ASEAN has long been modeled after the European Union (EU), the most successful regional bloc in existence. Like its European mentors, ASEAN countries have made it a priority to remain autonomous and independent, continually aligned and linked, and a constructive force in regional and world politics, bolstering cooperation between southeast Asian countries and fostering linkages between Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.
Moreover, much like the EU, ASEAN strives for close regional
coop and integration. ASEAN is a bloc that pools its power, enabling it to be a
major player in world politics. And like the EU, ASEAN aspires to speak with
one voice on a wide range of issues. Of course, with the ASEAN Economic
Community (AEC) set to take the stage in 2015, ASEAN leaders are also
positioning the bloc as an economic powerhouse, potentially a rival to the EU
down the line.
Keep in mind, though, the EU has accomplished quite a bit
since the days of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in the 1950s. It
is a relatively cohesive entity on economic and legal affairs. The European
Commission has substantial political power. ASEAN has far to go to reach these
levels of regional integration. Indeed, within ASEAN, concerns about
sovereignty, lingering bad feelings about colonialism, varied political
systems, manifold conceptions of identity and self-interests, along with
deficiencies in the rules and structure of ASEAN--the institution itself--create
massive roadblocks to regional unity.
Despite all that, the respect for and standing of ASEAN has
arguably equaled if not surpassed that of the EU. The flow of power from west
to east, the rise of China, the maritime disputes in the South and East China
Seas, and Southeast Asia's massive economic growth has all enhanced ASEAN’s
standing in foreign capitals. Southeast Asia is where it's at in the 21st
century. Russia, India, Japan, China, and the U.S. have invested considerable
time, effort, resources, and energy in cultivating strong ties to ASEAN
members. By contrast, the EU feels old, retrograde, unwieldy, and in decline,
its best years in the past. The future is Asia, and Southeast Asia, represented
by ASEAN, is an essential reason for all the optimism.
I get a sense that ASEAN leaders and diplomats, in some
respects, would like the bloc to be a supercharged version of the EU. This is
particularly the case on foreign policy and security issues. The EU has been a
nice consultative body, a good tool to create connections to other states and
international organizations, and a powerful economic community, which are good
contributions to international relations. And recently, Foreign Policy Chief
Catherine Ashton did a nice job in helping to push through the interim nuclear
deal with Iran. But overall, it has been a failure on defense and security
affairs. In particular, over the last twenty years, the EU has struggled with
ethnic conflict, extremism, terrorism, and other security threats on its
doorstep and inside member countries. Instead, ASEAN wants to move and operate
like a well-oiled machine on foreign policy matters.
As an example, earlier this year, Indonesian Foreign
Minister Natalegawa proposed the idea of an Indo-Pacific
Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. It’s an idea that builds off and
arguably improves a previous
proposal by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, namely because it
emphasizes open communications and confidence and trust building. Natalegawa
believes that while Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia and Pacific-Asia
has benefited from regional peace and stability, those things should not be
taken for granted, particularly given the fluctuating power trends between
China and the U.S., the ongoing violence in Myanmar, and the maritime disputes
in the East and South China seas. In his words, the region needs “a preemptive
mechanism for conflict prevention and resolution.” In essence, Natalegawa wants
to replicate the model of ASEAN over a wider swath of area in Asia by including
not only ASEAN members but also external powers like China, Japan, India, and
But there are complications. As I’ve
already written, ASEAN is a bloc of middle powers that lacks a clear
leader. of all ASEAN members, Indonesia—with its large population, rising
economic base, strong military, and functioning and stable democracy—is best
suited to be the leader of the bloc, but is unwilling to strongly and
consistently assert itself. And even if Indonesia did make a bid for the
leadership mantle, there is no guarantee it would go over well. Other ASEAN
members could very well reject such moves and push back against them.
Additionally, there are divisions within ASEAN on foreign
and security policy. At this point, ASEAN members are still competing with each
other on security, as the rapid rise in military budgets and acquisitions
across ASEAN attests. There are competing visions on how the bloc should cope
with the maritime disputes, nuclear proliferation, and China and the U.S.
Moreover, I'm not certain that ASEAN members walk lock-step on how the bloc
should look and act like in the future.
For reasons mentioned above, internal reform—either within
ASEAN countries or the institution—is probably an unlikely source of foreign
policy change. Instead, security exigencies within Asia are what will likely
drive ASEAN countries closer together. That’s only thing that, in my view, will
stimulate better unity and cohesion on ASEAN foreign policy. Currently, ASEAN
countries, for the most part, are fairly content with their place in the world
and the overall progress the bloc has made. And I don’t see ASEAN citizens and
governments loudly clamoring for their home states to harmonize more
effectively their foreign policies across Southeast Asia. National politics,
and national interests, still rule the day.
It’s possible that the maritime issues in the East and South
China Seas are the external security shocks that ultimately engender greater
uniformity in ASEAN foreign policy. It seems pretty clear that all ASEAN
countries are aware of the seriousness the various maritime disputes throughout
Asia, and there is a sincere desire to develop and implement a code of conduct
to manage relations on the high seas. A growing number of countries have
emphasized to China that the maritime disputes ought to be settled
diplomatically and free from coercion and the use of force.
Indeed, one element of last
weekend’s joint ASEAN-Japan statement expressed support for “Free and safe
maritime navigation and aviation.” Although the statement didn’t specifically
mention China, it’s obvious that certain passages of the statement were crafted
with China in mind. It’s possible that these parts were mentioned only at
Japan’s insistence. Still, even if that’s the case, the basic point is that
maybe ASEAN members are staring to view what’s happening in their backyard in increasingly
similar terms. It's possible.
Of course, even if all of this turns out to be something
significant, there’s another set of obstacles: the ever difficult step of
translating common interests and ideas into concrete actions. Such actions are
the product of tough negotiations, persuasion, and political will, among many
other things. This part is much harder than finding consensus on foreign
policy, and that’s already a difficult endeavor. The reason?
Here are a few things to consider: implementing and
executing new actions means that individual countries, as well as the entire
bloc, necessarily move from the status quo, which can bring discomfort as
countries head into the unknown. There is the risk of domestic political
backlash from internal opportunists. Making a commitment means ASEAN members
and the institution itself put their reputations on the line, which, if things
go badly, could leave them weakened and vulnerable. There is the prospect of
international costs as a result of responses from foreign groups/countries.
Plus, are ASEAN countries motivated enough to act? Are there sufficient
benefits to executing specific regional policies.