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The View From Asia

The fragile state of Asean unity

The 10-nation grouping has been in the spotlight since last month's South China Sea ruling on a dispute between the Philippines and China. Here are excerpts from Asia News Network papers reflecting differing views.

No political leadership

Munir Majid
The Star, Malaysia

Asean is failing. It is not working in the way grand declarations and pronouncement of community just last year proclaimed it would. Yet, in a pattern of self-deception which has become a regional characteristic, Asean - and its intellectual apologists - continue to deny what is plain for all to see.

If not before, it is a piece of fiction now to speak of Asean centrality. This was again proclaimed when the Asean Political and Security Community was pronounced last November. Asean foreign ministers even agreed on a "work plan" to strengthen this. But Asean muddles through with a definition on what this centrality means. Surely, the first thing about Asean centrality must be that it is central to its member states. Is it? Certainly not in respect of how to defend an Asean position on the South China Sea.

Some have described Asean as toothless. This is unfair. You cannot expect Asean to bite or even bark at mighty China. However, you would expect Asean to stand up for its principles and sovereign rights of states, big or small. Therefore, Asean should more appropriately be described as spineless.

This did not use to be the case.

When Asean so creatively promulgated the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 1976 - with leaders such as Indonesia's Suharto and Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew at the fore - it was in actuality the origin of Asean centrality: When states from outside the region wanted to (work) with Asean, they had to accede to the TAC, one of whose main tenets was the legal undertaking to resolve disputes peacefully.

Thus it was that China acceded to the TAC in 2003 and the US in 2009.

If there was some agreement in Vientiane not to make big the arbitration award on the Law of the Sea which so infuriates China, to lower the temperature in a situation that was spinning out of control, to engage in bilateral negotiations with China among the claimant states, but also to return to the Declaration of Conduct of Parties (2002) framework which will be fulfilled by a legally binding Code of Conduct, would have been a good thing.

But where is the leadership in Asean to pursue the matter with the commitment that is needed?

Leaders and ministers meet and then they go back to domestic concerns. Who follows through?

Certainly not the weak secretariat. Who provides the leadership in Asean today of the type which saw its establishment 50 years ago, of the panache and imagination of Tun Razak, Lee Kuan Yew and Suharto, to name just a few of the luminaries of Asean days gone by?

This lack of leadership is the reason Asean is failing today.

Asean has been happily organising meetings, with rotating chairs, among its members, with its partners. After the hoopla and the linking of arms, there is poor follow-up and follow-through.

There is no doubt there are big problems in the region. The biggest is the new regional geopolitics in South-east Asia informed by strategic contest for influence in the region between China and the US.

However, the situation was not any easier at the height of the Cold War at the time Asean was established, when the Vietnam War was raging... (and during) the war between China and Vietnam in 1979, but Asean held together and fashioned a regional order even if it did not exclusively determine its remit. There was leadership in Asean to make it possible to talk about an Asean position.

Asean leaders consider 2015 as the landmark date which saw the formal establishment of the Asean community. In the first year after that, they should look seriously into how Asean is failing and why.


The illusion of Asean

Okky Madasari
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

This month Asean celebrates its 49th anniversary. What does it mean for us? For almost half a century, Asean has been a big illusion fed to all of us. In school we were taught about Asean and told that we were "Asean people", without ever understanding what that meant.

We use many other personal factors as a source of our identity - country, religion, ethnicity - but never our membership of Asean.

Asean nations range from Singapore, a dynamic city state with the GDP per capita of a developed nation, to small, backward communist dictatorships such as Cambodia and Laos, to democracies like Indonesia and the Philippines. Culturally, they range from Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia and Malaysia to Buddhist secular states such as Thailand.

We have different languages, different religions, different cultures, different governmental and social systems, and different levels of economic development.

There is no single reason for us, the people of South-east Asia, to stick together as one community. It is only through geographic proximity that a concept of community seems plausible.

While Asean was formed for security and political reasons , now we are one community, first of all, for economic purposes.

But even so, we can't call ourselves an economic community just yet. Intra-Asean trade makes up only 30 per cent of the bloc's total trade, while intra-Asian trade is much bigger, standing at 53 per cent. Thus, it is no surprise that some Asean states - Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam - have joined the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a move that could further divide Asean, especially politically.

In its nearly 50 years of existence, Asean's biggest achievement is avoiding war. But while it was formed for political and security reasons, it is in these aspects that Asean nations are the most divided, and it seems almost impossible to remedy this situation.

The Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are traditionally US allies.

Meanwhile Indonesia and Malaysia, often confused by their attempts to stay neutral, generally just try to be pragmatic. Cambodia and Laos are beholden to China and will not approve of any action on an issue important to Beijing. With this division and the "Asean Way" of consensus decision-making and non-interference, it's impossible to make a united move on issues such as the South China Sea, for instance.

With Asean economic integration and political commonalities increasingly becoming a delusion, the only way to create a genuine community is to focus on the socio-cultural sector.

While we can always say that the Asean community is a work in progress, it will not progress until we seriously embark on exchanging values, lifestyles and customs of people in Asean so that they come to know and understand each other.

•The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner ANN, a grouping of 21 newspapers. For more, see www.asianews.network.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'The fragile state of Asean unity'. Print Edition | Subscribe