Whither ASEAN?

, by Reuben Bharucha

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Whither ASEAN?
Image credit: AFP

Southeast Asia is on the rise. It has been for over a decade. With Western-Chinese relations fraught, and showing no signs of improving after the current pandemic, the countries of Southeast Asia will likely only grow in significance. Uniting ten of the eleven states in the region (the exception being East Timor), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has the potential to play an increasingly important role in the world.

Like the European Union, ASEAN is a prominent example of regional integration. In some ways, its development mirrors that of the EU. Founded in 1967 as a replacement of the Association of Southeast Asia, it initially consisted of five states. By the time of the Asian financial crash in 1997, it had nearly doubled in size. The members have been united in a Free Trade Area since 1992 and the ASEAN Charter formalised its legal status in 2007.

There are, however, notable differences. Firstly, with a population of around 660 million, it is a fair bit larger than the European Union. Unlike the EU, its economic growth has been staggering. Whilst EU-wide GDP growth has hovered around 2% over the last few years, ASEAN’s has lain quite comfortably at around 5%.

It is also notably more diverse than the EU, both economically, geographically and culturally. But perhaps more importantly, it is (so far) less integrated than the European Union. Whereas the EU has had a currency union since 1999 and lies somewhere between an intergovernmental and state-like organisation with legislative bodies and a supreme court, ASEAN is clearly the former.

ASEAN faces a series of challenges, which can be compared to those facing the European Union, that it must overcome to ensure its future position on the world stage. With its principle of consensus, a normative weakness, the diversity of its member states and the climate crisis, the Association’s guiding values will all be put to the test.

The Principle of Consensus

One of the largest challenges for ASEAN of late has been (unsurprisingly) China. Territorial disputes over the South China Sea have strained relations with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. Whilst there have been pushes for ASEAN to take up a role in resolving the disputes, China has been characteristically reluctant to participate in multilateral negotiations.

In fact, even when the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in a landmark 2016 ruling, ASEAN foreign ministers failed to release a statement reinforcing the ruling. The reason? Cambodia, which has supported China’s claims, opposed the communiqué. This reveals one of the core weaknesses of ASEAN: its principle of consensus.

In ASEAN, decisions must be reached through consensus, effectively giving any one state a veto. This is reminiscent of the European Union’s long struggle with unanimity voting, which was largely superseded by Qualified Majority Voting in many policy areas.

Within ASEAN, there are calls for a similar majority-vote process for certain policy areas. Ideas about new institutions with the specific aim to deal with the South China Sea have also been voiced. Without a careful review of its decision-making process, ASEAN will struggle to have a voice in the region’s geopolitics.

The Normative Weakness

A further issue of contention for ASEAN has been its feeble responses to crises within member states. This was demonstrated after a 2014 military coup in Thailand. ASEAN attracted criticism for its muted reaction. Many observers pointed to the Charter, which endeavours to “strengthen democracy [and] enhance good governance.” In their eyes, ASEAN failed to uphold these principles. However, the Charter also emphasises the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN Member States” – a cornerstone of the organisation. This presents ASEAN with a conundrum.

This inability of the Association to act on crises within member states was more recently laid bare over the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar. Once again, ASEAN proved unable to do more than issue vague statements and publish a report that has been accused of “whitewashing” the issue. This impotence has been labelled the Association’s normative weakness, and could gravely hamper its international credibility.

Of late, the European Union has been similarly accused of normative impotence. The reaction to the 2015 migrant crisis (and the more recent wave in early 2020) gravely harmed the EU’s reputation. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, which has been slipping closer to authoritarian rule over the past ten years, attracted outrage from many observers over its recent coronavirus law, which was seen as an attempt to do away with democracy indefinitely. The EU’s reaction was a lacklustre combination of piecemeal criticisms and carefully worded statements.


