Apr 28, 2017 | 09:08 GMT

7 mins read

Can ASEAN Be Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts?

Can ASEAN Be Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts?
(NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is turning 50 this year, but the 10-member group is still taking baby steps toward integration. As usual, unity will be a rhetorical theme this weekend as Southeast Asian leaders gather in Manila for the first of two ASEAN summits this year. But as the region finds itself thrust more regularly into the international spotlight, the bloc's ability to meet regional challenges decisively as a cohesive unit will continue to face stiff headwinds. On the most paramount issues of the day, ASEAN member states appear to have little choice but to go their separate ways.

ASEAN leaders hold dozens of high-level meetings each year, many of which are focused on forging strategic and economic ties between the bloc and outside powers. For example, the current summit will be immediately followed by an ASEAN-U.S. working session in Washington on May 4, an ASEAN-China working group meeting later in May, and summits with key partners such as China and Japan in November. U.S. President Donald Trump will also attend the November U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia summits in the Philippines and meet with Southeast Asian leaders once again at the subsequent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam. The Southeast Asian bloc, after all, is an oft-overlooked actor on the geopolitical stage, and one likely to play an increasingly central role in global economic and security issues as its rapidly modernizing member states mature.

In recent decades, ASEAN has tilted away from being a purely political entity and has begun concerted efforts to boost economic connectivity across the geographically fragmented region, particularly under the auspices of the ASEAN Economic Community. Progress here has been slow, but ASEAN is already effectively one of the largest blocs of developing and emerging economies, with a collective gross domestic product of nearly $2.6 trillion and investment inflows that outpace those of neighboring juggernaut China. Its location astride major shipping lanes makes it indispensable to global trade flows, as well as the economic ambitions of major powers (as embodied by China's Belt-and-Road initiative.) 

The bloc is also becoming more relevant to global defense and security issues, as evidenced by its central role in former U.S. President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia." Low-grade but persistent threats from non-state actors, such as Muslim insurgencies in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia (the world's largest Muslim-majority nation), have kept the region a focus of global counterterrorism and counter-piracy efforts. Moreover, its position on the front lines of maritime disputes in the South China Sea has drawn it into the broader competition between China and the United States. Defense spending among ASEAN members has been growing rapidly, with spending on arms imports growing 71 percent between 2009 and 2016, according to SIPRI.

A Focus On Consensus (Or Lack Thereof)

But despite the rising importance of Southeast Asia as a region, ASEAN itself is ill-suited to become much greater than the sum of its parts. ASEAN's prioritization of consensus, rooted in its founding principle of non-interference in the political affairs of member states, has allowed the bloc to maintain a loose coherence in spite of Southeast Asia's formidable geographic barriers and deep ethnic and communal divisions. It has also, however, routinely hindered the bloc's ability to act decisively and engage with potential economic and strategic partners on its own terms. This dynamic lends importance to the current summit in Manila, which will not involve external powers.

ASEAN's preference for a loose structure stems, in part, from competition and conflicting interests among members. It is also rooted in the deep geographic and ethnic divides within most ASEAN states. With the notable exception of Singapore, Southeast Asian nations tend to be inward looking, too preoccupied with deep-seated sources of domestic instability to push outward.


At the approaching summit, for example, Indonesia's president will arrive weighing the fallout of a major regional electoral upset that may undermine his plans for reform and re-election. Myanmar's new civilian government, led by iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is under pressure from a recalcitrant military, an intensifying conflict with rebel groups along the Chinese border, and Western human rights demands. Meanwhile, Cambodian strongman Hun Sen is facing pivotal communal elections, and Thailand's military junta is trying to reshape the country's political landscape following the death of its longtime king. Malaysia's long-ruling party, moreover, is trying to shake off a massive corruption scandal ahead of looming general elections.

These issues tend to foster stiff protectionist forces, hindering the bloc's attempts at economic integration — a problem worsened by the budding current of anti-globalization sentiment in the West, particularly as ASEAN states reassess their options following Washington's scuppering of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The abundance of separatist movements in far-flung regions has made many member states suspicious of security cooperation with outside powers, while pressing political and economic concerns create opportunities for deep-pocketed countries like China to sow division within the bloc on regional issues such as the South China Sea.

Cracking Under External Pressure

So, the ASEAN summit will once again underscore the bloc's endless challenge of maintaining unity while clinging to the policy of consensus that binds the group together. Presently, the challenge of acting collectively while honoring ASEAN's "all or none" mantra is being made all the more difficult by factors such as uncertainty about the new U.S. administration's plans and an increasingly assertive China. The latter,  expressed most clearly in the ongoing territorial dispute over the South China Sea, forms the backdrop of the summit as members try to hammer out long-elusive agreements on issues like a binding code of conduct in the waterway.

Since the last ASEAN summit, competition has continued to heat up in the South China Sea amid steady defense buildups by claimant states and near-inflection points like the Chinese capture of a U.S. Navy drone in December 2016. Diplomatic ties between Beijing and ASEAN claimant states, however, have stayed relatively calm. Following a landmark ruling on the territorial row by the Permanent Court of Arbitration last July, Beijing appeared to change tactics, pairing maritime and economic concessions with coercive measures. To this end, China agreed to resume long-stalled negotiations on the code of conduct in the sea, with a goal to formalize a framework by the end of 2017.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has led the way in adopting a more conciliatory stance toward China, issuing rhetorical rebukes against the United States and taking steps to establish joint mechanisms on the management of the waters. But there are limits to how far the Philippines — this year's ASEAN chair — is willing to go in tilting toward China. The country is the ASEAN member most vulnerable to China's maritime assertiveness, and suspicion of Beijing runs deep in its defense establishment.

Manila is thus caught in the same dilemma facing several of its Southeast Asian neighbors: how to obtain both economic benefits from China and security assistance from the West. The Philippines' attempt to strike this balance will be on display in the U.S.-Philippine Balikatan military exercises later this year, which Duterte pledged to scrap in 2016. U.S. personnel have already started to arrive for the May 8-19 drills, which have been scaled back to focus solely on matters of counterterrorism and disaster relief — issues that won't jeopardize the Philippine president's rapprochement with Beijing.

Other ASEAN members are likewise trying to find a balance between the United States and China. Much like the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have sought to downplay their maritime disputes with Beijing, in large part to avoid jeopardizing massive Chinese investments into their countries. But such efforts have centered around bilateral negotiations with China (Beijing's preferred form of dispute resolution), rather than collective bargaining as a unified ASEAN front — a path that could set the tone for the region's interaction with China going forward. 

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