The Case Against ASEAN Greatness

Matthew Hanzel Avatar

While the world seems to be more integrated in the past ten years – more than ever before – regionalism seems to be another prevailing trend on the other hand. The emergence of the European Union as one successful example of a supranational-regional organization makes many regions of the world think of any possibilities of similar forms of cooperation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would be one of those regions.

The ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia

ASEAN has been established for 46 years, and for the next few years ASEAN will experience challenges – most of which never been experienced by ASEAN before. Integration in all sectors would be a tremendous task for ASEAN as an organization and a community. While there are some advantages for ASEAN to be integrated, yet there are also several threats to the integration process.

In this writing the author will present a concise assessment on challenges that ASEAN will face for no less than five years to come, and why those challenges distant ASEAN from its greatness – at least in the near future.

In the midst of a new kind of world

For the last ten years, and for the next many years, ASEAN will stand in a world with new challenges and new kinds of new things to be done. In realpolitik, the decline of the United States of America as the hegemon, the prevalence of regional cooperation’s like the European Union, and more interestingly, the rising of Asia-Pacific region as a new economic strength in the international system. ASEAN stands in all those things. ASEAN has the desire to put the European Union as a successful model for integration, and the strategic position of ASEAN in the Asia-Pacific region.

In many ways, we cannot avoid comparing and contrasting ASEAN with the European Union. The regionalism of ASEAN is much less integrated compared to the European Union, even less without the lack of subsidiarity offered by the European Union system. The prevalence of many unresolved issues among member states of ASEAN puts ASEAN aside when put face to face with the European Union. The question that arises is that whether ASEAN will be as successful as the European Union in terms of integration of member states.

The enactment of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) in 2010 creates both advantages and threats to ASEAN member states. While in terms of economic readiness there are countries that ready to compete with the flood of Chinese goods to the Southeast Asian market, yet in real economy there are also countries that do not.

The above background gives us insights on the threats faced by ASEAN in years to come. There are four of them, which will be discussed in this concise writing. These four problems, as far as the author concerns, are the most important issues to be addressed if ASEAN wants to improve its integration in the future.

Problem one: the ‘clawless tiger’

Without any doubt, many people will question, ‘where is the authority of ASEAN, especially when it is needed?’ The problem is, there have been numerous occasions when ASEAN’s authority is appealed, yet no decisive solutions are given. Problems are unavoidable among member states of ASEAN, or even within the borders of a state, so there should be a higher authority to solve – or at least, arbitrage – the conflicts within ASEAN.

There are numerous examples on when ASEAN gives no contribution in solving the issues. The issue on Myanmar is one of the most criticized issues when scholars and observers talk about ASEAN. It is known that Myanmar violates human rights in a systematic way; especially annulling the essential right to have a free election. The imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi, the main opposition figure, also setting aside one of the characteristics of healthy democracy: to have a free opposition. While appeals of many countries for Myanmar to impose democracy have been unsuccessful, the appeal to ASEAN to impose sanctions for Myanmar’s violations proves to be fruitless. ASEAN imposes no sanctions, or even warnings to Myanmar.

Preah Vihear Temple Complex

The other examples would be territorial disputes. One of the major ones would be the long-lasted dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear Temple, which the International Court of Justice had settled in 1961 – the temple belongs to Cambodia – yet Thailand, disputes the judgment. The dispute then evolves into armed conflicts, with thousands of both armies engaged for the ownership of the temple. The other would be Indonesian-Malaysian border disputes over several territories. One of the most memorable was the Sipadan-Ligitan islands, which finally settled by the International Court of Justice – not ASEAN – that gave both islands to Malaysia. In recent years, additional disputes occur at other territories, such as the Ambalat territory. Yet ASEAN gives no solutions whatsoever to all those cases above.

Does the lack of authority make ASEAN a ‘clawless tiger’? In many ways, yes it is. Not only the ASEAN is not yet strong in authority, ASEAN is currently lacking of supranational organizations to deal with issues within ASEAN. The author believes that ASEAN should also have the subsidiarity principle – delegating problems to the most capable authority – in dealing with issues within ASEAN: if the state is capable to do so, let it be; yet if not, allow ASEAN to solve it. One example would be the creation of ASEAN Court of Justice and ASEAN Human Rights Court. The prevailing issue of human rights in modern civilization should put more stress in implementation of human rights values in ASEAN. Strong organizations in the regional level can make states succumb to a higher legislation in the ASEAN level – therefore, also solving many problems rising in or in between states by help of the organization.

