By Bahana Menggala Bara
Whenever weak Southeast Asian states join forces in ASEAN to engage with major powers, they aim to dictate to the giants.
This ASEAN way, with its emphasis on non-interference and consensus, has developed into an approach that offers an alternative to the more dominant Western one.
Contemporary Southeast Asian dynamics offer the so-called ASEAN way as an approach that may provide a positive model of self-engagement. But outside the relatively clear-cut idea of self-motivation, the ASEAN approach quickly becomes more challenging since ASEAN’s attempts to mimic the values of other regions are puzzling in their complexity.
To start with, ASEAN is an anomaly as far as regional groupings are concerned, as it asserts itself as the driving force when conducting external relations. This engagement challenges the current offensive norm in which major powers are the only entities free to engage in security competition.
In a confounding manner, ASEAN deems it has a similar capacity to do so, though it does not act on it to compete, but to stabilize.
However, ASEAN’s engagement with bigger powers poses a double-edged sword. Theoretically, it may well serve the weak and major powers’ mutual interests, but the extent to which ASEAN member states individually put regional interests before their national ones remains to be seen.
ASEAN may find benefits if it can bargain with major powers. However, dealing with unshared interests requires great wisdom and diplomacy, especially from the ASEAN chair.
Evidently, ASEAN under Cambodia’s chairmanship failed to issue a Joint Communiqué in 2012, letting itself be pulled by the force of interests from emerging powers. Here, the ASEAN ideal to engage with the major powers turned into being driven instead of driving.
It is therefore imperative that further reform be encouraged by strong ASEAN leadership. Additionally, Indonesia stepping in to restore the situation provides another anomaly of clashes of socializing, leaving one with the notion that weak leadership in ASEAN remains a concern.
Moreover, ASEAN’s ability to manage its complex external relations by creating myriad architectures remains a subject to be explored.
As is widely known, ASEAN has designed the ASEAN Plus One mechanism to facilitate the construction of larger regional architectures that do not overlap because they carry different purposes and act at different levels.
However, the architectures produce abundant documents and declarations from each consensus. In their making, a large number of meetings take place at all levels. One may find that this kind of approach is less efficient and less effective than a consolidated one.
The ASEAN approach tends to focus on the process instead of the result. In the end, the implementation of documents ends up in a long queue.
Finally, in conducting external relations with its dialogue partners, ASEAN’s actions tend to enforce a free trade regime. ASEAN, in this regard, has fallen into the regime of capitalism, a Western product. In this sense, ASEAN has unconsciously adopted Western values. By integrating with the world market ASEAN is mimicking the Western approach.
In the end, ASEAN becomes a part of the West’s efforts to create economic interdependence. ASEAN “grows” to become a mere market and hence is open to the exploitative relationship between core and peripheral economies. Ultimately, for ASEAN to purely mimic the Western approach as part of its learning process becomes a drawback.
As a regional grouping, ASEAN has four major weaknesses: The tendency to prioritize national over regional interests, weak leadership, ineffective bureaucratic structure and purely emulating the Western approach.
The first weakness often occurs because a large gap between CLMV (Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), Myanmar, Vietnam) and the ASEAN Six (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines).
To be independent, rather than depending on external powers, it is paramount for the ASEAN Six to economically assist CLMV, or else the latter follows the political-economic strategies and orientations of outside powers.
Although consensus building within ASEAN comes more naturally by focusing on similarities and recurring patterns, the ASEAN approach needs to address, rather than ignore, their gap and strive to meet their differences through similarities.
To overcome weak leadership, a tandem leadership is needed. As chair of ASEAN in 2011, Indonesia had to deal with numerous issues that could have divided ASEAN. Upon leaving the position, Indonesia took the moral responsibility to ensure that its successor, Cambodia, safeguarded any ASEAN regional interests developed during its chairmanship.
Therefore, Indonesia should have carried out extensive leadership in tandem with and overlapping with Cambodia. Indonesia’s assertive action in proposing the ASEAN Six-Point Principles in the absence of the Joint Communiqué might have been partly motivated by its shared responsibility.
Eventually, ASEAN members must develop and learn about how to gain independent leadership, or else other powers might infiltrate and manipulate ASEAN’s leadership to their own wishes.
To tackle its structural ineffectiveness, ASEAN needs to focus its efforts on the results as much as the process. There should be a supervising body within ASEAN to keep track of what has been achieved so far.
This body needs to function not just to record the level of policy implementation but also enforce what is left behind. In other words, ASEAN needs to manifest not just normative but also pragmatic actions. If ASEAN is able to create an abundance of mechanisms for reaching a consensus, why is it so hard to design ones to enforce an implementation of the consensus?
Lastly, to end its penchant for mimicking a Western approach, ASEAN should adapt and localize the values it borrows from the West to better fit its own values, needs and interests. If it continues to purely adopt free trade agreements under capitalism and an inter-dependent economy, ASEAN should fall how the West falls.
Instead, ASEAN needs to design creative systems that anticipate the fall, enduring independently, creating a market economy and producing economy at the same time, not just a competing economy but also a complementary one.
To sum up, the ASEAN approach is still raw and untested, thus it needs to be challenged and criticized in order to survive, improve and endure. Most importantly, if this approach is set in motion as the model to be implemented in neighboring regions, the values and problems ASEAN possesses will travel along with it.
Applying the ASEAN approach is expected to solve some problems beyond its region, but leaving the drawbacks unresolved could aggravate glitches in neighboring areas.
Arguably, this Southeast Asian approach may offer an alternative model for international relations but only if it is developed to survive an ever-changing world where powers tend to be both dynamic and manipulative.
The writer, an alumnus of Leiden University, is an Indonesian diplomat. The views expressed are his own.
The Jakarta Post