Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Organizational Unity and Strength of Asean

If you recall, in my last blog post, I referred to an opinion piece written by my colleague Yohanes for the publication Strategic Review. In that piece, he makes a number of interesting arguments, including one that connects Indonesian foreign policy to the future viability of Asean. Specifically, he worries that having an "all friends but no enemies" approach to foreign policy might undermine and weaken the unity and strength of Asean in the future.

I wish Yohanes explored this argument in more detail, but, of course, he was hamstrung by space limitations. In only 750-1000 words, it's impossible to adequately discuss and explain every side argument. With that in mind, in this blog post, I'd like to pick up where he left off.

To begin, let's clarify a couple of terms. When Yohanes refers to the organizational unity and strength of Asean, he seems to be talking about the ability of Asean member countries to agree on various policy issues and to collectively wield power (diplomatic, military, economic, and so on) in response to these issues. After all, Yohanes' concern is that Asean will suffer divisions and fractures, which would limit the organization's potential to get anything substantive done.

Now, on to the matter at hand. I do agree with Yohanes' assertion that Indonesian foreign policy could weaken Asean. But I suspect that this could occur because Indonesia's policymaking, at least for about the last 20 years, has tended to be passive and reactionary. Indonesia desires to hold a leadership position in East Asia and Asean, in particular, but hasn't really taken the reins on policy issues pertaining to the region. Instead, it has let other countries, whether Japan or China or South Korea, take the initiative by setting the agenda for East Asia, if not beyond. And inside Asean, Indonesia has been a vigorous participant in meetings and conferences, but again I don't see much evidence of the country taking a leadership role.

Sure, Indonesia played a strong role in Asean in 2011. It held the chairmanship, and, among other conferences and meetings, hosted two Asean Summits and the East Asian Summit. Indonesia also was integral in getting the U.S. to shift its attention to Asia and tightening its cooperation with Asean (a part of which included America's signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation).

That said, aside from 2011, Indonesia hasn't dominated Asean, at least not the way I would expect based on its economic power and the importance that Jakarta places on the organization in its overall foreign policy. It's acted as one among equals. And really, a case could made that countries such as Malaysia have taken on a bigger, more prominent role in Asean over the last 20 years. At bottom, in my view, Indonesia has essentially dealt with Asean much as it does with foreign countries and issues: mostly in a passive manner, taking a backseat to others.

This kind of an approach to foreign policy could turn problematic if sharp differences between Asean members do surface. Indonesia likely won't do enough to keep countries in line and working together. And if it does begin to assert itself in situations like this, given Indonesia's disinclination, it will likely be too late, letting differences deepen and positions harden. Hence, in this case, the unity and strength of Asean would depend on what other Asean member countries do. If these countries don't value Asean as much as Indonesia does, and if they don't seize the leadership mantle to bring everyone together, the organization could be doomed. Emerging differences could easily further widen and deepen and tensions harden, causing intractable splits and divisions in the bloc.

If we move beyond Indonesia, there could be any of a number of other factors that might play a role in enervating the unity and strength of Asean. Indeed, there are so many different potential variables and so many different possible contexts or conditions that I can imagine a score of ways in which Asean could endure internal fissures and difficulties. Of course, a blog post isn't appropriate to undertake an exhaustive examination of all these different factors; a much longer treatment of the future of Asean would be better suited for that.

That said, I can identify one event that has the strongest likelihood of impacting Asean stability, and it's the 800 lb gorilla, or perhaps panda, in the room: the rise of China. Let's face it, the China issue is so important that, no matter how each responds to Beijing--whether in unison or not--it will surely lurk in the background, if not the foreground, of just about everything the bloc discusses and undertakes in the coming years.

China is going to continue to grow in both absolute and relative terms, just as it has for the past 35 years. Whether it finally achieves great power status is actually irrelevant to this discussion. Why? Put simply, unless something catastrophic occurs, China is going to dominate the region in a way that approximates America's power predominance in its own backyard. China's economic and eventually its military power will likely far exceed the might of other countries in East Asia, Asia-Pacific, and certainly within Asean member countries.

This impending situation is going to create new realities on the ground and in Asean capitals. Countries will face new constraints, new opportunities, and new pressures. And they will have to make a strategic calculation about how to deal with China's dominance. Certainly, Asian countries are already contemplating the implications of China's ascent and their responses to it. But as we move forward into the future, the changes and shifts in regional politics will carry a much greater sense of urgency for Asean member countries to come with a plan and react accordingly.

So what will Asean do? Will member countries attempt to balance against Beijing? Might they try to remain above or outside the fray by staying on the sidelines, preferring to mind their own business, or serving as mediators between China and its rivals in the region? Or perhaps, if one or more countries is bullied or sees an opportunity to profit, some could see bandwagoning as the best strategic option.

The problem, at least with respect to the topic at hand, is that there is no guarantee all Asean members will see the rise of China similarly and respond to China in a similar fashion. There is no reason to assume that Asean--that is, all Asean members--will necessarily seek to balance against China's rising and potentially overwhelming power. It's possible, sure, though by no means guaranteed. Strategic calculations are a product of a country's goals, interests, values, geography, material power, and perceptions of reality, among other things. And each of these indicators can vary, and vary greatly, from country to country in the region. So some countries in Asean might fear China, see it as a strategic threat, and form a policy based on that assessment; but others could very well read the situation much differently, opting to pursue policies that look little like those from their more insecure and pessimistic Asean partners. And if Asean member countries aren't walking in unison on the China issue, instead choosing different strategic paths, then Asean could endure--perhaps prolonged--bouts of dissension.

To be clear, and this applies to both the Indonesia and China examples, potential discord and fissures in Asean could be more or less severe, depending on a host of factors. And these internal organizational problems could take many different forms. We might see Asean reach a breaking point at which the bloc is hanging together by a thread, just waiting for the right trigger to cause a complete implosion. But at the less extreme end of the spectrum, we could observe a political stalemate in Asean. But regardless of the type and severity of the divisions in Asean, their mere presence will hamper the organization's ability to exercise and project power.

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