Map of the Asean economic community. Photo: iStock
Map of the Asean economic community. Photo: iStock

The latest Asean summit in the Philippines confirms an increasingly unpalatable truth about Southeast Asia’s most celebrated contribution to international diplomacy: it is no longer capable of fulfilling a useful purpose. This is not a new problem, but it is getting more difficult to ignore.

Some would argue that Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) has never made a really decisive contribution to regional diplomacy. Yes, there was the celebrated resolution of the Cambodia crisis, but that was over 40 years ago, and not much has happened since. For all the claims that are made on Asean’s behalf by its officials and sympathetic commentators, the reality is that Asia’s most enduring organization is incapable of addressing difficult problems.

The most glaring and consequential confirmation of this thesis is China’s territorial expansionism in the South China Sea. If ever there was something all Asean’s members ought to be able to agree on, it is the importance of resolutely standing up to the region’s most important and potentially destabilizing regional power.

The recent meeting in Manila demonstrates all that is wrong with Asean

The reality, however, has been anything but a coherent, much less a coordinated, response by Asean’s members. On the contrary, Asean has been unable to produce even one of its notoriously bland, non-binding statements about their collective sense of solidarity and purpose.

The recent meeting in Manila demonstrates all that is wrong with Asean. The fact that the erratic, increasingly authoritarian Philippine president, Roderigo Duterte, is the current chairman of Asean is a big enough problem in itself for a grouping which thinks of itself as a force for progressive political development and reform.

Even more pointedly, however, the Philippines under Duterte’s leadership has been charting a course toward China, albeit an admittedly erratic one. If the Philippines is incapable of resisting China’s expansionist agenda, why would we expect other Asean states with less at stake to behave otherwise?

The reality is that a number of Asean’s other members, especially Cambodia and Laos, have been effectively bought off by China via sophisticated aid and investment packages, making the prospect of a unified Asean position on this or any issue that affects the group’s relations with China all but impossible.

The idea that Asean can influence the behavior of the region’s great powers – or even the United States, for that matter – was always rather fanciful; now it looks like wishful thinking. If the US can’t influence China decisively, why would we expect that Asean can?

Because of the way the region’s institutions have evolved they are incapable of acting effectively, especially when the issues are controversial or generate political pain. Even before the European Union began to experience major internal problems, the organization had few admirers in Southeast Asia, where sovereignty is protected rather than pooled.

The idea that Southeast Asia could or would replicate the European experience was always rather unlikely, but now it is all but impossible. Some regional leaders will celebrate this, no doubt, but it makes the prospects for any sort of effective regional organization more remote than ever.

Unfortunately, it is not just Asean that will suffer as a consequence. All of the other surprisingly numerous regional initiatives that have followed in Asean’s wake suffer from the same genetic defect. The “Asean Way” of consensus, face-saving and problem avoidance means the 10-member bloc and the other bodies that emulate it inevitably adopt the politics of the lowest common denominator with all the limitations that implies.

The Asean Regional Forum, which ought to be East Asia’s premier strategic organization and ideally placed to address the growing number of security flashpoints, is actually hamstrung by the Asean Way and the need to keep its members onside. Any suggestions that diplomatic pressure might be applied to misbehaving members is effectively impossible – and that’s just the way many of its members like it.

Despite the fact that Asean and its offshoots have achieved little for the last 30 or 40 years, it’s regarded as very impolite to draw attention to this. While the region was prosperous and peaceful – like much of the rest of the world – this may have been an indulgence regional policymakers could afford. When the region is in desperate need of effective leadership and governance, however, Asean’s shortcomings are a growing problem.

At a time when the entire East Asian region is being roiled by a series of major problems, especially strategic ones, it desperately needs institutions that are capable of holding its members to account and actually addressing complex problems that threaten development and security.

Europe’s historical experience also reminds us of what happens when such institutions either do not exist or fall into disrepair. We forget the comparative lessons of history at our peril.

Mark Beeson

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. Before joining UWA, he taught at Murdoch, Griffith, Queensland, York (UK) and Birmingham, where he was also head of department. He is the co-editor of Contemporary Politics, and the founding editor of Critical Studies of the Asia Pacific.

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