Asean's much-vaunted emphasis on consensus is misunderstood as requiring unanimity, which effectively allows any state to veto Asean-wide initiatives. It's time to allow other voting mechanisms.
Asean is at a crossroads. From the Mekong River to the South China Sea, it has to confront thorny issues that could potentially become geopolitical flashpoints.
The regional body, however, is increasingly suffering from what one may call "middle institutionalisation trap": The type of decision-making modalities that worked in the past is no longer sufficient to address today's most pressing regional security challenges.
To many regional leaders, the so-called "Asean Way", where consultation and consensus underpin collective decision-making, is sacrosanct. After all, the traditional operating system allowed a highly diverse region to establish a community of peace and prosperity.
Yet, as years go by, the Asean Way is proving to be a primary obstacle rather than an enabler of deeper regional integration.
To begin with, this is because of the fundamental misinterpretation of "consensus" as "unanimity". In sensitive areas of decision-making, where protracted discussions and irreconcilable differences are almost inevitable by nature, this has become a recipe for disaster. Instead of action, there is paralysis.
The obsessive and obstinate search for unanimity effectively gives each member state, regardless of its size or interest, a de facto veto power over the future of Asean and, by extension, the whole region. This has been painfully clear in the politico-security realm, particularly the South China Sea disputes and the Rohingya humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. All it takes is the opposition of just one member state (often out of pure self-interest or/and under pressure by external powers) to hobble Asean's ability to make a robust and meaningful statement on contentious issues, much less act on them.
So what's to be done?
For a start, consider looking at other models. While far from perfect, other regional organisations such as the European Union have addressed similar concerns and come up with optimal institutional arrangements.
For sure, the EU is hobbled by its own internal problems, namely the two-speed divergence in institutional and economic development between more prosperous western-Nordic members, and poorer and debt-ridden southern-eastern members. The sovereign debt crisis, which heavily hit peripheral European nations, was largely a reflection of this structural divide within Europe. Nonetheless, the organisation has managed to bring about decades of sustained economic growth and unprecedented peace across much of the European continent.
None of these would have been possible if the EU didn't have improved decision-making procedures, such as the adoption of Qualified Majority voting at the European Council.
Under this modality, no single state has de facto veto power over consequential decisions that affect the whole organisation, since the majority (in normal cases, at least 16 out of 28 nations or 65 per cent of the total EU population) gets to decide on any relevant issue.
Crucially, votes are proportional to demographic size of member states. The Council, through this procedure, has approved almost 80 per cent of all EU legislation as well as foreign policy initiatives such as the conclusion of free trade agreements with external partners. As a result, the EU isn't paralysed by the search for unanimity (as in Asean) on all inherently divisive issues, but instead has emerged as the world's biggest consumer market and a major geopolitical force in the international system.
Perhaps, the time has come for Asean to contemplate the modification of its decision-making procedures in certain areas of common concern.
Or, at the very least, extend the "Asean Minus X" (A-X) formula to sensitive areas of decision-making.
This modality has been used effectively over the decades, particularly during negotiations of economic agreements among member states but also the negotiation of the Asean Convention on Counter-Terrorism. Under the A-X procedure, a number of like-minded members can first agree on a specific modus vivendi, and then progressively seek the ratification of all members at a later stage, when others are ready and on board.
Alternatively, Asean can adopt "minilateralism", whereby a smaller number of like-minded and influential member states collectively address specific regional challenges, which have been left unaddressed on the multilateral level due to the lack of unanimity.
Both the A-X and minilateralism modalities could create a two-speed dynamic within the region at first, but they protect members with common and more urgent concerns from being held hostage by the indifference or opposition of others.
For instance, South-east Asian claimant states could (in parallel to long-drawn multilateral Asean-China talks) more expediently negotiate a legally binding and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea among themselves.
It's also crucial for Asean to address the brewing water conflict in the Mekong River Delta, especially in the light of major dam projects that are affecting fisheries resources and agricultural productivity among downstream littoral states.
In both the South China Sea and Mekong River, China is a major player. Thus, it's crucial for Singapore, as the Asean chair, and the Philippines, as the new Asean-China country coordinator, to leverage their warm ties with Beijing to explore mutually acceptable solutions.
Influential Asean states could also jointly pressure and encourage the Myanmar regime to address the brewing humanitarian crisis within its borders, which is affecting the broader region.
Fortunately, on other areas of common concern, particularly terrorism and piracy, there is regional consensus. But what's needed is tangible follow-through.
Asean will need to, among other things, expand cooperation via institutionalised intelligence-sharing among relevant agencies; effective tracking of terrorist financing across regional borders; joint patrols along porous maritime borders; and training of and equipment transfer to regional weak links.
Singapore is also expected to accelerate negotiations over the establishment of an Asean common market, which means the consolidation of 10South-east Asian economies into a singular production base.
But prosperity can be built only on security, which, in turn, requires effective conflict-management mechanisms in place. And this is precisely where Asean is woefully in need of reforms to rise to the occasion.
• The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines. S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.
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