By Invitation

Asean after 50: Looking back to look forward

2017 has been a milestone year for Asean. It marked 50 years since the formation of the regional organisation on Aug 8, 1967. The region has changed much these last five decades. Asean, to its credit, has changed along with it, to the extent that it not only remains in existence today, but is widely celebrated as a successful effort at regional institution building.

As with all milestone years, there was much to celebrate, and much was indeed celebrated, if Asean's 2017 calendar of events was anything to go by. But milestone years are also appropriate occasions to take stock and reflect on shortcomings - even failures - with an eye to what lies ahead.

In that spirit, I'd like to share some thoughts along those lines.

When Asean was formed in 1967, it was with the expressed purpose of creating a regional order which would preserve a modicum of intra-mural peace and stability, thereby allowing member states to focus their energies on internal challenges including regime legitimacy and economic development. Because of this objective, the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states became - and remains - a signal feature of Asean norms that govern relations among the member states.

Asean found itself at a major turning point in 1976, when major shifts in regional geopolitical dynamics, namely the withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam and the eventual fall of Saigon to North Vietnam in 1975, occasioned the convening of the first Asean Summit in Bali. This development accelerated hitherto anaemic discussions of regional political and security concerns. A formal commitment to political cooperation was expressed in a Declaration of Asean Concord, while provision for a norms-based regional order and for dispute settlement found institutional form in a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

Following the achievements of the Bali summit, political cooperation among member states was effectively displayed in the wake of Vietnam's invasion of Kampuchea in December 1978. By employing their regional credentials and highlighting the sanctity of national sovereignty, Asean states were able to deny legitimacy to the government conveyed into Phnom Penh by Vietnam's occupying army.

Throughout the 1980s, Asean managed through extensive lobbying efforts to attract strong voting support in the General Assembly of the United Nations for an annual resolution calling for Vietnam's military withdrawal from Kampuchea, which eventually took place beginning in September 1989. These efforts marked the start of the conception of Asean's "Centrality" in regional affairs.


Throughout its modern history, South-east Asia has always found itself at the junction of great power contention, for which the Kampuchean crisis also served as a reminder. This is a function of the region's geopolitical destiny - being located at the crossroads of major political, economic and cultural interactions - and as such is not likely to change.

This implies the need for the region to ensure some measure of strategic autonomy in order to prevent domination by a single power.

To meet this imperative at the end of the Cold War, a meeting of Asean's foreign ministers together with those from the United States, China, Russia and other regional states convened in Singapore in July 1993.


That meeting led to an agreement to inaugurate the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) as a wider vehicle to address regional security issues.

The ARF held its first working session in Bangkok in July 1994. Unbeknownst to Asean at that time, the formation of the ARF marked the beginning of a process of regional architecture building that subsequently led to a proliferation of mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit and the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting in the security realm.

Similar developments were evident in the realm of regional economics, with the creation of the Chiang Mai Initiative and ongoing discussions on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The concept of Asean Centrality registered prominently in these indigenous attempts at regional order management towards the ends of mitigating the adverse effects of strategic flux while maintaining a degree of regional autonomy.

In brief, the concept of Asean Centrality reflects the organisation's self-assumed obligation to play a leading role - to be the "primary driving force" or, as is often said in the context of the ARF, in the "driver's seat" - in influencing (not to be mistaken for dictating, or indeed, shaping) events and policy outcomes in the region in a multilateral framework that nevertheless includes external powers.

Asean Centrality signals the attempt of South-east Asian states to manage the changing distribution of power and regional balance so as to create strategic latitude and autonomy while minimising the prospects of the region being overwhelmed by great power politics.

Centrality has come to be expressed in Asean's organisational capacity, as evident in its creation and hosting of a raft of regional processes such as those mentioned above. Significant in these respects is Asean's ability to extend its institutional and diplomatic model to encompass issues and actors from the wider Asia-Pacific region. Centrality also takes the form of agenda-setting and chairing (or co-chairing) of these processes, and the acceptance of the organisation's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, whose signatories include all the major regional powers, as the foundational premise for the regional security architecture.


