Five Decades On, Is Asean Ready to Grow Up?

By Johanna Son 27 September 2015

SINGAPORE — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a peculiar creature. Though it draws a diverse mix of foreign leaders and ministers to its meetings, it has much less clout internally and often cannot get its own members to implement its decisions.

The bloc works at a “practically glacial pace” and “every idea takes 10 years to mature,” as Asean’s inaugural secretary-general, Malaysia’s Ajit Singh, put it at the annual Asean Roundtable, held at the Yusof Ishak-Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore this month.

Nearly 50 years since its founding, Asean members are still struggling to surrender any political sovereignty, the key to becoming the powerhouse regional community they say they want to be. As an intergovernmental grouping, Asean’s members are used to a loose kind of collective decision-making and an aversion to broaching the sensitivities of member states.

Resolving these internal contradictions may well be the major challenge facing the bloc in the years ahead, as it steps up integration efforts with the official launch of the Asean Community in December. Putting itself forth as a community—especially the audacious push for a common market and eradication of trade, labor and capital barriers—throws up a wider mix of challenges for the organization.

How these goals can be achieved, given that Asean members are allowed to pick and choose which elements they find palatable, with no sanctions on non-compliance or inaction, will determine how its journey to real integration will play out.

What Community?

Many binding Asean agreements have not been ratified more than five years after they were agreed to, noted Termsak Chalermpalanupap, the lead researcher for political-security issues at Singapore’s Asean Studies Centre here. Clearly, the administrative backlog does little to add to Asean’s clout and reflect poorly on how much value its own members put to the organization.

Likewise, member states do not always have, or bother to invest in, the structures to implement binding Asean agreements.

“There is no pain, no pressure if government officials don’t do Asean work (inside member countries),” said Termsak, adding that Asean implementation committees in member countries often lack clout.

For instance, the 2002 Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was ratified by Indonesia only last year. Its forest fires are now clouding Southeast Asia’s skies, ruffling the feathers of its neighbors.

“We must recognize what Asean is—essentially a grouping of 10 sovereign states who have not and are unwilling to give up any of their sovereignty,” explained Tan Hung Seng, Singapore’s permanent representative to Asean.

With three months till the launch of the Asean Community, the barriers to integration seem entrenched.

Many at this year’s roundtable highlighted the Asean Community’s goals as being largely state-driven, the wide development gap among its members, and the lack of a Southeast Asian identity and genuine political will. They asked if the Jakarta-based Asean secretariat had the capacity and resources to handle the Community blueprints, noting the secretary-general’s weak position in holding countries accountable to commitments.

Working to achieve specific, measurable targets in the Asean Community is perhaps part of the regional bloc’s evolution, which started without many of the usual instruments of an organization. Asean did not have a secretariat until 10 years after it was formed in 1967, and it has no offices overseas. Its charter was only put in place in 2007, its 40th year, finally giving the association a legal personality.

Still, Asean has proven its value in keeping the peace in Southeast Asia, no small feat given that some member countries would not even sit at the same table two decades ago. Today, 83 non-Asean countries have ambassadors to the bloc. Dialogue partners such as China, Australia and the United States praise Asean’s political weight.

“It’s underappreciated in the larger global community,” especially when it comes to keeping the peace in the region, said Nina Hachigian, the US ambassador to Asean. “We’re all in into Asean and we’re members of the Asean fan club,” she said.

Changing the Asean Way

Against the backdrop of such support, all eyes are on how Asean countries execute their ambitious Community goals. In the end, it will boil down to what Asean members are willing to do with their own regional organization—and how seriously they take it.

As it takes on bigger goals, Asean will need to change its practices, including the reliance on consensus as a decision-making method, said Michael Vatikiotis, the head of the Asian regional office of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

According to Vatikiotis, the consensus model may well be the root cause of the inability to integrate more fully. Participants at this month’s roundtable pointed to how hard it has been for Asean to agree even on smaller issues, such as making Aug. 8, Asean’s founding day, a holiday, or putting the Asean logo on passports.

Noting that Asean did not rank high in the national agendas of its member states and was relatively unknown amongst the general public, Termsak said that national politicians did not feel obligated to implement the bloc’s decisions .

As the December launch of the Asean Community approaches, national politics are likely to trump regional aspirations. Jokowi’s government in Indonesia faces continuing domestic woes, Singapore’s People’s Action Party has just received an overwhelming mandate in the country’s September election, and Burma will head to the polls in November.

“The timing of all this…is terrible,” said Vatiokiotis. “Asean states are preoccupied with internal political issues, elections, leadership crises, and therefore, at this point perhaps hardly has time to focus on the nitty-gritty of integration,” he said.

Those involved with the association since its outset say that, despite Asean’s glacial progress in brokering regional cooperation, in bringing together countries such profound ethnic, linguistic, financial and developmental diversity should be recognized.

When Singh, Asean’s founding secretary-general, was asked if he had thought decades ago that the bloc could evolve into what it is today, he replied, “I would have been hard put to say yes.”

Johanna Son, based in Bangkok for 15 years, has covered regional affairs for more than two decades. This article is part the ‘Reporting Asean: 2015 and Beyond’ series by the IPS Asia-Pacific news agency.