Florence Chong's picture

ASEAN is about safety in numbers – about speaking with a collective voice that can be heard on the global stage . . .

Politics rather than economics were – and still are – the reason that the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is here today.
The fact that it has morphed into an economic community is accidental.  It was never intended that ASEAN would become an Asian version of the European Union.
The word “community” came to be used because it was a convenient way to describe what was essentially an inter-governmental body attempting to work towards a common purpose.
Essentially, ASEAN is about safety in numbers. It is about speaking with a collective voice that can be heard on the global stage, especially on issues affecting Southeast Asia.
It is about carving out a place in regional and global politics.
Ong Keng Yong, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large, and one time Secretary-General of the ASEAN Secretariat, says the biggest factor that drove ASEAN leaders into becoming a community was to take the grouping to “another (higher) level”.
Speaking about the AEC at a forum in December organised by the Institute of South East Asian Studies, a Singapore think-tank, Ong said: “We have big countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam in continental ASEAN, but individually they are not effective.”
Their voices would not be heard on the global stage, he said.
“The concept of a community became quite germane for the leaders,” Ong told the forum, recalling the launch of the Asian Community in 2003 as ASEAN members searched for a description for what they hoped to create. Once they had decided on the term “community”, Ong says, the leaders then decided that an Asian Community would be based on three pillars — political security, economic co-operation and social/cultural co-operation.
Over time, the word ‘economic’ came into the phrase and the entity became known as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).
Ong said that, subsequently, the word ‘community’ was referenced as a yardstick for ASEAN integration, with the commentariat focussing on how ASEAN had not been able to achieve European Community intergration standards. More-so today than at any time in the past five decades, ASEAN needs to be strong and united, he said.
Time and again, ASEAN has been tested – and will continue to be tested — in terms of its unity and political clout.
The region is caught up with big power rivalries – and could become a pawn in the struggle for dominance.
An economically powerful China — the world’s second-largest economy and largest trading nation — is now much more assertive in its territorial claims. Based on its so-called Nine-Dash-Nine map of the South China Sea, China is claiming sovereignty of the entire area.  
India has become more active under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ong said. Modi is not only looking East, but he wants to act East.  As a result, Japan is recalibrating its position. Its politicians feel that something ought to be done about the Japanese constitution to allow Japan to re-arm so as to have a more effective role in foreign policy.  
According to Ong, the US is unwilling to share the stage — or unable to take into account the new realities in the region. “Maybe they do, but they have not shown the readiness to work with other countries in a congenial way,” Ong said.
Speaking at the same forum, the senior Thai diplomat, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, who has had a long and deep involvement with ASEAN over the decades, agreed that the changing dynamics of geopolitics is placing pressure on ASEAN.
He said ASEAN’s raison d'etre —  its centrality ­— is subject to test in an uncertain world.
ASEAN centrality simply means that ASEAN seeks to be a driving force in a range of forums — as Sihasak called it, regional architecture. This includes ASEAN plus 3, regional defence and the East Asia Summit (EAS), which Sihasak said was described by some as “the pinnacle of regional architecture”. In all this multi-layered architecture, he questioned how ASEAN would manage to keep its centrality.
ASEAN struggles to deal with issues emanating from within, and if it is unable to cope with internal problems: How will it deal with problems or emergencies arising from outside the grouping? he asked.
ASEAN cohesiveness has been sorely tested over China’s claims in the South China Sea, an issue which has pitched one ASEAN State against an other. Then there is the haze issue.
For many months of 2015, as in past years, Singapore, Malaysia and even Thailand have choked on haze sourced from forest burning in Indonesia.
On many days, the level of pollutants has far exceeded World Health Organisation safe levels. And when ASEAN countries complain to Indonesia, they are rebuffed.
The most famous retort came from Indonesia’s Deputy President, Jusuf Kalla, who was quoted as saying: “For 11 months, (Singapore and Malaysia) enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered for one month because of the haze and they get upset.”
Sihasak lamented that ASEAN is unable to deal with real-life situations in a timely and constructive manner, with the ASEAN country which is subject to complaint feeling offended, believing that the principle of non-interference is being violated.
“The challenge is in how to respond in a timely manner and
effectively in a rapidly evolving situation and emergencies,” he said.
To answer that question, ASEAN must first reinvent it consensus-based decision-making process.
ASEAN’s growing inter-dependence sits uncomfortably with the ASEAN States’ cherished sovereign independence.
“ASEAN is not a supranational entity. It is a collection of 10 sovereign States which firmly believe in the principle of no-interference. It is guided by consensus. On a good day, it is able to get “the highest denominator”, but most of the time it ends up with “the lowest denominator”, he said.
“ASEAN moves at a pace that is comfortable to all.”
And so it is that the AEC will move at a pace that is comfortable to all.
Although they pledged with the original members of ASEAN to roll back impediments to free trade, investment and movement of people within AEC, the two largest countries — Indonesia and the Philippines — now seek more time.
They now want to be able to work on the same timeframe as afforded to the newer ASEAN members — Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia — which have been given until 2018 to fully confirm with the obligations of the AEC agenda. Again, they are opting for that ‘comfortable’ pace.

* Florence Chong is Editor of ATI Magazine

• Long, hard road ahead for AEC, pages 6-9.