A mid-life critical appraisal after five decades of its existence suggests multiple failures!
ASEAN stands for the Association of South-East Asian Nations and was founded on August 8th, 1967, in Bangkok, Thailand with five initial member states. The ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) was signed by the founding members of ASEAN, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Since its inception in 1967, it has grown to involve 10 countries in the former Indo-China region. It is permanently headquartered in Jakarta, Indonesia. India was sounded out and offered the founding membership of the ASEAN but then PM of India Indira Gandhi in a short-sighted gesture declined to join the ASEAN. Admittedly, that was a serious mistake. Brunei Darussalam then joined on 7 January 1984, Viet Nam on 28 July 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar on 23 July 1997, and Cambodia on 30 April 1999, making up what is today the ten Member States of ASEAN.
The organization works through consensus and does not interfere in the internal issues owing to its charter. Emergence of the ASEAN also witnessed the slow and tortuous death of the US sponsored security alliance of Manila Pact or SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organization) in 1976. ASEAN celebrated its 54th birthday on August 8th, 2021. It is high time that an objective and critical appraisal is done on the geo-political relevance and the geo-economic role of the ASEAN in the current scenario. ASEAN has proliferated a multitude of fora including the ARF, ASEAN Business Forum, ABEF, TTP, CREP etc. that have become gathering place for its annual soirees and other social events. ASEAN member countries would insist that it has brought stability to the region and has prevented wars and frozen conflicts among the member nations. It has also brought business and economic integration to the member countries. However, ASEAN has not yet achieved its major goal of total economic integration in the region. The establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 was viewed as the first step in addressing this, but it still lacks a common regulatory framework, ultimately preventing ASEAN from becoming a major economic player.
ASEAN is a dysfunctional grouping that sometimes is unable to issue a consensus press statement after the annual meeting because of interference by China. Two of the ASEAN members especially Cambodia and Laos are tightly aligned to China and are guided by that country. Both of them are so beholden to communist China to an extent that they never allow any mention or criticism of China in ASEAN communiques. Admittedly, ASEAN is not a security alliance. ASEAN could not handle the natural disaster of Tsunami in 2004-2005 and the QUAD countries had to step in to provide humanitarian assistance. ASEAN countries are beholden to China for its fiscal help during the 2008 financial and balance of payment, foreign currency crisis. ASEAN has not been able to deal with the environmental crisis of haze pollution caused by its own member states behaviors. Domestically, ASEAN countries have serious internal problems. There are ethnic and religious strife in Myanmar, a legally enshrined religious apartheid system in Brunei and Malaysia. Malaysia, a so-called moderate Muslim democracy, has consistently shown hostility to India because of its religious affinity to Pakistan. Thailand has a Muslim Malay insurgency in its deep south. The Philippines has an Islamic insurgency by the Muslim Moro rebels in the Mindanao region. Admittedly, both Indonesia and Malaysia were able to thwart the communist insurgencies in their respective countries post-independence.
ASEAN has not able to prevent military coups amongst its members (especially in Thailand and Myanmar) and rigged elections in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos because of its charter and framework that includes insistence on non-interference in the domestic issues of member countries. Democracy is currently under severe strain in both the Philippines and Malaysia. A group of six current and former lawmakers from this region issued a statement dubbing the ASEAN as an impotent organization. “For decades, ASEAN governments have consistently failed to protect their peoples from one crisis to another, including transnational haze pollution, the so-called Rohingya (Bangladeshi Muslims in Myanmar) humanitarian disaster, and a multitude of anti-democratic and human rights abuses,” read the statement released by these six current and formers lawmakers. ASEAN’s role has been shameful in dealing with the latest military coup in Myanmar, subsequent arrest of the de facto head of the democratically elected government and the State Counselor Daw Aung Shaun Su Ki and dismissal of the civilian government in Myanmar followed by arrest of all the leaders of the National League for Democracy. Similarly, ASEAN has never been able to discuss and criticize the legally enshrined religious apartheid systems in Brunei and Malaysia, two rich and prosperous ASEAN countries. At this juncture, the ASEAN countries are struggling and grappling with the Wuhan Virus pandemic without any coherent regional policy or vaccine initiative.
