Asean turns 45 in precarious times

Asean turns 45 in precarious times

For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, turning 45 is hard to do. Its perennial and cliched crossroads may soon become a precipice unless remedial collective action among the group is taken to repair recent setbacks ahead of its summit in November.

Closing ranks, not pulling rank, will be needed to reset the Asean centrality and reboot its momentum towards any sort of a credible and effective community by the start of 2015.

To be sure, Asean as a regional organisation has done very well.

The group _ composed of the predominantly Catholic Philippines and mainly Buddhist Thailand on one hand, and Malay-speaking and Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia on the other _ began modestly to keep intramural peace and to maintain regional autonomy in the face of major-power rivalry.

Asean's first two decades of nation-building in the heat of the Cold War were preoccupied with internal stability within each member state and with the fight against communist expansionism, revolving around Thailand as the frontline state vis-a-vis Indochina.

As the Cold War waned, Asean ascended. Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia, which transitioned into a normal country in the early 1990s, culminating with the 1993 United Nations-sponsored elections. Asean was resilient and instrumental in Cambodia's turnaround.

In 1987, the first major edited book on Asean's crossroads appeared.

This crossroads has meandered in different directions at varying lengths, but Asean has not been able to sail full steam forward in any direction.

Over the following decade, its preoccupation became prosperity and the creation of a regional order based on Asean as the central driver.

This period spawned Asean-centred economic and political-security vehicles such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 1989 and the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994. Asia's most successful regional organisation also expanded and incorporated previous foes from Indochina and Myanmar.

It promoted freer trade in its subregions where member borders converged and the regional Asean Free Trade Area was created in 1992. It is this free trade area which after ineffectual years has been effectively re-launched as the Asean Economic Community.

Asean's third decade was exuberant, underpinned by strong economic performance and measured political leverage in the international arena, as evident in the "Asian values" controversy in the early and mid-1990s.

As Asean's centrality took hold, its fourth decade dawned rudely with the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98.

Thailand and Indonesia came under bailout programmes organised by the International Monetary Fund. The talk of new "tiger" economies lost its shine.

The silver lining at that time was a regional response in the formation of the Asean Plus Three, meaningfully adjoining Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia for the first time.

The Asean Plus Three was the peak of East Asian economic integration. It produced the most concrete financial cooperation with the Chiang Mai Initiative, multilateralised with a US$240 billion (7.5 trillion baht) fund to thwart market speculators and to provide emergency liquidity relief, and it is staffed with a secretariat at the Asean Plus Three Macroeconomic Research Office.

Just when Asean as a whole recovered its confidence in economic growth and regionalist drive, it was diverted and consumed by the US-dominated Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Southeast Asia became the so-called "second front" of potential global jihadist expansionism. The GWOT, which mostly transpired under President George W Bush's administration, was costly to the US and consequential for Asean as it had to pause on its regionalism.

By its fifth decade, Asean could breathe and stand upright again. By 2007, the GWOT had run its course. Asean had expanded the Asean Plus Three into the East Asia Summit, and its inert AF had been bolstered by the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting.

Most important, Asean crowned and culminated its decades of resilience and accomplishments with the Asean Charter, laying out the terms and programmes to become a kind of democratising, peaceful, stable and prosperous community by 2015, having accelerated the pace from the original intent of 2020.

Asean's is a remarkably long and topsy-turvy road after 45 years.

On one hand, it is haunted again by patterns of past tension and conflict, at risk of great-power interventions, uneasy with internal stability of some member states and facing an uncertain global economic environment. On the other, unprecedented promises of the connectivity and community that underpin regional security and prosperity beckon.

Asean is not just at the crossroads anymore. It cannot get away with moving in a standstill position, but move forward or risk retrenchment and disarray.

Recent setbacks at the 45th Asean Ministerial Meeting _ where Asean was unable to come up with a united position in relations with China _ need to be repaired. The Philippines will need to tone down its rhetoric, Vietnam step back and Cambodia lean on Asean more than China.

To keep major-power rivalry at bay, individual Asean states have to leave the US rebalancing posture untapped at this time and insist that Beijing put away its "claim first, negotiate later" map with the infamous nine dash lines around most of the South China Sea.

Asean will need to prepare for old tensions along the Thai-Cambodian border around the Preah Vihear temple after the International Court of Justice issues an additional interpretation of its 1962 verdict. There are also dam issues between upstream and downstream Mekong states.

The challenges and opportunities are daunting and alluring at the same time, just as before.

How Asean fares in the second half of its fifth decade will depend on its ability to close ranks by November and the extent to which member states are willing to pool sovereignty for collective action.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.

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