After 54 years of being together, ASEAN is at the end of its tether. It has never been more divided than now, split within member states and across all 10 of them, dominated once again by divisive superpower rivalry and competition. In practice, this means ASEAN will appear increasingly ineffectual and inert. There will be much bureaucratic motion but few substantive organizational and policy outcomes amid unresolved challenges from within and from outside the region. ASEAN’s best way forward may require unprecedented radical thinking towards a multi-track organization to ensure relevance and momentum where it can be generated.
For roughly the first 25 years of its regional life in international affairs, ASEAN as we know it was together and divided at the same time. The five original founding members—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand—were an amalgam but the rest of Southeast Asia was not included at the time. Thanks in part to the camaraderie of their leaders, the five founding members stuck together and got a lot done by carving out regional autonomy for individual national development during the Cold War in the face of the superpower showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union and their opposing systems of Western capitalist development and communist central planning.
After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989-91, ASEAN began the process of becoming a full-fledged regional organization. As then-Indochina’s multiple wars finally came to an end—from north to south Vietnam and communist victory in Laos to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia—ASEAN kind of won its own Cold War in its own right. By 1992, ASEAN was at a crossroads, having inducted the tiny Brunei sultanate as its sixth member in 1984. It was inevitable that ASEAN was to encompass the whole of Southeast Asia.
The membership expansion to include Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999—these four were known as the CLMV—rode on the back of regional exuberance. It was a time of breakneck economic growth and development in the original five founding countries. There was no superpower rivalry as such in the 1990s. Political instability in some of the member states was par for the course but incumbent centers of power more or less held sway across the region.
In the 1990s, ASEAN was able to leverage its economic dynamism, enlarged regional size and political continuity to situate itself in the driver’s seat of regionalism and regionalization vehicles, giving rise to “ASEAN centrality” for regional action towards peace and prosperity. As the bigger powers outside Southeast Asia had no such means to promote regional cooperation and resolve tension and conflict, they deferred to and joined ASEAN’s regional platforms, building on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation with the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus Three and later the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus.
These enabling conditions for ASEAN centrality have changed. Superpower conflict is back, this time between the US and China. For ASEAN to thrive as it used to, the major powers must be on sufficient par and at sufficient rest. If the superpowers go at each other—as the US and Soviet Union demonstrated—Southeast Asia will come under pressure to choose sides. The US and China say they don’t want ASEAN states to choose sides but in fact they have. Cambodia has evidently chosen China, and Vietnam is siding with the US. Other ASEAN members have their variable leanings depending on issues and interests. Thailand is a US treaty ally that acts like a partner, while Vietnam is a US partner which offers alliance functions.
Apart from superpower conflict, the second condition also has changed. Domestic politics in most ASEAN countries is under pressure from below. Elites in states that can adapt, absorb and answer pressure for change and reform to keep their populations on board have a better chance of moving forward by making concessions and self-corrections. Singapore fits this category the most. Incumbent centers of power that suppress without reform in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia will have a hard time with popular suffering. Indonesia and the Philippines appear to have electoral systems that can allow pressure to be released and measured reforms undertaken but they need to avoid elite entrenchment and enable new political forces to contest for office.
Finally, ASEAN’s vaunted prosperity and development potential are now problematic. The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged Southeast Asia, eroding its growth locomotives. Tourism and all of the services industries across the region may not return to pre-pandemic levels for years. The appeal of a single connected market of more than 650 million and rising middle classes with a combined GDP of US$3 trillion has lost its allure. The pandemic will not lead to the demise of ASEAN but it could spell the end of the ASEAN success story as we know it.
ASEAN’s broad downturn has led to inaction and ineffectiveness. Regarding the South China Sea and China’s upstream Mekong dams, ASEAN lacks a unified and vociferous position. On Myanmar’s coup and crisis, ASEAN’s response with an envoy to promote dialogue has been too little, too late. Democracy and autocracy have emerged as a new ASEAN fault line. Less autocratic states appear to have different preferences than their more democratic peers.
ASEAN’s existential conundrum calls for new thinking. The five founding members—Thailand as the semi-authoritarian laggard among them—should take the lead and bite the bullet on crises and issues that cannot be kicked down the road time and again. Chief among them now is Myanmar. The five original ASEAN members are not far apart in their call for a cessation of violence, the release of political prisoners, a return to dialogue, and a restoration of the democratic process. This should be ASEAN’s main track on Myanmar. The alternative to a multi-pronged, multi-track ASEAN is inaction and irrelevance, which will invite superpower interference and dominance.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science. He earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognized for excellence in opinion writing by the Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.
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