ASEAN and the regionalisation of Southeast Asia


Regionalism in Asia has followed an entirely different pattern to that of other regions. The term ‘Southeast’ Asia rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Second World War and initially described areas that were occupied by Imperial Japan. Early attempts at regional integration, such as the United States backed SEATO (South-East Asian Treaty of Organisation) and ASA (Association of Southeast Asia) were marred by conflicts over the future of Borneo. The lessons learnt from this period directly influenced the primary motive for the creation of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1967. The initial purpose of ASEAN was thereby not motivated by a sense of a common identity. Instead it was the realisation that failure to prevent future conflicts in the region would lead to international interference that spurred cooperation between members. At the time of its creation ASEAN was small, informal and voluntary. However, it would soon develop to have formal institutions much like the European Union. Throughout this article I shall argue that if the ASEAN member states are to continue on their path of deepening integration, they must be careful not to exacerbate conflicts that are playing out in the region as a result of major power rivalry.

As we have previously observed, the creation of ASEAN was driven by the need for security and political stability in the region. In the 1970s, a myriad of issues faced the member states, including the spread of communism in Laos and Cambodia as a result of Vietnamese invasion. In direct response to the aforementioned crisis, the member states signed the Declaration of ASEAN Concord and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Both treaties reaffirmed the principles of mutual respect, non-interference and the peaceful settlement of disputes. These treaties highlight an interesting, if rather paradoxical moment in the development of ASEAN. Both the the Declaration of ASEAN Concord and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia appear to be treaties that respect the guiding light of international relations, sovereignty. However, future steps in the development of ASEAN will take some steps to encroach upon the sovereignty of member states, particularly in the areas of economic development. Interestingly, the development of ASEAN mirrors that of the European Union’s (EU) leading institutions. Throughout this period the EU was dominated by bodies that directly represented the member (the Council of the EU and the European Council) and the European Parliament played a minor role in the legislative process. Such a system places the sovereignty of the member states at the top of its design, by giving each member state a veto when consensus is required. However, after the 1980s the role of the European Parliament has increasingly expanded at the expense of the inter-governmental bodies. This supranational development could be interpreted as a major impediment on the sovereignty of the member states (a more nuanced analysis reveals that this is not the case). However, ASEAN has remained largely inter-governmental, considering that ASEAN only grants a small role to its transnational body, the ASEAN parliament. Currently, ASEAN mirrors the 1970s European Union with its lack of effective transnational bodies. However, as the competencies of ASEAN expand the member states may find that their sovereignty is increasingly encroached, as observed in the EU.

As discussed above, ASEAN has increasingly expanded its competencies in a range of areas without encroaching upon the sovereignty of the member states. The first major expansion of ASEAN competencies and roles was the creation of ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994. The aim of such a body was to further pursue confidence building measures and to implore the use of preventative diplomacy. Unlike the phenomenon of regionalisation most commonly cited, the EU, ASEAN is forced into designing such UN like peace institutions given the frequency of conflict in the Southeast Asian region. However, it is suggested that the European Union institutionalises peace in Europe.  Although economic cooperation was foreseen by the founding fathers of ASEAN, it would not be until 1992 when economic cooperation became a key feature of ASEAN. The ASEAN Free Trade Area has three central goals. First, ensuring ASEAN member states’ competitive edge over other developing states. Also, attracting more foreign direct investment in ASEAN whilst establishing a Common Effective Preferential Tariff (effectively an external tariff). This linked the previously closed markets of Southeast Asia to the liberal open-market economies of the West. It has also been a vital feature in the increase in both trade and production of ASEAN member states. Ironically, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 provided a renewed interest and drive for regional cooperation and provides a stolid basis for the economic cooperation we now see. In a highly promising development the member states of ASEAN agreed to create a Social-Cultural Community by 2020, which may prove to be a key instrument in the eradication of ethnic and quasi-religious conflicts throughout the region. The development of ASEAN appears to have a taken a form that cooperates within itself and rejects the cultural and military influence of great powers, whilst seeking their economic assistance. When considering the policy conditionality of the IMF and colonial history it is important to ask whether the ASEAN member states will ever be free of such influence?

It is an unspoken truth that both the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China compete for the dominance of ASEAN. It is thereby promising to see that thus far ASEAN has been acting pragmatically, essentially taking the best of what it can get from both superpowers. The ASEAN region is one that has a history of foreign domination and it is vital for ASEAN to prevent superpower interests being played out in their states as they have previously done to ensure that their independence lasts. Whilst the economic miracle that occurred across the ASEAN region is predominantly due to the tenacity and clever economic policy of member states, the value of the economic cooperation which is made possible by the ASEAN security cooperation must be considered.  To ensure that the sovereignty of the ASEAN member states is continually respected, ASEAN must continue to act pragmatically in regards to the superpowers and continue upon their path of European Union like integration.

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