By Murray Hunter
BANGKOK, Thailand--The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formally created by the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippine, Singapore, and Thailand, on the 8th August 1967.
The simply worded five article document outlining intentions to cooperate in the economic, social, cultural, technical, educational, and other fields was signed by the respective foreign ministers, Adam Malik of Indonesia, Narciso R. Ramos of the Philippines, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, S. Rajaratnam of Singapore, and Thanat Khoman of Thailand.
The ASEAN proclamation made in the midst of the cold war, was seen as a clear will to contain the threat of communist expansion. It was stipulated that the grouping would be open to all Southeast Asian nations which prescribed the aims, principles, and purposes of ASEAN, in a grouping of friendship and cooperation.
There were great differences between the original five member states that took long and tedious discussions to pass-over, which led to an informal meeting of foreign ministers in Bang Sean, Thailand, and then the signing of the Bangkok Declaration.
S. Rajaratnam espoused the fervour of nationalism had not fulfilled the expectations of the people of the region for better living standards. Further, Rajaratnam espoused that ASEAN is not against anything, or anybody.
In pursuant years, ASEAN admitted Brunei as its 6th member in 1984, and after the Cold War, Vietnam in 1995 as its 7th member. Laos and Myanmar joined in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999.
After 40 years of growth in stature, the ASEAN Charter was signed in December 2008. The charter provided for a new legal framework for ASEAN, where it pledged to develop an array of new ASEAN bodies, and more meetings between member states.
The Reality of ASEAN Today
After fifty-five years of ASEAN, realities have fallen far below the original expectations founders had for the grouping. ASEAN has not unified its ten members. There are continued territorial demarcation issues, diplomatic disputes, and even military skirmishes.
Conflicting claims within the South China Sea have been left ambiguous, rather than making any serious efforts to find any formal solutions. The centrepiece ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) free trade zone has been extremely slow to evolve.
The rest of this chapter will discuss the above issues.
Although ASEAN commenced with the grand objective of creating a community with a shared vision and collective identity, the organisation has acted more like a community of convenience for the elite rulers of the bloc with instrumentalist agendas (Lee 2018).
In practice, ASEAN member states have given priority to their own sovereignty rather than promoting any sense of a grand regional sovereignty. Individual member states have developed their own purpose-suited historical narratives, promoting their own ethno-centric nationhoods.
Phnom Penh was the scene of anti-Thai demonstrations that left Thai diplomatic and commercial interests ablaze, leading to many expatriate Thais rushing to the airport in attempts to leave the country.
Malaysia and Singapore have fought a long legal battle over a territorial dispute concerning the outlying island Batu Puteh or Pedra Branca, leading to a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). More recently, Malaysia and Singapore had a maritime dispute over the waters and border lines around the Tuas Port.
While ASEAN has shown an inherent weakness of solving intra-ASEAN disputes (Weatherbee 2012), ASEAN has also shown a distinct lack of cohesion in developing any coordinated response to Chinese activities within the South China Sea. This however has not stopped ASEAN from entering into a strategic partnership with China at the 38th ASIAN Summit in October 2021.
ASEAN nations have for thousands of years coexisted with Chinese influence within the region. Thus, the ASEAN member relationships with China are complex. Although no ASEAN nation recognizes China’s declaration of sovereignty within the Nine-Dash Line, no nation denies the right of China’s presence.
Quite the contrary, ASEAN and China are heading towards a higher tier of diplomatic recognition and interplay, in recognition of their special historical significance to China, reflected in the recognition that ASEAN has now become China’s top trading partner. ASEAN and China also reached an agreement on cooperation in support of a comprehensive recovery framework.
Perhaps, ASEAN’s espoused formal position on the China relationship was best espoused by Malaysia’s new prime minister Ismail Sabri Yakoob, who said “Malaysia would like to reiterate that regional stability is of critical importance in these unprecedented times. All countries should work together to ensure that the South China Sea remains a sea of peace, stability and trade.”
However, ASEAN also entered into strategic partnerships with Australia and the United States, where initially, both Indonesia and Malaysia were critical of Australia’s nuclear submarine ambitions through the AUKUS framework with the US and United Kingdom. ASEAN also announced a strategic partnership with the Russian Federation.
ASEAN is showing itself open to accommodating all suitors that wish to compete for the hearts and minds of the grouping and its member states.
