At the end of this year, the process for turning the Association of Southeast Asian Nations into a single community will begin to take shape. Yet pending community-building projects still need to be achieved and existing problems solved.

ASEAN has developed so-called scorecards for three categories of community: economic, sociocultural and political-security. Reportedly, the bloc gets a score of 92 percent as an economic community and 82 percent as a sociocultural community. However, it only earns a rating of 12 percent on political and security issues. Clearly, the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) represents a major hurdle in the community-building process.

There are two critical issues that could obstruct APSC’s progress. First is the territorial conflict in the South China Sea. Second is the crisis over democracy in the region, as attested by the Thai military coup in 2014, which threatens to damage ASEAN’s democratic agenda. ASEAN’s inability to deal with contentious issues in the political and security realm derives from the lack of a realistic mission goal; and to a great extent, ASEAN’s own leadership is responsible for this.

First, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain a flash point in Southeast Asia. The claimants are four ASEAN nations (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei), and China and Taiwan. Responses from each claimant are varied. Vietnam and the Philippines are more aggressive in retaliating against the Chinese claim to the islands. Meanwhile, Brunei and Malaysia have kept a low profile in the conflict. Here, the issue of ASEAN unity has come to play a role in its attempt to find a lasting solution to the conflict.

ASEAN needs to develop three options. First, as an immediate step, it should consider proposing a “security option” through additional disarmament agreements in the South China Sea, on top of the existing Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by all parties in 2002. This could also be achieved by opening up more military communications networks among the states involved in the conflict to maintain security and reinstall stability in the region.

This security option could be addressed through the security gathering called the ASEAN Regional Forum and rely on existing instruments, such as dispute settlement mechanisms, to resolve the current dispute and preventive diplomacy to avert future conflict among the claimant states.

ASEAN could also propose an “economic option,” stressing the need to promote regional economic integration, in the ASEAN Economic Community framework, to forge ties among states involved in the conflict. Through this economic option, resource-sharing would be the key to success. Managing resource competition and providing mutual economic growth is imperative in containing the scope and intensity of the conflict. This can be done through reassigning industry or product specialization to each participating state.

Third, ASEAN could make use of a “track-two” approach to avoid confrontation at the state level, where a government’s actions are often constrained by domestic political factors. The track-two approach offers an alternative platform to discuss the politically sensitive issue of the South China Sea dispute in a less restricted manner and based on a cooperative mindset; this is another channel of communication on top of the proposed dialogue between armies of the claimant states.

On the political front, some ASEAN members appear to have moved into a phase of democratic recession. Take Thailand for example. The coup of May 2014 derailed democratic development in the country, generating implications for both the image and credibility of the APSC. Periodic military intervention in Thailand adds to the adverse perceptions of ASEAN states in regard to democracy, which in turn acts as a hurdle to democratization in the region.

So far, ASEAN’s democratic agenda has been constrained by many factors, including its rule of noninterference and its weakness in the area of compliance and political commitment among its member nations. ASEAN states are politically vulnerable to various degrees. Members tend not to criticize others for fear that they could be criticized, too.

While democratization thrives elsewhere, in Southeast Asia some states have resisted the democratization wave. This has put ASEAN in a rather awkward position. While it has striven to reinvent itself as a champion of democracy, this endeavor has been compromised by the narrow political interests of individual members. As a result, ASEAN struggles right from the start in performing the role of a “promoter” of democracy.

From this point of view, ASEAN as an organization has the responsibility of ensuring that the plan outlined in the APSC Blueprint to strengthen democracy in the region will be strictly implemented by member states. ASEAN could focus on specific goals in the process of democracy-building in the region — in particular targets that wouldn’t threaten nondemocratic states.

These may include less sensitive goals, such as tackling corruption, promoting bureaucratic reforms, the enhancement of governance capacity, humanitarian relief and disaster management.

ASEAN could encourage its more-developed members, like Indonesia, to help consolidate democracy in some of the other member states, through, for example, offering advice on strengthening of the party system, the role of the parliament, security sector reform, legal reform and the active role of the media and civil society organizations. Instead of addressing human rights violations and electoral failures, the stronger democracies could work on crafting country-specific strategies and agendas to ensure suitability for each case.

Lastly, ASEAN will need to have the courage to push for a greater role by the ASEAN Inter-governmental Human Rights Commission, but again, not necessarily bringing up the issue of human rights violations. Other areas of improvement in this regard include technical assistance to the AIHRC, and the strengthening of regional human rights networks among NGOs in their role as a watchdog for the AIHRC. They could offer their alternative views on the human rights situation in ASEAN member-states.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and currently a distinguished fellow at Stanford University.

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