The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) celebrated its 40th anniversary this week. It has grown considerably since its birth: It has doubled in size and taken on new tasks. While there is justifiable pride in its progress, there is also recognition that ASEAN must evolve significantly more if it is to maintain its relevance. It is unclear, however, whether member governments are prepared to make the compromises that are necessary.
ASEAN was founded in 1967 to provide a mechanism for dialogue among nations that had exhibited considerable antagonism toward each other, yet were united in their opposition to communism. The group provided a framework for regional engagement for the countries of Southeast Asia as well as external powers.
Over time, the primary driving force for integration among member states became economic, in sharp contrast to Europe, where the push for integration was political. A curious dichotomy was that even as borders became increasingly irrelevant to economic exchange, governments insisted on maintaining their sovereign prerogatives. This resulted in operating principles — most notably decision making by consensus and noninterference in members’ internal affairs — that led many to characterize the organization as a “talk shop” of little practical impact on politics.
Perhaps, but its economic successes were unmistakable. From the 1970s through the ’90s, ASEAN member states set the pace for global growth. Their performance was one of the main reasons the end of the Cold War was thought to herald the beginning of the Pacific Century, and drew the remaining states of the region — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam — into ASEAN as well. For their part, members recognized that ASEAN had to expand to maintain coherence — even if the four new countries comprised a “second tier” — and prosperity, which rested, first and foremost, on development throughout the region.
Accommodating the new members was difficult, but largely successful. ASEAN took a blow in 1997 when speculators suddenly withdrew funds from Thailand. A contagious financial crisis spread throughout the region. ASEAN, as an institution, proved unable to cope with the profound level of the crisis, which forced change in several member governments and undermined the political foundations of ASEAN itself. The region has recovered in the decade since, but it is still struggling to absorb all the lessons of 1997.
In the aftermath of 1997, ASEAN and three dialogue partners, Japan, China and South Korea, created the ASEAN Plus Three process to push regional integration further. A financial mechanism — the Chiang Mai Initiative — was established to protect against future shocks. An additional political mechanism, the East Asian Summit, was formed two years ago.
But critics still charge that ASEAN-centered mechanisms, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), an annual Asia-Pacific security meeting that includes world powers, lack the teeth to solve problems. The groups can identify problems but lack the will and the means to solve them.
ASEAN is cognizant of its shortcomings. Leaders agreed to write a charter, to be unveiled in November, that will help the group create a real Asian community. A group of “eminent persons” has recommended eliminating reliance on consensus and the principle of noninterference in members’ internal affairs. Yet, there remains considerable opposition to voting on decisions and sanctions related to noncompliance with ASEAN directives.
Last month, foreign ministers agreed to set up a human rights body, but “agreement” at this point merely means there has been no formal veto of the proposal. The world will have to wait till November to see what emerges, although regional diplomats insist that virtually all the work on the charter has been agreed.
Still, the summer meetings produced some results. The ASEAN Plus Three meeting agreed to extend the Chiang Mai Initiative to provide greater protection against economic meltdowns. The ARF agreed to establish a mechanism to cope with regional crises. “Friends of the Chair” will help the ARF chair deal with situations that threaten regional peace and stability.
The ARF also agreed to set up a new forum to discuss the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Its declaration gave the usual support to international norms and initiatives: It called on North Korea to comply with its obligations under the six-party-talks agreement; Iran was urged to honor its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; and Myanmar was called on to accelerate the pace of national reconciliation and make progress toward the restoration of democracy.
Laudable sentiments, all. The only real question is whether ASEAN is prepared to do more than exhort its members. Until it does, the promise of an ASEAN community will remain more imaginary than real.
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