The ASEAN Way-ang: process over substance and fading in relevance

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by Davin Ng

ASEAN happens to receive plenty of undeserved praise. In today’s rapidly changing global political landscape where faith in Western institutions begins to wane, many eyes look eastward for stereotypical Oriental wisdom and come to rest upon ASEAN. Upon the first tasting, ASEAN does appear impressive, representing high levels of economic and population growth, and with great strides made in the nurturing of human potential and offering hotspots for foreign direct investment. All this was made possible by setting up a talk shop for 10 diverse states with wild variations of spoken languages, levels of economic development and culture.

The taste of failure in confronting China

But the next spoonful begins to betray ASEAN’s lack of depth in flavor. The ASEAN Way’s emphasis on consultation, consensus and non-interference forces ASEAN members to fully agree on all points of an issue before moving forward, diluting critical policies into a bland gruel which satisfies the lowest common denominator. The most critical and drawn-out example of this ocean-broad, puddle-deep decision-making process is the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, which was proposed by forward-thinking diplomats in 1999. It has been dragged on for nearly 20 years, with Chinese allies Cambodia and Laos playing the role of the filibuster with their “Four Points Consensus” to delay any kind of consensus on a Code of Conduct since ASEAN requires full consensus from all members before moving forward.

Whereas the bargaining power of ASEAN and China may have been nearly on equal terms in 2002 when official discussions took place, the economic and security dynamics are vastly different today. While China was happy to play along with the postwar rules-based international order in 1999, today’s resurgent China is employing A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) military strategies to keep the once-dominant US Navy at bay.

Even while ASEAN and China put on a distracting show about moving ahead with the Code of Conduct, having such an agreement is now moot when China’s navy exercises effective control of the South China Sea through a well-fortified island base at the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which serve as a stationary aircraft carrier. Thanks to foot-dragging mandated by the ASEAN Way, the organization forfeited the opportunity of a binding security agreement early on which could have made China’s hegemonic overtures in the South China Sea much harder to execute, where the islands were taken by force when ASEAN proved weak in negotiation and even more so in arbitration through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Economic aid, investment and support for ASEAN is no longer the sole domain of Western-aligned Asia Development Bank (ADB) based in Japan. With the presence of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) created by China, Chinese-aligned ASEAN states like Cambodia (and until recently, Myanmar and Laos) have not been enthusiastic about annoying an important economic partner.

Furthermore, in waffling about with the South China Sea Code of Conduct, ASEAN has been complicit in contributing towards the deterioration of the rules-based global order. On top of recent events such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea without a robust NATO response and Obama’s chemical weapons red line which had no follow-up, ASEAN’s show of weakness in forming regional rules of conduct emboldened China’s aggression in the South China Sea.

Commitment issues

The last gulp brings forth the presence of an unpleasant and perhaps sour aftertaste. The one-ply thick integration of ASEAN is a double-edged sword which in due time, member states will rue for decades to come.

While it is true that the EU is a regional organization with its own set of flaws, its political and economic chain-gang style of integration was seen in its early days as crucial in guaranteeing peace in its region. Europe is a region scarred by two World Wars, and a history of constant conflict ranging from the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century to Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, in which coal and steel were primary resources of making war. The prototypical EU, known as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) established in 1951 started with the Schuman Declaration which mandated French and German production of coal and steel to be mutually dependent. By establishing the supranational and legalistic character of such a regional organization, it was seen as necessary to prevent future conflict among European nations. To condemn the EU as a restricted and legalistic model without having that history in mind on one hand, and praising ASEAN on the other for lacking that character is spurious at best.

It is often claimed that the fact that resolutions and decisions are made with full consensus among all ASEAN nations shows strength. However, this claim does not match up with reality given that only 30% of ASEAN commitments have ever been implemented.

This lack of strength and foresight is similarly shown in the embrace of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative, which is unlikely to be financially sustainable and is a cover for financing Chinese bank loans which pay for Chinese contractors. Not only will One Belt One Road fail to organically generate investment in host countries, host nations of OBOR will find themselves paying for the mistakes of Chinese state-owned enterprises, which grew too rapidly and have excess capacity to spare.

The most public non-milestone to date however, is seen in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Celebrated as a regional form of economic integration that could have reduced tariffs substantially, it has nothing to show for – non-tariff barriers to trade continue to protect domestic industries from foreign competition, rendering efforts at reducing tariffs moot. As long as there is no common market, no shared regulatory framework and no enforcement against cheating on agreements, continuing to pretend that AEC is more than just a forum to maintain cordial relations between ASEAN states only serves to discredit the regional organization even further.

The ASEAN way-ang

Ultimately, ASEAN faces a reckoning of becoming more relevant and tightening integration among member states if it wishes to continue living in a rules-based global order.

Upon its conception in 1967, ASEAN was a laudable idea as international institutions were robust and ASEAN states lived in an unambiguous rules-based global order. Now that the rising hegemon (China) challenges the status quo hegemon (USA) for pole position, the Thucydides Trap threatens to snap shut and ASEAN will be caught in the crossfire if it does.

Instead of timidly following in the shadows of shadow puppetry by using the excuse of the ASEAN Way-ang (forgive the pun), ASEAN should emerge from behind the veil with more robust decision-making among member states, and negotiate a stern Code of Conduct with China over the South China Sea to stem any further acts of aggression. “The ASEAN Way” was a valid excuse for a grouping of newly-independent states attempting to find their way in a brave new world, but the states have grown up now, and need to find a new Way for themselves.

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by Davin Ng

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