ASEAN set up the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009, and by 2012 it had drafted a human rights declaration. The AICHR doesn’t have any mandate to receive individual complaints or conduct investigations, which diminishes the power of the commission.
However, Myanmar military leader Ming Aung Hlaing was excluded from the recent ASEAN Summit in Brunei in an unprecedented move, as a sign of displeasure over the failure to end hostilities, initiate dialogue, allow humanitarian support, and grant ASEAN’s special envoy full access to the country.
ASEAN’s Biggest Failure: The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)
In 2003 at the 13th ASEAN Summit, the AEC was conceptualised with the objective ‘to create a stable, prosperous and highly competitive ASEAN economic region in which there is a free flow of goods, services, investment and a freer flow of capital, equitable economic development, reduced poverty, and socio-economic disparities in year 2020.” This was brought forward to 2015 at the 2007 Singapore ASEAN Summit.
However, member country preparation for the official commencement in 2015 was slow and behind schedule, contrary to what the ASEAN Secretariat was saying (Chia and Plummer 2015). The AEC was launched on the 1st January 2015 in a diluted form with many aspects widening the scope of the AEC deferred to future dates.
The AEC is the victim of national conflicts of interest and the influence of major domestic corporations upon their respective governments (Das 2017). Many national firms felt unable to cope in a more liberalised trade environment without domestic protection.
In addition, a host of un-coordinated agencies regulating national product standards, local content requirements, export and import licences, product registrations, and other licensing issues has got in the way of widening the AEC platform.
One can easily get the impression when visiting Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila that there is a widely diversified ownership of business, where in fact regional businesses in ASEAN countries today are still in the hands of a small number of families.
At the same time the ASEAN region is dominated by SMEs which account for approximately 98 percent of all enterprises and some 75-85 percent of total employment.
ASEAN member states still see each other as competitors, competing with each other to attract direct foreign investment. Competing education and medical hubs have been set up which aim to attract international customers at the lowest cost.
With a very limited AEC opening up in 2015, a widening of the AEC is set for 2025, where further trade liberalizations are scheduled to take place. This represents a decade delay, on a policy initiative that was first mooted in 2003.
The banking system is not yet integrated, little has been done in the way of streamlining customs procedures which is hindering the implementation of high-quality logistic systems across the region. Little exists in the way of a regionally based media to culturally integrate the region.
Existing ASEAN initiated projects like the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT), and the East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) have existed more as ideals rather than anything that has substance on the ground. Above all there has been no attempt to integrate monetary or fiscal policy within the ASEAN region which would be necessary within any common market.
ASEAN states are still very much in different stages of growth, spread across a wide development continuum. The contrast between developed Singapore and Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Cambodia are extremely wide, much more than any other region around the world.
The Inward Focus of ASEAN Member States
Political elites of respective ASEAN countries took over governance and statecraft from their former colonial masters, thus framing their modern-day states. ASEAN member states have been very hesitant to give up any of their sovereign powers to the regional body.
Today, some of the ASEAN nations are facing watershed issues that may well set out how their respective societies will look like for many future generations. Consequently, their focus is currently inward upon these issues.
After 31 years of military government under former president Suharto, Indonesia went through its political turmoil more than a decade with the riots in 1998 that eventually brought the resignation of Suharto.
The country is still plagued with corruption, natural disasters, pressure for autonomy, and poverty. There is also the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia.
Corazon Aquino was swept to the presidency during the peoples’ power revolution of 1986, ousting longtime Philippine President, Ferdinand Marcos. Since her term as president there have been a further five elected presidents of the Republic of the Philippines, with her son Benigno Aquino III becoming president between 2010-2016, handing over the presidency to the incumbent Rodrigo Duterte.
The Philippine government’s focus currently remains upon the issues of poverty, which at 32.9 percent of the population is the highest in the region. Democracy in the Philippines has not seemed to solve the country’s fundamental issue of poverty.
Former army general Prayuth Chan-ocha’s 2014 coup against the besieged Yingluck Shinawatra government, and the 2017 constitution that was forced through prior to the 2019 elections, fulfilled a long-time goal of the Thai military.
The pseudo-democratically elected 500 member lower house of parliament, formed after the March 2109 general election, together with the senate, made up of 250 military appointees, elected Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister.
