Asean 2018: Reconciling consensus with new realities

Chinese structures are pictured at the disputed Spratlys in South China Sea.Building consensus between Asean countries has become a tall order on sensitive security issues, such as the South China Sea.
Chinese structures are pictured at the disputed Spratlys in South China Sea.Building consensus between Asean countries has become a tall order on sensitive security issues, such as the South China Sea. PHOTO: REUTERS

Asean's rapid expansion in the 1990s further deepened diversity and complexities within the organisation.

The only path towards all Asean decisions and agreements is through consultation and consensus, a decision-making model subjected to both praise and criticism over the past five decades.

A hallmark of the Asean Way, consensus guarantees that all member states, big or small, are equal in Asean's decision-making. It is credited for bringing Asean members together and keeping them united.

In Asean's early years, consensus ensured self-confidence and mutual trust as the member states learnt how to cooperate with one another.

Being nascent nation-states that had just thrown off colonial shackles, Asean countries embraced consensus as a "twin brother" of non-intervention to guard against any potential infringement on their national sovereignty.

As described by former Philippine foreign secretary Delia D. Albert, "building consensus was time-consuming, but in the end it was the only way to go in those early days of building Asean".

Asean, however, has evolved significantly from a loose association towards a more integrated community. Its rapid expansion to include all mainland Southeast Asian states in the 1990s further deepened diversity and complexities within the organisation.

The world itself has also moved on from the rigidly bipolar Cold War to a more complex and fluid state. In the Asia-Pacific, the power shift precipitated by the US' relative decline and China's re-emergence is intensifying major power rivalries, pulling Asean members into different vectors.

Meanwhile, politics within some Asean countries has inched towards greater democratisation, resulting in a faster turnover of national leadership.

While the older generation of Asean leaders had decades to cultivate their personal bonding, friendship and mutual understanding, less time and political capital could be invested into forging camaraderie among today's regional leaders.

As a result, the sense of familiarity and give-and-take approach built up at the highest level is giving way to more entrenched national perspectives to the detriment of Asean unity and the "we-feeling".

In the exercise of consensus, the line between preserving legitimate national interests and free-riding at the expense of the region's overall interests is increasingly blurred and subjective.

Building consensus has become a tall order on sensitive security issues such as the situations in Rakhine state,

Myanmar, or the South China Sea. Where consensus is reached, decisions most likely end up being the lowest common denominators, affecting Asean efficiency and credibility.

Dr Syed Hamid Albar, former foreign minister of Malaysia, therefore strongly urged Asean to re-examine its decision-making process with a view to formulating a cohesive stand on issues of regional and international concerns, and reasserting Asean's relevance when it comes to preventive diplomacy and conflict management.

As Asean's ambition of building an integrated community and enhancing its concerted voice and action to address emerging challenges requires a more effective decision-making process, there have been suggestions from both within and outside of Asean policy circles on institutional innovations to ease Asean out of the current dilemma.

These include, for example, broadening "Asean minus X" beyond economic issues or a supermajority voting model.

As of now, Asean is not ready yet to make that hard choice of replacing consensus with majority voting. Former Indonesian foreign minister Nur Hassan Wirajuda and Mr Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam's former deputy foreign

minister, both shared the concern that majority rule would cause division and discord within Asean. Former Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong cautioned that "taking a vote or having a majority will not mean we can get a better outcome".

With majority voting too radical a change for Asean at this juncture, what institutional tweaks could be attempted?

Dr Wirajuda put his hope in the "Asean minus 1" formula so as to prevent "the tyranny of one" where one member state exercises its veto power to override the agreement of the other nine. Mr Ong supported the application of "Asean minus X" for technical and operational issues, subject to appropriate guidelines to minimise its random invoking or its non-use even when the situation warrants it.

Some other procedural and institutional reforms were also proposed by these eminent persons, such as strengthening the roles of the Asean chair and the Asean Summit as the supreme decision-policy body in Asean.

Going forward, former Myanmar foreign minister U Ohn Gyaw believes that Asean decision-making "will continue to be influenced by a realistic acceptance of the differences among the ten member states".

Therefore, instead of revisiting this time-tested modus operandi, he called for a re-awakening to the sense of common destiny among Asean member states despite their differences.

In a similar vein, Ms Delia Albert remarked that the exercise of consensus must be accompanied by "developing a consciousness for the common good of the Community, trust-building efforts and the balancing of national and regional interests".

Marrying national interests into regional thinking is easier said than done but not impossible, requiring a sense of enlightened self-interest as well as "skillful diplomacy and clever convergence of diverse interests" as highlighted by Mr Ong.

In this regard, it bears reminding ourselves of the words by Singapore's late Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam at the meeting that gave birth to Asean in August 1967: "We must accept the fact, if we are really serious about it, that regional existence means painful adjustments to thinking in our respective countries. We must make these painful and difficult adjustments. If we are not going to do that, then regionalism remains a Utopia."

The writer is a Lead Researcher at the Asean Studies Centre, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. This article is an adapted version of a commentary published in the ASEAN Focus magazine of the institute.