In neighbouring countries through regional diplomacy. ASEAN

 In this essay,the following question is investigated: 50 years on,is ASEAN a regional actor able to influence the behaviour of member states?  The works of various academics such as Mark Beeson and Richard Stubbs are being used as it presented a central point of view for this field of study. The essay is structured as follows:Firstly, the origins if ASEAN are briefly discussed in order to understand the intentions behind its establishment. Secondly,ASEAN’s principle of non-interference and approaches are elaborated.

Thirdly, why ASEAN is unable to influence the behaviour of states and finally, the conclusion.  The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand on 8 August 1967 mainly to foster regional peace and security. Brunei Darussalam joined in 1984 and Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Myanmar and Vietnam followed suit with 10 member states in total.With thetheme One vision, One identity, One community, its aims include accelerating economic growth, social progress, sociocultural evolution among its members, protection of regional peace and stability, and opportunities for member countries to discuss differences peacefully.

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The choppy and difficult political andsecurity environment in the 1960s prompted nations in South East Asia tocooperate and maintain regional peace and security. During the tumultuous foundation years, a set of diplomatic directives were necessary to ensure stability. ASEAN provided the security backdrop for individual countries to pursue their national economic development goals. The regional group was an early success, given its heavy focus on building confidence among South East Asia neighbours.

A series of principles were adopted, better known as the ‘ASEAN way’. The ‘ASEAN Way’ underscores respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.It was designed to encourage cooperation and minimise conflict with informal rules, consensual decision making and conflict avoidance instead of conflict management, circumventing overinstitutionalisation and bureaucrazation (Beeson, 2016). There is no doubt about the ‘ASEAN way’ in its initial years as it brought together neighbouring countries through regional diplomacy. ASEAN is an example of the potential influence that Southeast Asian states can exert over their more powerful peers when acting collectively.  Different approaches by ASEAN were taken to take regional cooperation to another level. For example, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia was signed by ASEAN founding members in 1976, where the principle of non-interference in members’internal affairs was explicitly referred to as one of the association’s fundamental principles(Stubbs, 2008).

This meant ASEAN will not be able to intervene on internal issues unless deemed as a matter of national security. An independent dispute settlement mechanism(DSM) is also used as a barometer to measure organizational autonomy.Yet, ASEAN reveals only limited actor quality (Beeson, 2016) and there are mounting challenges that demand collective and effective responses that ASEAN has been poor at. Doubts linger around its relevance and sufficient evidence to show a lack of ASEAN influence in the region. ASEAN has been criticised for being ineffective and not taking decisive action as a collective regional body on issues such as the Rohingya humanitarian tragedy in Myanmar and South China Sea maritime disputes. Mechanics such as the TAC and DSM are in place but action has not been effective in resolving existing territorial disputes despite promises to resolve conflicts peacefully.

More specifically, the TAC High Council has never been convened to tackle critical issues and participants could potentially veto its actions if it does not go their way (Beeson, 2016).  The emphasis on reaching consensus and not losing face meant that difficult problems within ASEAN have been avoided rather than confronted (Beeson, 2016). ASEAN treaties are not legally binding as well, meaning ASEAN’s capacity to enter treaties on behalf of member states are non-existent as member states sign and rectify in their respective capacities and not collectively.   ASEAN’s function as a guiding light with its founding principle of non-interference has been compromised in recent years by the adoption of a policy of ‘flexible engagement’. The non-interference principle appears increasingly through expanded membership, new challenges arising from globalization processes and the increasing international spotlight with a focus around human security.

There are signs of division within the ASEAN itself as the membership struggles to come to terms and what appropriate actions should be taken with certain issues, unable to come to a consensus. Malaysia, a ASEAN member state, broke from the traditional non-interference approach by critiquing the crackdown on the Rohinya crisis. Philippines has also witnessed ASEAN’s inability to demonstrate solidarity first-hand, in the face of a looming external threat from a powerful state. ASEAN’s principle of non-interference has allowed the member-states to concentrate on nation-building and stability while maintaining cooperative ties with other states. However, ASEAN policymakers are lacking a ‘whole of government’ approach.There will be pressures on ASEAN states to avoid criticisms of external powers, and the more vulnerable ASEAN members may feel obliged to agree with their external patrons. Given that geopolitical dynamics and circumstances have shifted dramatically, a growing worry is the fragility of ASEAN unity with different members having contrasting points of view. Political environments of individual ASEAN member states are gettingmore complex and complicated, which interests might not necessarily align withthose expected.

Coupled with ASEAN’s expansion, ASEAN way might be more willnot easy as it was to come to a consensus. Fifty years on, members should be proud that it has done achieved the goals it set out to do since its founding. ASEAN has been an important regional player by being the driver in key regional institutions and served as an intermediary between various bigger states across the globe.

Yet, ASEAN’s capacity to influence the behaviour of its members is certainly weaker than when it was established. Influence cannot be won without unity and common group amongst member states, with integration an aspiration that remains unfulfilled.ASEAN solidarity was promoted by the imperatives of geopolitics but now, some member states are exposing divisions and conflicting goals among the organisation. ASEAN, in its very core, can be seen as a collective effort to strengthen the region states through regional resilience than an institutional device to solve cross-border issues through collective action. ASEAN member states are politically, economically and sociologically diverse and thus inevitably define national interests differently. If ASEAN is to have any relevance in the next few decades, a major rethink and reforms are needed to remain relevant. ASEAN as a regional coordinator has the responsibility to prevent the deterioration of humanitarian crises.

ASEAN members must move forward with preventive diplomacy. ASEAN is still in a primary stage of integrationwithout any sort of binding obligations and possible sanctions to its members.The lack of institutionalization does not help to solve issues quickly,resulting in criticism in the past years. ASEAN member states must seek tomake big efforts to create legally binding commitments, to employ more informal and formal instruments in a flexible way.

Whenever events and challenges arise, is to what extent optimal trade-offs can be made between pursuing national interests versus the broader, regional interests that will affect ASEAN developmentin the long run.            


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