Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

ASEAN and the EU

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 the U.S.

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.

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