ASEAN and China:
China is the proverbial bull in ASEAN’s China shop! China has extensive maritime claims against most of the ASEAN countries and refuses to negotiate in multilateral bodies. China refuses to acknowledge the Exclusive Economic Zones of these countries per UNCLOS (United Nation’s Convention of Law of the Sea). ASEAN countries are so terrified of China that they would not use the international fora to discuss China’s imperialist and expansionist behaviors. The Philippines, despite having a favorable ruling from the international tribunal in the Hague, under President Duterte, refused to pursue the legal options to force China to obey the ruling of the international tribunal. ASEAN has not been able to negotiate a code of conduct policy in south China Sea with China despite protracted negotiations with China over last twenty years. Meanwhile, China is creating islands, facts on the ground and ocean and is trying t convert South China Sea into a private lake. There are at least three members of the ASEAN who are guided by communist China, namely Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar and obstruct routinely any declaration that may go against Chinese interests. Paralyzed by its charter’s dogmatic beliefs, ASEAN has been ineffective in tackling serious issues that threaten the region including Chinese claims on various islands and EEZ of member states.
ASEAN and the QUAD:
Owing to its insistence on centrality of its role in the Indo-Pacific it has been lukewarm to the emerging QUAD 3.0 version. Quad leaders have gone to length to assure the rest of the world that QUAD is not a military alliance, it is not an Asian NATO. QUAD does have a consultative and security role but it also aims to improve the connectivity, infrastructure, alternative supply chains, vaccine production, rare earths availability and a host of other issues. ASEAN in its current form is a dismal strategic failure and is more akin to a singing and dancing club devoid of any gravitas.
ASEAN should welcome its complimentary role to the existing ASEAN framework and institutions, more so if QUAD provides for regional stability.
ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific:
Despite ASEAN’s repetitive and assertive proclamations about the centrality of its role in any strategic initiative in the Indo-Pacific; it is more of a spoiler rather than net security provider in the Indo-Pacific region. ASEAN is wallowing in strategic inertia and cannot be expected to take security or strategic role in the Indo-Pacific though its zealously guards the centrality of its existence and decision-making role in the region. Indo-pacific region is much larger than the former Indochina where most of the ASEAN countries are located. We have suggested formation of a new wider and more dynamic organization Indo-Pacific Cooperation Organization (IPCO) in view of the limitations of the ASEAN as a regional grouping and its failure to adapt to the emerging geo-political, maritime and strategic realities.
Some strategic experts would say that ASEAN does not have much to its credit despite more than 50 years of its existence except for being a song and dance club for the Leaders of those 10 countries. It is paralyzed by inaction, fear of China and its archaic decision-making process. ASEAN should be aptly rechristened as the Association of Subdued, Emasculated and Apprehensive Nations owing to its timidity in dealing with the China challenge. The economic, commercial and developmental interests of countries in the larger Indo-Pacific region would be better served by establishing the newly proposed Indo-Pacific Cooperation Organization (IPCO) instead of the dysfunctional, limited and avowedly jealous organization like the ASEAN which is likely to remain crippled forever in its own tortuous rhetoric. QUAD 3.0 and the IPCO should be the preferred vehicles for geopolitical, economic and strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific region. A number of multilateral organizations have been consigned to the dustbins of history, notably among them, the League of Nations, SEATO, CENTO, Warsaw Pact etc. Others are slowly dying a natural death having outlived their utility or the sell-by-date. These include the Group of 77 or the non-aligned movement, SAARC, and the CIS. Unfortunately, ASEAN is likely to join the similar fate because of its dysfunctionality.