The Value of Peace within Southeast Asia

On ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, Fynn-Niklas Franke reflects on the roles the association has adopted over the last decades. With several geopolitical issues looming in Southeast Asia, what are ASEAN’s member states able and willing to do together?

“I hope November will come,” Rodrigo Duterte said half-jokingly during the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s (ASEAN) 50th anniversary celebrations in Manila last month. As the president of the Philippines, which holds the ASEAN chairmanship in 2017, he seemed to have weighed the likelihood of a 31st ASEAN Summit to be held in November this year against the dangerous intensification of the nuclear saber-rattling on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, he spoke of the urgent need for ASEAN to leave behind its role as a spectator and to increase its international recognition. But how should ASEAN respond to the growing threat perceptions being triggered by the increased levels of belligerence between the powerful nations in the Asia-Pacific region, and where should its ambitions begin and end?

A number of commentators used this anniversary to critically assess ASEAN’s status quo half a century after its formation, leaving no doubt about the divergence of opinions when it comes to the association’s performance. Generally, one can say that ASEAN has proven itself to be a functioning model for regional stability and economic integration in Southeast Asia. But a new place in the spotlight also brings with it high expectations, especially when it comes to the association’s role on the geopolitical stage. Thus, some see a need for ASEAN to more actively demonstrate its credibility if it wants to assert itself in the current international environment. An often-heard doubt with regards to its relevance centres around the ongoing lack of decision-making capacity of the association.

It is hard to counter some of the legitimate criticisms of the institutional failures that have previously plagued ASEAN. For example, on more than one occasion the socialist governments in mainland Southeast Asia have differed markedly with each other vis-à-vis their positions on security policy issues, leading to many diplomatic stalemates. This is not to deny that ASEAN’s existence carries with it extensive opportunities for regional stability and peace prospects, merely that ASEAN unity should not be taken for granted when assessing its centrality in the Asia-Pacific. Such awareness helps dispel complacency as various state actors strive to achieve what are the core prerequisites for every subsequent development in the region, whether it’s economic, socio-cultural or political. The necessity to recognise this is enhanced by the foreseen increase in great-power rivalry in the coming decades and the danger of ASEAN being caught up within it. This is a development that the association can most likely not entirely escape from, but it is important to remember that such a concern was the reason that evoked the formation of ASEAN in the first place.

Overcoming suspicions to achieve mutual security  

ASEAN emerged in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, as a response to concerns over the ongoing proxy wars in Indochina that saw the entanglement of the then global ‘superpowers’, the United States and the Soviet Union. Security concerns were fueled by the outbreak of a number of communist insurgencies, which triggered fears among certain incumbent regimes that the still fragile region would be engulfed and torn asunder by communism.

By seeking greater security through collaboration, the five founding states of ASEAN – Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines – saw in their new organization an extra shield for state sovereignty in a period characterised by external threats and internal suspicions. The original premise for forming what Lee Jones called an “alignment of reactionary capitalist regimes” was thus about finding common ground that would secure them against the main threats to their rule. This embryonic organization was subsequently held together by this mutual threat perception which led to the pursuit of bilateral arrangements but not of any formalised multilateral defense alliances.  

The first binding treaty following the signing of the Bangkok Declaration in 1967 was not concluded until a decade later at the first ASEAN Summit in 1976. One year after the fall of Saigon and the emergence of a victorious communist Vietnam, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) officially formulated the ASEAN norms and obligations. A core agreement within this treaty was that of non-interference into member states’ domestic affairs, which, as Eric Corthay rightfully pointed out, aimed “at preventing the aggravation of domestic conflicts by foreign factors.” Non-interference remains as ASEAN’s bedrock principle to this day.

It was not until the 1990s though that the ASEAN member states partly abandoned their initial protectionist stance and agreed to seek closer economic cooperation, leading to the birth of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA). Since then, ever-increasing ambitions among the members called for an improvement of the regional security architecture, which led to the first meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994, as one of several ASEAN-led forums.

The prospect of regional economic prosperity became a major driver for ASEAN’s unity and, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the door was opened for an ASEAN-Indochina reconciliation, which saw Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam become ASEAN member states. With a collective desire for economic progress and shared aspirations for regionalism in Southeast Asia, ASEAN countries managed to convert hostility and suspicion into trust and established a body that ensured peace and stability in the region by providing a collective identity and several multilateral forums for inter-state dialogue.

Finally, the ASEAN Charter of 2007 institutionalised the hitherto loosely structured organization and provided it with a legal personality for the first time. It laid the groundwork for the inauguration of the ASEAN community in 2015. As an ongoing project and a further step towards developing a coherent entity, the community comprises three pillars, namely an economic, socio-cultural and political-security community.  

