Norm or Necessity? The Non-Interference Principle in ASEAN

ASEAN’s non-democratic members need the principle to give them confidence in their immunity to external intervention. Therefore, a logic of consequences best accounts for ASEAN’s behavior regarding the non-interference principle.

By Tram-Anh Nguyen
Cornell International Affairs Review
2016, Vol. 9 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 | «

To understand why ASEAN insisted on keeping the non-interference principle in its 2007 Charter, even though the norm itself does not determine ASEAN’s pattern of interference, one must understand the value of this principle to ASEAN member states. Realist scholars like Haacke and Jones have incorrectly assumed that all ASEAN member states value the non-interference principle for protecting their sovereignty. However, the ten ASEAN countries have very different political systems, interests and priorities, and thus different valuations of this principle. Therefore, they have different levels of resistance toward changes to the non-interference norm. An examination of ASEAN members’ diverse reactions toward challenges to the non-interference principle illuminates their attitudes.

How much an ASEAN country resists changing the non-interference principle depends on how confident it is of its immunity to future ASEAN interference in the absence of the non-interference principle. I argue that this confidence (called “Confidence” hereafter) depends on two factors: the country’s level of democratization and its relative power in the region. The more democratic a state is, the more legitimacy the government has and the less it worries that ASEAN would come under international pressure to interfere in its domestic affairs on the grounds of supporting human rights or democracy. On the other hand, the more relative power an ASEAN country has, the less other member states wish to offend this country and damage their relations with it.

To illustrate this point, I create a Confidence scale from 0 to 1 to measure ASEAN members’ confidence that their sovereignty will not come under threat even without the non-interference principle. Each country’s score is the weighted sum of its level of democratization (calculated from its Freedom House scoreiv) and its relative power (a composite indicator estimated based on its GDP, population and military expenditures).v Graph 1 shows the Confidence scores of all ASEAN countries in the period 1997-2007.

Based on these scores, ASEAN members can be divided into three groups. The first group with Confidence score less than 0.15 includes weaker and less democratic members of ASEAN, such as Myanmar, Laos, Brunei, and Vietnam. I predict that these countries would most resist any change to the non-interference norm, because they would be the most likely targets of future ASEAN intervention, given the undemocratic nature of their regimes and their limited relative power. The members of the second group, with Confidence scores ranging from 0.15 to 0.3, are Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia (before 1999) and Thailand (after 2005). These countries are major powers in ASEAN, but with relatively democratic regimes. Thus, they still want to keep the non-interference principle to protect their illiberal political system, but they are more flexible regarding its applications due to their confidence in their relative power. The last group with the highest Confidence score (above 0.3) includes all democratic countries in ASEAN: the Philippines, Indonesia (after 1999), and Thailand (before 2005). They are the most confident in their legitimacy because of their more democratic systems. Therefore, I predict they would be the strongest advocates for changes to the noninterference principle in ASEAN.

To test my hypotheses, I examine the diverse responses of ASEAN members to proposals and issues that challenged the noninterference principle between 1997 and 2007. Because ASEAN exercises quiet diplomacy and holds private meetings, these responses can only be collected from foreign ministers’ public statements and interviews with journalists. Therefore, one can only observe the reactions of countries with the strongest opinions regarding whether ASEAN should adhere or deviate from the non-interference principle. Table 2 (Challenges for the noninterference principle in ASEAN 1997-2007) represents cases when there were diverse opinions regarding the application of the non-interference principle, together with the strongest proponents and opponents of changes to the principle. Their Confidence scores are put in parentheses next to their names. For issues that lasted more than one year, the ranges of Confidence scores are reported instead of a single score.

The results in Table 2 fit my hypothesized expectations for the three groups, except for the highlighted cases of Indonesia and Thailand (which will be addressed in further detail later). Countries in Group 1 (with a Confidence score less than 0.15) persistently opposed any deviations from the noninterference principle. For them, the noninterference principle guarantees protection for their weaker and less democratic regimes. They are afraid that any small deviation from the principle will set a dangerous precedent for future ASEAN interference in domestic affairs.

Apart from the highlighted cases of Indonesia and Thailand, countries in Group 3 (with a Confidence score more than 0.3), with high Freedom House score and strong relative power, are the strongest proponents for changes to the non-interference principle. As these countries are democratic, their governments have to respond to their constituents and bear responsibility for the results of their foreign policies. Therefore, when international criticism of the non-interference principle started to damage ASEAN’s reputation, it also lowered these states’ credibility and damaged relations with their major partners (the US, the EU, and Japan).

Therefore, these democratic governments felt the need to change the non-interference principle and improve their images. Moreover, democratic countries often have strong civil society actors who oppose human rights abuses by their undemocratic ASEAN partners and demand actions from their democratic governments. For example, in 2004, the Philippines’ parliamentarians pressured the government to oppose Myanmar becoming the chair of ASEAN in 2006 because of its continued detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.48 This also explains why all the proposals to change the interpretation of the non-interference principle came from democratic ASEAN members.

