The current and future role of Asean has recently been discussed among academic scholars, political analysts and Asean leaders. The challenges that Asean is facing, such as the South China Sea dispute, the humanitarian crisis in the Rakhine state in Myanmar and trans-boundary water resource governance in the Mekong, have posed a number of puzzling questions with regards to Asean’s centrality role in managing regional issues.
The main purpose of Asean is to maintain peace and stability in Southeast Asia through the mechanism of discussion and resolution during the Cold War period. Following its birth, Asean has moved beyond its original purpose to not only focus on security but also other fields of issues such as economic stability and prosperity and socio-cultural collaboration.
However, many scholars argue that Asean has encountered a number of challenges which retard Asean’s ability to effectively play its role in leading regional institution building. One of the main issues is the application of the traditional concept of “non-interference and consensus” or “the Asean Way”. The principles have been a big constraint for Asean’s decision-making process since the beginning of its inception.
One of the examples of the effects of non-interference principle is the issue in Myanmar. The crackdown of the Rohingya minority group by the military has seriously violated human rights. But Asean is not entitled or mandated to interfere in the issue due to the non-interference principle. The lack of consensus among the Asean member states has also caused a certain degree of diplomatic tension between Asean member states.
Another challenge that may prevent Asean from playing a leading role in the building of regional institutions is the influence of external actors especially China and the United States. Asean is geographically located in the center of a strategic competition between major powers. Amidst China’s growing power, Asean is facing a security dilemma in choosing between China and the United States. Some Asean members will likely be forced to take sides when the geopolitical tensions between Chin and the US mount.
China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and its charm offensives towards the non-claimant states, especially Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, have caused a diplomatic split between the claimants and non-claimants. China will continue to influence the non-claimants to agree to the terms set by China in the negotiation process towards the realization of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. China’s strategic interest is not to see Asean stay united against China’s core national interests.
Regardless of strategic challenges and institutional shortcomings, Asean has been generally perceived as the most successful regional organization after the European Union. Asean has great potential to achieve more, especially in economic integration and development.
Asean has a population of more than 600 million of which most of them are working-age people. The young working-age population is expected to continue to grow until 2025. Furthermore, the middle-class population in Asean is expected to increase from more than 50 million in 2010 to about 100 million in 2020. Furthermore, Asean has a strong share of young consumers which account for about 27 percent or 160 million of the total consumers.
Asean is considered to be a model for building community cooperation. It is known to be a leading organization in forming community cooperation aiming at promoting people’s living standards, socio-economic development, peace and security and people-to-people links through “a community of caring societies”.
Asean has been praised for its leading role in building cooperation frameworks among its member states and between Asean and other actors. It has successfully brought a number of institutional cooperation frameworks under its initiatives which contribute significantly to regional integration and cooperation. For example, Asean Regional Forum (ARF), Asean Plus Three (APT) and East Asian Summit (EAS) were established under the initiatives of Asean. Many major countries have built dialogue partnerships with Asean including Australia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States. There are four sectoral partners including Pakistan, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey, and one development partner, Germany.
Asean needs to carry out reforms in order to stay relevant in shaping regional architecture and order. And it needs to consider addressing some challenges such as geopolitical rivalry between China and the US. Asean also needs to create measures that can prevent external influence and domination in its region and affairs. This may include the mechanism of collective hedging strategy that may retain the influence of major powers including China and the United States.
Saboeun Lourn is an Australia Awards scholar studying a Master of International Relations at the University of Queensland.