A Good News For ASEAN

Posted on July 20th, 2009 at 7:09 am by Akhyari


Reconstructing ASEAN: Challenges for the 21st Century

Ten years ago, Southeast Asia was still reeling from the Asian financial crisis of 1997, with millions of people impoverished, President Soeharto driven out of office, and ASEAN economies wrecked. The East Asian Miracle had been jolted, Asian values discredited, the ASEAN Way undermined. ASEAN’s reputation as a cohesive regional organization was in tatters.

There were bilateral tensions between Singapore and Malaysia and Singapore and Indonesia, as well as between Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia was still undergoing a political revolution, its future uncertain, both as a nation state and as a leading member of ASEAN. Questions were being asked about ASEAN’s future without Soeharto.

This was also a period where a series of transnational threats begun to challenge Southeast Asia. Aside from the financial crisis, there was the Bali terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2003, the SARS pandemic in 2003, the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. These were challenges that came at short notice and respected no national boundaries.

Fast forward to ten years later, in 2009. There have been many changes, but some continuities. There is a global (not regional) financial crisis, a crisis that cannot be blamed on ASEAN, but on Western countries, especially the US. Indonesia has not only survived as a nation, but a few days ago proved itself to have become a consolidated democracy. It is no longer a “nation-in-waiting” but an “nation achieving”.

ASEAN has been reconstructed, having adopted the goal of becoming a community of three pillars (ASEAN Economic Community, ASEAN Political-Security Community, and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community). It had adopted a Charter in 2007. Jakarta is still engaged in ASEAN. Many outside powers have now appointed ambassadors to ASEAN.

So why worry about the future of ASEAN? Despite the positive developments since 1999, ASEAN faces new challenges, and some old problems persist. Let me identify several of those, both at global and regional levels.

There is the inexorable rise of China and India, to an extent not foreseen in 1999. ASEAN is a group of weak states who could shape regional order when China was down and India was out. As these two powers, which have historically shaped Southeast Asia’s destiny, reassert themselves, what is the fate of ASEAN?

More important is the decline of the US. 1999 was still the “unipolar moment”. 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq had not happened. The subprime crisis in the US leading to the collapse of major banks had not happened. While the US did not create ASEAN, it had US had provided a strategic umbrella which had underpinned ASEAN’s growth. What is the future of ASEAN in the post-American world?

Global institutional arrangements are in a deep flux, with the G-8 being challenged by various new formulations, G-20, G-5, G-2, but no G-1. The future world order is variously described as “multipolar”, “non-polar”, “post-American” “apolar”, but there is no agreement on how it will evolve.

At the regional level, the challenges to ASEAN include the unresolved political situation in Myanmar, the bilateral dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over Preah Vihar temple complex, and the Indonesia-Malaysia dispute over Amblat.

Added to this is the internal instability in several ASEAN member states. While Indonesia is good news, Thailand, an old stalwart of ASEAN, is not. And there are question marks over the political stability and succession in Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.

Moreover, there have been new transnational issues, such as the global financial crisis, the H1N1 flu, Cyclone Nargis that devastated Myanmar in 2008. Who knows what comes next. In conclusion, it can be argued that while ASEAN survived the crisis of 1997 and moved on, or even moved forward, its progress cannot be taken for granted. There are some dark clouds.

ASEAN must do two things to remain relevant. First, it must keep its promises by implementing the Blueprint for an ASEAN community faithfully. The Blueprint and the ASEAN Charter contain some great ideas, but ideas are useless unless implemented. ASEAN should improved compliance of its members to its new provisions, rules and mechanisms.

Second, ASEAN must make new efforts to deal with new challenges. We live in an era of rapid and unexpected developments. ASEAN should seize the moment or fade away as a new regional and global leadership takes over.

Who knows, Indonesia might get so disillusioned with ASEAN that it might dump the ASEAN-10 in favor of the G-20 to which it also belongs? Above all, ASEAN must maintain intra-mural unity in dealing with the great powers.


Amitav Acharya ,  Jakarta   Post

The writer is Professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, DC. This article is adapted from his speech to the inaugural ASEAN Secretariat Policy Forum, held on July 14, 2009 in Jakarta, where ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan also launched the 2nd edition of his book: Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order (Routledge, 2001, 2009).

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