As a prescription for regional order, Asean Centrality rests on what is in essence an intriguing anomaly, where the locus of initiative derives from weak states rather than regional powers.

In other words, Asean Centrality is counter-intuitively articulated on the basis of an implicit recognition of weakness - Asean is a collection of weak states and not major powers "central" in the regional architecture - rather than strength.

Why then, would major powers agree to play by Asean's rules since it defies a fundamental logic of international politics? Put simply, to major powers, the notion of Asean Centrality is tolerable because it articulates the premise for the provision of a neutral platform for them to engage each other on regional issues without having to compromise on their own interests.

In this sense, South-east Asia's diplomatic centrality reflects the imperative to manage rather than transcend exogenous great power dynamics. Rather than create a region free of external power intervention, the acknowledgement of the role of major powers is a prerequisite - an essential condition - for Asean to make good its "centrality".

The above observations are instructive of an important fact of international life for South-east Asia - if Asean's aspirations to shape regional order extend to managing major power activity, then its relevance hinges precisely on major power assent. Therein lies the rub: for even as the states of South-east Asia entertain such aspirations, they are exposed - individually and collectively - to coercion, fragmentation, and possibly, marginalisation by the major powers.

More to the point, if a major power behaves in a manner or pursues a course of action in contradiction to Asean's interests, there is little recourse for the organisation.


An even more fundamental point needs to be registered with regard to the practice of Asean's diplomatic centrality. The effort to accent centrality ultimately turns on the ability of members of the organisation to at least speak with one voice even if they cannot think with one mind. On this score, regional diplomacy has too often been frustrated by the challenges of forging and maintaining unity of purpose and perspectives within the organisation itself.

Notwithstanding laudable advances in community building, relations between regional states continue to suffer from a residual climate of suspicion and also visible differences of outlook.

To be sure, it is perfectly natural for states to have different outlooks on international affairs. After all, each state has its own national interest to advance, and it would be foolhardy to assume easy alignment of these interests and outlooks even in the most amiable of relationships. Where the rubber meets the road, however, is whether differences in outlook and interests are allowed to obstruct the efficacy of Asean diplomacy.

At issue is the ability of diverse South-east Asian states to maintain a united approach to the promotion of regional stability. This unity is dependent on the strength of shared interests as well as the normative "glue" that holds the grouping together.

Conversely, perverse norms and competing interests could imperil Asean by setting member states at odds with each other and pulling them in separate directions, thereby disabling the organisation from playing its role in the "driver's seat" of regionalism.

More to the point, this illustrates the risk that Asean states could turn inwards or strategically disengage from each other during times of crisis.

During the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, for example, it was observed with some accuracy that Asean states' first instincts were to turn inwards and away from regional responses. Not only did Asean states fail to coordinate a coherent joint response, but they also allowed the crisis to exacerbate underlying bilateral tensions between them.


Something of a similar dynamic has obtained recently with regard to differences among Asean states on the matter of the South China Sea disputes that have taken their toll on the organisation's ability to demonstrate collective diplomatic will on an issue that lies at the centre - literally and figuratively - of regional stability.

So, as Asean stands on the cusp of its next 50 years, it would do well to bear in mind both its potential and limitations.

Over and above that, its members must come to a collective recognition of what is at stake for them in the coming years as the configuration of regional - indeed, global - power continues to shift.

As I have suggested, Asean had encountered something of such power shifts at least twice before, in 1975 and in the early 1990s. On both occasions, it managed to weather some rough waters, and the organisation emerged better for it. It will need to call on the lessons learnt in the last 50 years in order to do so again in the face of the challenges that lie ahead.

  • The writer is dean and professor of comparative and international politics, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. Parts of this article were taken from his chapter in Asean Future Forward: Anticipating the Next 50 Years (2017).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2017, with the headline 'Asean after 50: Looking back to look forward'. Print Edition | Subscribe