One of the challenges ASEAN has faced since its conception is how to deal with the diversity amongst member states. The differences amongst members begin with geography, from landlocked Laos to Singapore, a city-state, and insular Indonesia. Also, whilst predominantly Muslim, a significant number of ASEAN members’ citizens are Buddhist or Christian. ASEAN further contains numerous ethnic groups, cultural norms and political systems, which range from one-party states to democracies and hybrids between the two.

As such, the Association has attempted to craft an identity of sorts around what it calls the “ASEAN Way.” This is based on interstate cooperation informed by regional norms, whilst respecting state sovereignty through the principle of non-interference. By insisting on consensus and non-interference, ASEAN has tried to construct an identity based around precisely this diversity. But this diversity also threatens to undermine the organisation.

ASEAN and her member states have long prided themselves on their inclusivity – a proud result of their diversity. Recently though, cracks have begun to appear. Both Malaysia and Indonesia have experienced increasing Islamist radicalisation. The Philippines and Thailand have faced ongoing Muslim separatist movements. Vietnam has had a testy track-record with various ethnic groups and religious freedom and Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya has rightly received international condemnation. These undercurrents serve to undermine ASEAN’s harmonic self-image.

ASEAN’s economic diversity is another challenge. Singapore, with a GDP per capita of $65000 is at the top of the scale, and Myanmar at the lower end, with $1400. This presents a major obstacle to further integration.

The European Union (whose motto is “United in Diversity”) has tended to stress its unity over diversity. It has fostered a European identity based around a common cultural heritage and a commitment to individual rights and democracy. This has long been the underpinning for the increased integration in the EU.

The EU is nonetheless being challenged by its national diversity. In the past few years, populist and anti-integration movements have swept the continent, causing an EU “identity crisis.” Euroscepticism has become widespread as member states grapple with their EU-membership, indicating the downsides of a common identity. In the past, the wide gaps between its member states’ economies has also been a source of friction, most significantly during the Greek debt crisis.

The Climate Crisis

Finally, ASEAN member states also find themselves at the front-lines of the climate crisis. Their populations, concentrated along seaboards and flat fertile plains, are endangered by rising sea levels. The loss of territory due to rising seas, coupled with the impact on riverine and oceanic fishing resources, bode ill for their food security.

Then there is the effect on weather patterns, which will become erratic, destabilising ecosystems. Southeast Asia already has one of the highest frequencies of natural disasters, which, alongside the human cost, will further exacerbate food insecurity in the region. Such weather events are only expected to grow more frequent.

This will all give rise to increased migration and resource scarcity, which will likely inflame regional tensions. This could reduce the willingness for inter-state cooperation, which would hamper ASEAN decision-making, threatening the organisation’s existence.

Since ASEAN members are predominantly emerging economies, the region faces another challenge: how to balance economic development with sustainability. Southeast Asia is one of the few regions in the world where coal consumption is growing. Despite government pledges, deforestation is still rampant in the region, accounting for nearly half of Indonesia’s emissions, in large part due to palm oil plantations. It will be tough for the region to forgo traditional economic development for more sustainable alternatives.

As we have seen with the European Union, moves towards environmental sustainability are not easy, even in developed economies. Nonetheless, the EU is making strides towards far-reaching climate policy, with ambitious goals outlined in the European Green Deal. Given that the EU is far better positioned to set such goals, both in terms of integration and economic development, the task for ASEAN seems herculean.

Since the climate crisis is not a geographically isolated phenomenon, regional efforts will be vital in dealing with its fallout. So far, ASEAN-wide solutions have lacked impetus and scope. Although there have been declarations and various working groups, there are few concrete proposals or initiatives to combat the climate crisis. Environmental issues must become a key priority for ASEAN. How the organization deals with the climate crisis will likely be its greatest test – and it is one it can ill afford to fail.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a re-thinking of the global system. In particular, the reliance on global supply chains is being scrutinised. As such, regional integration is only set to become more important as countries turn to their neighbours rather than distant continents. In the post-corona world, organisations such as ASEAN are set to become more significant. Like the EU, which is often hailed as a model for regional integration, ASEAN faces many challenges. How they are confronted will determine what place both organisations will have in the future global order.

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