Courtesy Reuters

The current state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) evokes both pessimism and hope. Skeptics see the organization—founded in Bangkok on August 8, 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore—as increasingly irrelevant in the post-Cold War milieu and unable to confront the new enemies of a globalized world: currency speculators, pandemic viruses, and shadowy terrorist groups. To its harshest critics, ASEAN is little more than a quarrelsome bunch of peripheral nations too beholden to a nineteenth century view of national sovereignty to effectively cooperate and build a regional identity.

Yet ASEAN has been one of the most durable examples of regional multilateralism, one that commands attention and respect from regional organizations in other parts of the developing world. It acts as the hub, if not the leader, of regional multilateral forums for East Asia. The fact that the region's most powerful players—including China, India, and the United States—show deference to ASEAN by participating in these forums demonstrates that ASEAN still matters.

ASEAN's positive image was built around four areas of accomplishment in its first three decades. First, it was able to survive as Asia's only multipurpose regional organization after China and India failed in their attempts at regional institution building. Second, since 1967 no ASEAN member has engaged a fellow ASEAN member in major armed confrontation, in spite of occasional border skirmishes (notably between Thailand and Myanmar in 2001) and bilateral territorial disputes and political tensions (particularly between Singapore and Malaysia). Third, ASEAN was instrumental in bringing the decade-long Vietnamese-Cambodian conflict to the negotiating table in 1989 and in reaching a peace agreement in 1991. Vietnam, then seen as an obstacle to regional stability, is now a valued member of the organization. Finally, as the Cold War ended, it was ASEAN which provided the platform for building broader regional institutions that would engage a rising China and other major players in East Asia. Without ASEAN's neutral facilitating role, China might not have joined the ASEAN Regional Forum, established in 1994 as East Asia's only official multilateral security forum.

But the Asian financial crisis of 1997 triggered a series of setbacks. It severely crippled the economies of three of ASEAN's founding members: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. It also led to the downfall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia, until then ASEAN's de facto leader and guiding hand. The financial turmoil also dashed the hopes of the organization's new members—Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam—who had looked forward to reaping the economic benefits of membership. Beyond failing to respond to the crisis effectively and giving each other a helping hand, ASEAN members such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore made matters worse by quarreling over seemingly trivial territorial and political issues.

THE ASEAN WAY

Although the regional economies have recovered from the crisis, today ASEAN faces new challenges. It can hardly match the immense economic dynamism of China and India. Its policy of "constructive engagement" with Myanmar has failed to persuade the junta there to loosen its draconian hold on power. ASEAN seems powerless in the face of severe air pollution in Southeast Asian skies caused by Indonesia's annual forest fires and has allowed members' bilateral disputes to simmer. It is telling that Indonesia and Malaysia settled their maritime territorial dispute through adjudication by the International Court of Justice rather than through ASEAN's own High Council of Foreign Ministers, a body that was designed to play such a role. The Spratly Islands dispute with China has been set aside, but this is mainly because Beijing is focusing on economic self-empowerment and its problems with Taiwan and hence needs to keep its quarrels with ASEAN to a minimum as part of its new "charm offensive."

The "ASEAN way" of informal networking has thus far trumped efforts to institutionalize cooperation. Even old ASEAN hands, such as the Eminent Persons' Group (EPG), which is helping formulate an ASEAN Charter, acknowledge that members often do not comply with their multilateral commitments or implement collective decisions.