Problem two: the strength of the community – not the government

Is it right that now ASEAN is nothing more than a ‘talk shop’? One of the reasons why nobody sees ASEAN as fully integrated now is because ASEAN has much less integration in its community, namely its civil society. The only existence of ASEAN lies among governments of the states, not the citizens, or the people.

It is also hard for the ASEAN people today to fully feel the presence of ASEAN in the real life, because the only way people will hear about ASEAN is through the news about intergovernmental talks. The lack of this community sense is actually ironic to the vision of ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community’.

ASEAN could actually improve the sense of community through several ways. ASEAN needs to involve the community actively in decision making – not merely involving summit talks and heads of states. If only ASEAN can use referendums in decision-making processes, people will feel the presence of ASEAN as a tangible and integrated organization within the community.

The emergence of information technology should also enhance the way ASEAN promotes itself, not only to the world outside ASEAN, but also within. There is the need for the ASEAN community to be aware of the presence, the uses, the goals, and the roles of ASEAN among them.

This integration of the community will help, eventually, in solving many other problems, such as the creation of an economic community in five years to come.

Problem three: (not) ready for prime time? The ASEAN Economic Community

If there is one dream that ASEAN has yet still far from reach, that would be the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community. The idea of creating this integrated economy is not for the faint-hearted, yet ASEAN has the potential of being a large market of about 580 million people with US$1.5 trillion in nominal GDP. An integrated economy should be a very logical goal, yet in practice, it will be really hard to be realized.

To make a parallel, it took only about six years for the European Coal and Steel Community (the precursor of the European Union) to establish the European Economic Community. For ASEAN, it took about 40 years to formalize the ASEAN Charter, and further 8 years (2015) to establish a common economic community.

Yet after the long period of waiting consumed, the creation of this economic community is never ascertained. One of the biggest problems faced is equality and competitiveness: are the member states of ASEAN ready for the prime time? Indonesia, for example, however large the nominal GDP is, in reality, goods produced in Indonesia have difficulties to compete in the international market. To make it difficult, often the price is so high even in Indonesia; competition is then even harsher with cheaper goods imported from other countries.

Speak none about the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area; the member states of ASEAN will face threats even from every member states of the ASEAN themselves. For example, competitiveness of professional workers, free flow of those professionals, especially from an educated background to countries with less quality of education, can create stir to local labor force. Free trade of goods among countries as in a free trade area would be another problem: if Thailand can produce cheaper bottled water than Malaysia, than imported bottled water from Thailand to Malaysia will surely hurt the local industry.

Not only competition, member states will experience even harder challenges if they are to implement a common monetary unit, just like the European Union. The huge imbalance between the monetary value of Singapore and Lao PDR for example, can create problems in transition between the old and new unit.

The only conclusion from the above problems is that ASEAN is not ready for the prime time. And the only way to resolve the problem is to increase competitiveness between countries. If ASEAN wants to be ready for a common economic community in 2015 (or whatever timeframe is), countries should have equal competitiveness in all areas, to enable them to compete each other and creating benefits for all the states.

To sum up

The above three threats, in the author’s opinion, are the most prevailing problems that ASEAN will face in at least the next five years – more importantly, if ASEAN wants to create a single economic community – or more years to come. The above three problems are interconnected: ASEAN wants to create an economic community, which is why ASEAN needs to create a more integrated community and a stronger authority.

To sum up, is ASEAN ready for the prime time? The answer is no. If ASEAN wants to go to its greatness, the path is still a long one. I believe ASEAN, probably in the distant future, can achieve things what the European Union has achieved for the last 60 years, yet the many problems, the many differences, halt the progress of ASEAN towards a totally integrated community. If ASEAN is able to solve the above three problems, the author believes that ASEAN is riding the right path on the right vehicle: it would be a matter of time to create a fully integrated ASEAN as a supranational structure in the Southeast Asia region.

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