ASEAN summit: Is the bloc as we know it finished?

Deutsche Welle

Posted at Nov 11 2022 10:22 AM

Police officers walk past the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) logo outside the ASEAN secretariat as vehicles of the delegates enter the compound ahead of the special ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, Oct. 27, 2022. The ASEAN foreign ministers special meeting is being held to discuss the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. Bagus Indahono, EPA-EFE
Police officers walk past the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) logo outside the ASEAN secretariat as vehicles of the delegates enter the compound ahead of the special ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, Oct. 27, 2022. The ASEAN foreign ministers special meeting is being held to discuss the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. Bagus Indahono, EPA-EFE

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marks its 55th anniversary this year, a milestone that will be celebrated as foreign leaders, including US President Joe Biden, arrive in the Cambodian capital for the bloc's annual summit this weekend.

But ASEAN's future has never looked so uncertain. Plagued by geopolitical divisions between its 10 members, economic woes and accusations it has failed to deliver any meaningful solution to the ongoing Myanmar crisis, the bloc is facing its most challenging issues in recent history.

Traditions of non-interference in another member's domestic affairs and consensus decision-making have become hindrances, when they were once strengths, particularly amid rising US-China tensions, analysts say.

"We are seeing the end of ASEAN as Southeast Asia has known its regional organization," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University.

"While it won't be disbanded and will still be around," he added, "what's left of ASEAN as a relevant and central regional organization needs a cold and hard realignment."

ASEAN was formed by five anti-communist countries in 1967 and doubled in size by the end of the 1990s, accepting lesser developed countries. Praised for maintaining peace and providing the infrastructure to help several Southeast Asian countries settle among the world's fastest growing economies, ASEAN is said to badly need an update.

A crisis in decision-making 

Despite the international community allowing ASEAN to take the lead on trying to solve the brutal Myanmar crisis, precipitated by a military coup in February 2021 that has left the country in a series of civil wars, it has been widely accused of mishandling its response.

What, if anything, it can do next, will be the main talking point at the week-long regional summits in Phnom Penh that get underway this week.

Vietnam and the Philippines have been locked in territorial disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea for decades, yet ASEAN has dallied in agreeing a promised "Code of Conduct" with the Chinese government.

Its biggest challenge is to manage escalating tensions between the US and China, but this is complicated by the varying allegiances of its members. Thailand and the Philippines are treaty allies of the United States and Vietnam informally, counting it as a security guarantor, while Cambodia and Laos are seen as Beijing's closest partners.

"The weight of current regional tensions, primarily the Myanmar crisis and the South China Sea dispute, has been way too great for ASEAN to grapple with in its current institutional design," said Mabda Haerunnisa Fajrilla Sidiq, a researcher at The Habibie Center, an Indonesian think-tank.

What reform?

There is scope for reform, said Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore. One idea is to give far more power to the ASEAN Secretariat, the supposed executive branch. Presently, most decisions are made between the ten members' ministers or by the ASEAN chair, a post that changes hands alphabetically each year. This means not one country holds sway but the incumbent can push their own domestic agenda onto the regional bloc.

"The point is, to make the Secretariat better at what it is supposed to do already. That would be the lowest hanging fruit," said Chong.

Institutional reform could also provide more space for the region's parliamentarians to be involved in decision-making. There is currently no regional parliament, unlike the European Parliament in the EU, and national members of parliament have almost no say in the way the bloc functions.

"This comes, in addition, to perhaps making ASEAN more felt in the daily lives of the public — for now, it remains an organization largely for elites," said Chong.

An idea making the rounds is for the bloc to return to a more traditional "ASEAN-5" model, where the association's founders — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — take on greater power. That would exclude the newcomers who joined in the 1990s, such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, the latter of which is looked at suspiciously by some because of its close ties with Beijing.

The five founders tend to dominate proceedings anyway and are more able to find agreement on major issues. However, an "ASEAN-5" reform would also exclude Vietnam, the region's surging economic powerhouse and the country most at the center of geopolitical fault lines.

An "ASEAN-5 Plus Vietnam" model is an alternative, although that also leaves out Brunei, an uncontroversial member. Critics of this idea suspect its proponents merely want to exclude Beijing's closer partners.

There are also calls for ASEAN to finally grant accession to Timor-Leste, or East Timor, a Southeast Asian nation occupying half the island of Timor which has applied for membership since gaining independence from Indonesia in 2002. As the region's most democratic state — it is the only country ranked "free" by Freedom House's annual index — and one that tends to be aloof on the US-China rivalry, it could alter regional discussions on political issues.

Will Myanmar be removed from the bloc?

But not everyone thinks Southeast Asian states are eager for change. And even taking the relatively easy decision not to invite Myanmar's military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, to the annual ASEAN summits this year proved an ordeal for the member states. The nine other members may agree at next weekend's ASEAN summit to kick Myanmar out of the bloc, yet that's unlikely.

"While institutional reform is necessary, we need to be mindful that past attempts at reform were met with great resistance from member states," said researcher Sidiq.

"Even if it were to pursue reform," she added, "it would be very incremental and only aim for goals deemed to be low-hanging fruits, which would likely be initiated by members who would see incentives in promoting reform."

Richard Maude, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, agrees that the political will for change is weak. "ASEAN leaders won't want to give up the veto power that the consensus principle gives them," he said. "The more likely outcome is that ASEAN will muddle on."

There's also questions of how the international community would respond, given that foreign powers have all proclaimed ASEAN central to their Indo-Pacific plans.

Beijing would push back on any attempt to push out its closest partners through an "ASEAN-5" model, although the United States would likely welcome such a move.

On the other hand, no outside power would want to put at risk Southeast Asia's relatively peacefulness since the end of the Cold War, nor ruffle an institution that girders regional economic relations with the outside world.

Edited by: John Silk