The aftermath of the 26th Asean Summit in Kuala Lumpur last week indicates that the 10-member regional grouping is increasingly challenged in its efforts to cohere into an Asean Community (AC) by the end of this year.
Published: 08/05/2015 at 03:30 AM
Writer: Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Beset by domestic political tensions and pulled in different directions by geopolitical forces in the face of ambitious objectives, Asean lacks thrust at a time when it requires momentum the most. The good news is that Asean is not going away but the bad news is that it is not going to reach where it wants to be.
As it stands, Asean is on course to fall short of its integration objectives laid out in the Asean Charter with its three community pillars, namely political-security (APSC), economic (AEC) and socio-cultural (ASCC). Southeast Asia’s regional grouping will need to regroup and map out post-2015 plans for a kind of economic integration and political collaboration that are consistent with its DNA. Its nurturing over 48 years has been phenomenal but its natural attributes from history and geography to divergent national interests must be taken into account in charting a post-2015 path.
Asean’s marketable headline figures are well-known. It is home to 625 million people altogether, with four of the world’s top-20 most populous countries in Indonesia (253 million), the Philippines (107 million), Vietnam (93 million), and Thailand (67 million).
More than half of these demographic numbers combined are relatively young, still below 35 years on average by 2020, promising future growth and enormous spending power as regional economic development makes headway. As the world’s seventh largest economy, Asean’s collective GDP tops US$2.5 trillion (84 trillion baht). Its annual economic growth trajectory over the next five years is in the range of 5%, more than double the average of developed countries in the OECD.
More than headline numbers, Asean is Asia’s most durable regional organisation. In fact, it is the most successful unnatural regional organisation of large size in contemporary world history. Never has a bunch of scattered islands of multiple sizes and shapes in the sea come together with a continent-based land mass to form a single organised entity with a recognised global voice and internal dynamism. While its geography is unnatural for a regional organisation, its other attributes go against what is considered natural and conducive in other parts of the world.
Asean is the epitome of diversity, the flipside of which is a congenitally problematic unity. The region harbours all of the world’s major religions, from Christianity and Islam to Buddhism. It is a polyglot of multiple languages, with no natural common tongue as English becomes the default but difficult lingua franca.
It is a region marked by a diversified ethnic makeup with little homogeneity. Its political regimes run the gamut from absolute and constitutional monarchies to republics and communist parties, all with different shades of democratic legitimacy. Indonesia is emblematic of this remarkable diversity as the world’s largest Muslim country and third-largest democracy, with a potpourri of ethnic minorities around its shores.
Yet Asean’s endurance and durability are world-famous. It began by coming together in August 1967 to resolve intramural conflict, and then weathered the ideological polarisation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Along the way, it achieved regional autonomy and national economic development. By the early 21st century, it went for more than ever in planning to come up with the AC.
The AC conjures up images of the European Community’s common market in the early 1990s before it went on to fully integrate as the European Union. But Asean’s integration will never be like Europe. The DNA is different. Asean is more cooperative in design, Europe collective. Asean has non-interference and other rules that preserve national sovereignty as paramount.
In short, Asean is attempting to do something no other regional organisations have done — to promote integration without supra-nationality. Understanding how integration can take place without a supra-national authority that governs member states is to grasp what Asean is really all about. Asean integration can go far but not all the way, only up to a point where it might prove sufficient for its needs. When it aims beyond, such as outer reaches of the APSC, AEC and ASCC, Asean’s shortcomings are laid bare.
For example, the APSC now must confront the spiralling geopolitics of the South China Sea, where an assertive China is not shy to divide Asean in order to occupy its contested territorial claims. The Philippines and Vietnam are firmly opposed to perceived Chinese belligerence but Laos and Cambodia, as well as Myanmar and Thailand to a lesser extent, are not so keen to stand up to Beijing.
Without complete commitment from Asean states, the APSC is not equipped to promote rules that all major protagonists can abide by. At the 26th summit, the concluding statement mentioned South China Sea disputes without touching directly on China’s aggressive land reclamation and physical construction of facilities. The next summit later this year will be a major navigation test for Malaysia as chair to address the China conundrum.
The AEC, on the other hand, gets all the attention. It is as if Asean exists because of it. Unsurprisingly, growth and profits speak louder than security concerns. Yet Asean economies remain structurally dependent on outside markets. Intra-Asean trade, despite more than two decades since the Asean Free Trade Area was launched, is still less than 30%. Asean members have achieved on average more than 80% on compliance criteria known as the scorecards but at the same time non-tariff barriers have gone up. The AEC will boost a regional production base as driven mainly market forces but it will not lead to economic integration as we know it.
And Asean is far away from being “people-centred” or “people-oriented”. More democratic members prefer the former, less democratic the latter. In Kuala Lumpur, the Asean People’s Forum and Asean Civil Society Conference held meetings prior to the summit but two civil society representatives were rejected from meeting with Asean leaders during the mandated “interface”. Asean peoples ultimately hold the key to tighter connectivity towards integration but the ASCC pillar has the longest way to go compared to the APSC and AEC.
In the near term, Asean’s growing connectivity, especially in communications and transport infrastructure, may turn out to be an effective substitute for integration.
In other words, Asean connectivity is economic integration minus supra-nationality. Connectivity is thus more consistent with the Asean DNA, and warrants more focus than integration.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.