Countries in Group 2 (with a Confidence score more than 0.15 but less than 0.3) have the most inconsistent patterns of adherence to the non-interference principle. The countries in this group, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia (before 1999) and Thailand (after 2005), are concerned enough for their illiberal governments to want to maintain the existence of the non-interference principle. However, they are also confident enough in their relative power within ASEAN to deviate from the non-interference principle when the cost of upholding it exceeds its benefits.

For instance, in 1998, Singapore strongly opposed Thailand’s proposal for “flexible engagement” to loosen the principle of non-interference (case 3). However, in 1999, Singapore advocated for the Troika mechanism to respond to urgent internal issues that may have spillover effects in the region (case 4). Singapore’s position was affected by its concern about the regional economic recovery and investors’ confidence. Singapore’s former Foreign Minister, S. Jayakumar, emphasized that “ASEAN faced a crisis of confidence.”49 The international community had criticized ASEAN’s non-interference principle for paralyzing the organization during the 1997 Asian Financial crisis.

Singapore realized that unless ASEAN made some changes to the non-interference norm, its economy would suffer. Nevertheless, it still wished to maintain the non-interference principle to protect its own undemocratic government. Although the Troika mechanism was clearly a deviation from the non-interference principle, Jayakumar tried to argue that it should not be construed as “compromising sovereignty,” but as “greater cooperation and pooling of our resources to deal with problems that countries cannot handle on their own separately but yet can affect the others.”

Indonesia and Thailand provide the three observed instances of prediction outliers, suggesting the analytical limits of the Confidence score. When Indonesia’s Confidence score was 0.37, it still opposed the proposal for Troika in 1999. Indonesia’s confidence score increased dramatically from 0.27 in 1998 to 0.37 in 1999 because Indonesia’s nondemocratic President Suharto was forced to step down because of his failure to fix the problems of the financial crisis.

Indonesia’s Freedom House score changed immediately from 5 to 3.5. Although Suharto’s successor, President B. J. Habibie, started to democratize the country in 1999, its transition into a full democracy was not complete until 2003. In the four years after Suharto stepped down, two presidents were ousted by the Indonesian parliament.51 With its unstable new democracy, Indonesia in 1999 was not yet ready for changes to ASEAN’s non-interference principle. The Confidence score, which is strongly based on the Freedom House score, cannot pick up Indonesia’s vulnerability during this transition from 1998 to 2003. Starting from 2003, Indonesia’s behavior fits this paper’s prediction well. It tirelessly advocated for a reinterpretation of the non-interference principle with proposals for ASEAN Security Community (case 5), a Southeast Asian peacekeeping force (case 6), and an ASEAN human rights mechanism (case 8).

Thailand’s behavior in 2003 and 2004 also deviates from the prediction based on the Confidence score. This result is also due to the insensitivity of the Freedom House scores. Although Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was democratically elected in 2001, he was not a liberal leader. Under his harsh policies, Thailand’s human rights record worsened. His 2003 police crackdown on drug-trafficking caused the deaths of an estimated 2,200 suspects.52 His suppression of Muslim separatists in southern Thailand led to the infamous Tak Bai incident in 2004, when 87 protestors died of suffocation after they were packed into military trucks.53 Thaksin kept using the non-interference principle to prevent discussions of these incidents in ASEAN. He threatened to walk out of the ASEAN Summit in 2004 if anyone mentioned the Tak Bai incident.54 Therefore, even though technically Thailand was still a democratic country in 2003 and 2004 (and thus its Freedom House score was still 2.5), its government started to need the protection of the non-interference principle to shield its human rights abuses from criticism.

The more democratic a country is, and the more relative power it has within ASEAN, the less it needs the non-interference norm.

By examining individual ASEAN members’ attitude toward the non-interference norm, one can clearly see that the strongest supporters of ASEAN’s strict adherence to the non-interference principle are weaker, less democratic countries. The more democratic a country is, and the more relative power it has within ASEAN, the less it needs the non-interference norm. However, because relative power is relative – that is, an increase in country A’s power causes a decrease in that of other countries – it is not possible to mitigate its influence on a country’s stance regarding the non-interference principle. Only democratization is likely to prompt ASEAN to change this principle. Indonesia, for instance, transformed from a staunch protector of the non-interference principle into the most active advocate for its modification after its own democratization. Thus, as long as there are still few democratic countries in ASEAN, the non-interference norm is still likely to remain.


This paper has evaluated the importance of the non-interference principle in ASEAN and has explained its members’ steadfast loyalty to it by examining the organization’s actions from 1997 to 2007. Analyzing cases of violation and non-violation of the noninterference principle, it provides strong evidence that the non-interference principle has not determined whether ASEAN interferes in a domestic conflict or not. To explain ASEAN’s attachment to the non-interference principle, I created a novel Confidence (of immunity) index and examined individual ASEAN members’ responses to proposed challenges to the principle during this decade. The results demonstrate that the greater a state’s level of democratization and relative power, the more confident it is of its immunity to future ASEAN interference and thus the less it insists on the continued existence of the non-interference principle in ASEAN. However, as relative power is relative, the main reason why ASEAN still retains the non-interference principle is because its democratic members are a minority. ASEAN’s non-democratic members need the principle to give them confidence in their immunity to external intervention. Therefore, a logic of consequences best accounts for ASEAN’s behavior regarding the non-interference principle.