The vision of an ASEAN Security Community, proposed in 2002 by newly democratic Indonesia and officially adopted by ASEAN a year later, is promising in that it endorsed "a just, democratic and harmonious environment" for Southeast Asia. But there is still no policy instrument in place, such as the the Organization of American States' Inter-American Democratic Charter, to discourage democratic backsliding or coups. This became all too evident last year when the ASEAN nations remained silent in the face of a military coup that ousted Thailand's elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

On a more hopeful note, ASEAN did successfully organize a regional response (that included China) to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003. Its efforts against terrorism, including cooperation undertaken informally and at bilateral levels, have begun to yield results. And in recent months, ASEAN members have grown impatient with the lack of political reform in Myanmar. The selection of Surin Pitsuwan to be the next secretary-general of ASEAN is both a welcome and ironic move. While serving as Thailand's Foreign Minister in 1998, Surin lost a battle with his ASEAN counterparts over his attempt to dilute the organization's noninterference policy in dealing with Myanmar and other transnational issues such as financial crises, drug trafficking, and regional air pollution. At the time, he advocated a policy of "flexible engagement" with Rangoon and called for ASEAN to set aside its doctrine of noninterference and deal with domestic issues that threatened the region's stability and well-being.

Responding to criticisms that the old ASEAN way no longer works, the organization is trying to reform and strengthen itself. The ASEAN Charter, a constitutional document which will be ready by the end of this year, is a key part of this process. In its report issued last December, the EPG came up with some bold ideas and took aim at ASEAN's lowest common denominator approach, which is often blamed for causing organizational inertia. The nongovernmental EPG recommended a formal dispute-settlement mechanism in all areas of cooperation, especially concerning economic and political issues; decision-making by majority vote rather than consensus in areas other than security and foreign policy; and steps to monitor compliance with ASEAN's objectives, principles, decisions, agreements, and timetables. The EPG also proposed sanctions against members who are in "serious breach" of any of these terms, including loss of membership rights and privileges or, in extraordinary circumstances, expulsion from the organization. However, not all of these recommendations will see the light of day. When the governments got their hands on the EPG report, the recommendation for a sanctions mechanism was quickly jettisoned. Old ways die hard in ASEAN.

ASEAN has taken another important step by deciding to pursue the establishment of an East Asian economic community. This effort was motivated in part by disillusionment with the perceived lack of U.S. support for countries affected by the 1997 financial crisis. In addition, the ASEAN nations wish to further integrate China while securing from it a greater commitment to the regional public good. But the idea of a regional economic community faces powerful obstacles. Longtime rivals China and Japan are not amenable to ASEAN's mediation efforts and ASEAN members and China disagree over the participation of non-East Asian nations. Due to lobbying by Japanese and Singaporean leaders, Australia, India, and New Zealand were invited to participate in the East Asian Summit. But this does not settle the geographic scope of the East Asian Community, as China still wants the group to keep out non-East Asian nations, including the United States.

THE FUTURE OF ASEAN

Is ASEAN heading toward irrelevance or is it reinventing itself? ASEAN's historical infatuation with Westphalian sovereignty and its tolerance for authoritarianism have been major liabilities. Recent signs of a shift in these areas are therefore especially welcome. Breaking with tradition, ASEAN Foreign Ministers recently recommended the creation of a human rights commission (without sanctioning authority) over the objections of Myanmar. The commission is subject to approval by the ASEAN leaders at their annual summit in November.

Despite ASEAN's limitations, no other organization can challenge its role as the hub of regional multilateral diplomacy. History is certainly on its side; no great power has ever successfully developed a permanent regional association in Asia under its sole tutelage. ASEAN is waking up to its institutional deficiencies and trying to chart a new direction. Tommy Koh, the renowned Singaporean diplomat and a member of the intergovernmental committee drafting the ASEAN Charter, recently declared that "ASEAN is indeed reinventing itself." Responding to unfavorable comparisons between the European Union and ASEAN, he quipped, "The European Union is an inspiration, but not a model."

ASEAN will never become, and does not aspire to become, the European Union of the East. It is a more inclusive and culturally tolerant body than the European Union. But the task of successfully drafting a charter and carrying out its provisions poses a crucial test for ASEAN. One can only hope that it will not follow in the European Union's failed constitution-making footsteps.

  • Amitav Acharya holds the Chair in Global Governance at Bristol University. He is the author of Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia and co-editor of Crafting Cooperation: Regional International Institutions in Comparative Perspective.
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