand-holding of Asean leaders during summits and meetings. The legendary consensus was much easier achieved during the earlier years of Asean, when leaders from the small number of member states shared similar cultural and educational backgrounds, more easily developed close personal ties, and could reach gentlemen’s agreements in informal “bonding” sessions. That kind of chumminess is alas no longer visible nowadays. A much more formalized setting is arranged for Asean discussion, and often consensus, if at all, has to be extracted in a much more rigid manner.
The Asean consensus was, of course, tested to its brink in recent years, most famously in 2012, when Asean leaders meeting in Cambodia failed to produce a joint declaration. Earlier this year, a special Asean foreign ministers’ meeting also retracted a joint statement, and the most recent foreign ministers’ meeting barely scraped through with a diluted statement.
As I see it, to remain relevant in the future, Asean perhaps cannot afford to continue to “muddle through” one crisis after another, for these crises will only increase in both their frequency and severity. Asenn has to make a clear choice as to what kind of regional organization it would like to evolve into. On the one hand, there is, of course, the temptation in Asean’s decision-making to overcome essentially the veto of one or two member states, and to proceed with a majority or supermajority in regional matters. Besides, there are also possibilities for “coalition of the willing” among Asean member states to essentially allow some member states to take things into their (albeit collective) hands. But these decision methods, of course, risk breaking up Asean into a meaningless cacophony of different national voices and interests.
And there are even calls for a much more strengthened and empowered Asean central authority. Yet the Brexit decision also conveys a lesson that too much centralized bureaucracy in a regional organization will make member states regret its partial surrender of sovereignty. And, of course, on the other hand, Asean could also “retreat” from attempting to take central state on strategic matters, and instead, focus on economic development and cooperation. All these options will take Asean toward different future scenarios. But at least one thing is clear: Asean is in need of directions.