Prayuth has worked to protect the position of the Thai establishment. The Thai military, particularly, the army, had always seen itself as the body, which should rule, or at least, strongly influence the rule of Thailand.
Prayuth had completed the great military dream, the creation of what could be best called a milocracy. His government has direct support from the reigning Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has greatly strengthened his power and authority, with support from the elite business families of the country.
Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power on 1st February 2021, just as a new parliamentary session was set to open following a landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
The structure and fabric of Malaysian power are made up of a patriarchal elite Malay hierarchy. At the top are the royal families, which yield a symbolic cultural authority.
Alongside these groups are lines of Islamic clerics, who create religious legitimacy. Then comes a large sway of civil servants whose loyalty is to the Malay agenda rather than the government of the day and who caused chaos for the multiracial Pakatan Harapan government. Connected professionals and businesspeople complete the make-up of the Malay gentry.
Malaysia, once seen as a multicultural nation, has been incrementally travelling down the path of monoculturalism. In 1957, Chinese comprised about 40 percent of the population.
Singapore has been led by the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP), co-founded by Lee Kuan Yew, since the early 1960s. The PAP has ruled Singapore ever since, although its primary electoral vote has declined over the decades from nearly 90% down to around 65 percent.
Leadership of the PAP is very much ‘top down’ through an instituted cadre system. This has been partly kept to prevent any future hostile takeover attempts (Hunter 2013). Political power is centred in the Central Executive Committee, headed by the secretary-general of the party, who is usually the prime minister. Other members of the committee correlate strongly with the cabinet.
The media in Singapore is strictly controlled, with press freedom ranked down at 160 by the Reporters without Borders 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Defamation actions are regularly taken against critics of the Government, and recently independent news portal Online Citizen had it’s licence suspended and taken down from the internet.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a one party state governed by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The leading role of the PPRP is enshrined in the 1991 constitution.
Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy, with a parliamentary representative democracy. Hun Sen has been serving as prime minister since 1985. While officially a multi-party democracy, Cambodia has effectively become a one party state controlled by the Cambodian People’s Party. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy was deemed ineligible to run for public office in 2013.
Finally, Brunei is a traditional Malay Sultanate. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has full executive authority, where Brunei has been heading towards a Shariah state. No opposition is allowed and the media is tightly censored.
Currently there is an absence of any leader with regional vision within ASEAN. The leaders of the region don’t appear to have the relationships like their predecessors once had, as their emerging governments and development have their own demands.
Entry of Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea
One of the founding aspirations of ASEAN was that every state within the Southeast Asian region could become a member. Timor Leste has for many years wanted to join ASEAN.
Timor Leste applied for membership in 2011. Although Timor Leste’s application has been supported by Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines, Singapore appears to be against admission. Timor Leste’s application is still being evaluated by the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group with no timeline.
Papua New Guinea has had observer status within ASEAN since 1976, and has expressed interest in becoming a member of the bloc. Although PNG’s wish to join ASEAN has Indonesian support, other members see that PNG’s influence should be within the Pacific Island region.
Discussion and Conclusion
Programs to promote ASEAN consciousness and identity across the member states have largely failed over the last decade. A true ASEAN identity cannot be developed where the agenda is controlled by the elite polity of member countries, who see ASEAN as a political instrument for their own nationalistic ends.
The 2007 concept of One vision, one identity, one community has failed to evolve. Citizens of ASEAN countries are largely ignorant of each other (Heng 2015). Some have argued that ASEAN’s diversity, where cultures, social systems, legal and political systems are different, weaken the propensity for cohesion (Roberts 2011).
There is less citizen inter-regional mobility than ever before. ASEAN member nation states have restricted rather than opened up travel across borders for peoples who used to transit across national borders freely, before they existed.
The big mistake is to compare ASEAN to the European Union. ASEAN was never intended to emulate the former. Perceptions of ASEAN from outside the region have mistakenly seen the bloc as an instrument able to assist in the containment of superpower influence in the Southeast Asian region.
ASEAN may not have contributed much to regional cohesion and sense of community, as was espoused during the group’s formation. ASEAN was formed by the elite within the region, and was never intended to be a popularist organisation.
The right question to ask is whether ASEAN will be able to progress beyond this, or will it whither? ASEAN has missed many opportunities.
References and Notes
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