It is a strength of ASEAN – rather than a weakness – that it doesn’t execute supranational authority, but instead provides an inter-governmental form of small-state regionalism in which none of its members can exert a hegemonic role. This has allowed for mutual respect and trust to overcome differences and successfully forge unity in diversity. With respect to the integration of the CMLV states (Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam), ASEAN’s policy of inclusiveness has managed to build confidence and dispel the internal suspicions that had haunted it during its early years. For Kishore Mahbubani, Professor in the Practice of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, this displayed that “trust is ASEAN’s main currency” and ultimately the basis for successful multilateralism in an environment as diverse as Southeast Asia.

The risk of being caught up in great power geopolitics

However, as indicated earlier, some wish to see ASEAN take on a more significant geopolitical role and work on its alleged weaknesses, to bolster its effectiveness in addressing security challenges that see third-party involvement beyond Southeast Asia. For forums such as the ARF, this would require an increase in political will towards effective preventive diplomacy measures to not only manage conflicts but also find tangible resolutions for them. Especially the years of unresolved entanglement in the South China Sea caused some criticism in this context. More recently, the threat of a nuclear escalation on the Korean peninsula is an issue on which ASEAN has been pressured to take a stronger stand. David Han accentuated why this could mean a potential risk for the organization: “If ASEAN chooses sides regarding the North Korean threat, this could widen the intra-ASEAN divide because of differing attitudes towards the two powers [China and the US].”

In any case, institutional arrangements may very well prevent ASEAN from acting to implement measures of preventive diplomacy, since the 2011 ‘ASEAN Regional Forum Preventive Diplomacy Plan’ defines preventive diplomacy as a step to “prevent disputes and conflicts” as well as to “minimise” their impact on the region, but simultaneously bases such actions on ‘consultation and consensus’. Consensus-based decision-making is one of ASEAN’s other core principles. Furthermore, these actions can only be taken in a voluntary and non-coercive manner, which means they require the consent of “all parties directly involved in a particular dispute,” something that we have not yet seen in the complex situation in East Asia.

Instead, ASEAN exercises a policy of ‘strategic diplomacy’, which is understood as being “undertaken with purposeful, strategic rationale, with a long-term focus on shaping the complex international system that nation-states must operate in”. This also applies to its activities in the broader geopolitical sphere, where ASEAN manages to function as a mediating force in ways that none of the major powers like China, Japan or India could, because of the suspicions they have towards each other. ASEAN’s prudent chosen institutional design centering on neutrality, consensus-building, and state sovereignty could ease great-power tensions and provide a platform for dialogue in the region.

The changing power-dynamics in today’s globalised world might, however, require a critical assessment of the implementation of multilateralism in the ASEAN-led forums. In Amitav Acharya’s opinion, ASEAN could start this by recognizing their limitations and thinking of strategies to avoid a deep entanglement in great power geopolitics, instead focusing efforts on re-strengthening the member states’ commitment to ASEAN’s norms and values.

The question of what might be at stake for ASEAN when expanding beyond the role of a mediator comes down to the risk that this might evoke for the stable trust and non-threat perception among its member states. Getting caught up in disagreements while trying to manage great power rivalries could influence other issues within ASEAN, and ultimately negatively affect the long-fought harmony in Southeast Asia. This might explain why ASEAN seems less worried about an imminent failure of finding common ground with external players, and more about internal discord among its member states.

And this is where the attention is needed. Domestic violence, such as the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, presents a serious challenge to domestic and regional human security. Besides the obvious horror for the victims affected, these domestic inter-religious and ethnic tensions, if left unchecked, could spill across borders with potentially disastrous consequences in a region defined by diversity. Mahbubani reminds us of how ASEAN succeeded in altering the position of Myanmar’s former military junta through both consultation and engagement but also by brandishing the threat of political and economic isolation. With such proven capabilities to instigate political change, perhaps it can now end the violence against the Rohingya.

While wondering if November will come, one might gain confidence by what Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng in their relatively new book The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace fittingly explained to be an accomplishment of ASEAN, namely the creation of “a kind of equal system of peace, which then created an equal system of collaboration, which then delivered economic development.” Thus, while assessing ASEAN’s attempts to set off a cycle of economic and human prosperity in Southeast Asia, the value of peace and stability should not be underestimated – neither by the ASEAN leaders, nor their critics – but rather be acknowledged as the sinews of all actions, whether in regional or cross-regional diplomacy.

Fynn-Niklas Franke is a graduate student in International Relations at Leiden University and has an undergraduate background in Southeast Asian Studies.

Photo by IAEA Imagebank