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ASEAN, the region’s strategic convenor

Author: Editors, East Asia Forum

Outside observers who seek to find fault with ASEAN will quickly find what they are looking for. ASEAN makes it too easy — citing the number of meetings held as a metric of success, for example. More serious criticism comes from human rights advocates who point to the body’s feeble responses to human rights violations in member states. Member governments’ failure to follow through on economic integration commitments — creating scepticism about the future of an ASEAN Economic Community — is another problem.

Yet criticism of ASEAN often overlooks the mission it set at its creation in 1967. ASEAN has succeeded in securing a prosperous peace, preventing interstate conflict and in providing a forum for the region’s engagement with great powers and the wider world — the region’s ‘strategic convenor’, as Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull put it. One might even say that ASEAN’s organisational weaknesses are the secret to its success. ASEAN works so well because it doesn’t.

In this week’s lead essay Kishore Mahbubani lays out the basis for considering ASEAN such a success story. Mahbubani argues that fear of communism, strong leadership from some remarkable cold war-era statesmen, as well as a healthy dose of luck, have made ASEAN ‘the world’s most successful regional organisation after the EU’. Mahbubani’s argument is set out in more detail in the latest East Asia Forum Quarterly ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’, edited by Evelyn Goh and Jochen Prantl.

ASEAN has survived into its sixth decade in spite of tremendous challenges within and between member states. Though formed in the midst of the Cold War, the organisation has successfully integrated the communist states of Indochina and offered the opportunity for their participation in regional and global trade.

ASEAN’s informality and flexibility — even in its failures to follow through non collective commitments — have allowed the organisation to bend without breaking for fifty years. As Mahbubani argues, within ASEAN a ‘culture of peace has evolved as a result of imbibing the Indonesian custom of … consultation and consensus’, marked by the magnanimity shown towards the needs of economic and institutionally limited members by stronger peers.

A critique of ASEAN’s achievements through a European lens only serves to underline ASEAN’s unlikely success. The challenges the EU faces are evident in its attempts to enroll increasingly illiberal governments of post-communist states such as Hungary and Poland into the European mission — all countries which are far less culturally, politically, and economically different from the EU’s founding members in Western Europe than, say, Laos is from Singapore.

But if ASEAN is to be judged on its achievements in strategic diplomacy, then it is also right to scrutinise the organisation for how it handles the big challenges confronting it today. What should worry defenders of ASEAN’s relevance is the uncertainty about consensus within ASEAN on appropriate responses to manifestations of great power rivalries in the Asia and the Pacific.

No stock take of ASEAN’s health can avoid addressing the South China Sea issue. The divisions over how to respond to Chinese actions in contested waters have challenged the forum’s culture of ‘consultation and consensus’. The flipside to ASEAN’s institutional looseness is that the bloc is only strong and relevant to the extent that its member states can form a strategic consensus, and shape their diplomacy around it.

Left to fend for themselves, some ASEAN members will be forced into a game of strategic hedging more accommodating of Chinese preferences than they might wish. Most notable among them are Singapore and Malaysia, which are concerned about the credibility of longstanding formal and informal strategic ties with the United States.

A divided ASEAN would risk being sidelined by the world. At the same time, Washington and Beijing should recognise that it’s not in their interest to pressure a fragile ASEAN in this way: ‘both sides should treat ASEAN as a delicate Ming vase’ and not risk its fracture, according to Mahbubani.

Fear, leadership, and luck — the three factors which Mahbubani cites as key to ASEAN’s success since 1967 — will all be needed in spades to ensure that ASEAN can survive a radically changed strategic environment.

Thus far ‘its success in forging unity in diversity is a beacon of hope for our troubled world’ and the strategic underpinning of ASEAN’s diplomatic practice offers reassurance that it is made of the right stuff to manage the challenges it’s likely to face in the next 50 years.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

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