ASEAN community: Moving beyond the rhetoric

Established more than four decades ago, ASEAN has enjoyed a considerable amount of attention from the international public in a wide range of issues.

One crucial question concerns the future of ASEAN in terms of the regional integration model best suited to Southeast Asia.

The ongoing armed clashes over the disputed Thai-Cambodian border, however, show that this regional arrangement still suffers from fragility and vagueness.

Symbolically enshrined by the motto โ€œOne vision, one identity, one communityโ€, ASEAN has much work ahead in realizing this idea. The ASEAN Charter, which signifies the first ever rules-based intergovernmental framework, envisages the great ambitions of the organization that include, among other things, to bond solidarity, to enhance cooperation and integration and to maintain stability in the region. But, what will make this ambition into a reality remains to be seen. The construction of the rules of the game and the struggle to achieve ASEAN integration remain contested topics.

Indeed, the strong commitment of ASEAN member states and ASEANโ€™s institutional capacity, along with concrete and strategic actions, are indispensable in cultivating trust in transforming the ASEAN community and regional integration.

When it comes to norms and behavior of regional interactions, the logic of the ASEAN โ€œwayโ€ poses its own challenges in terms of manner of action. Despite having various definitions, it has been commonly suggested that this ASEAN way favors the non-usage of force, informal arrangements, discrete consensus, non-legally binding mechanisms and the sacred concept of non-interference and sovereignty.

Until now, ASEAN member states have found it convenient to maintain this logic and have remained reluctant to change the ASEAN way that has completely distinguished it as a regional grouping from the European Union model. However, constraints may cause ASEANโ€™s performance to move forward beyond the rhetoric of the ASEAN community and integration.

Seen from its institutional capabilities, ASEAN is more or less a weak organization or, to put it more diplomatically, it is an example of the โ€œsoft institutionalismโ€ discussed by Amitav Acharya.

In fact, this seems like a paradox considering that ASEAN has strategic roles and potential for prosperity and stability in the region and its contribution to the world.

For the past few decades, the European Union (EU) has inspired ASEAN to adopt measures to enhance cooperation and integration. As the most successful regional integration in the world, the EU represents complex configuration and dynamics. That is why the EU has been defined as a sui generis entity that makes it differ from nation-state and international organizations.

Generally speaking, the EU combines intergovernmentalism, supranationalism, the pooling of national sovereignty and parlementarism. The concept of spillover is salient in the context of European integration in which integration commences from areas of low politics (economic activities) and moves afterward into areas of high politics (political affairs), which is very sensitive.

In the early formative years, Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, founding fathers of what the so-called now EU, were in favor of sector-by-sector integration as it firstly established in the 1951 European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The institutional structure in the form of supranational authority has been maintained up to date.

In the 1960s, economists put forward the following steps of economic integration comprising Free Trade Area, Customs Union and Common Market.

In praxis, it was hard to run. Not only did it demonstrate how national interests and statesโ€™ preference play a significant role in European integration process, but also did external contexts and extra-mural factors have an impact on how European community had been examined.

For instance, it can be seen in a long series of Economic and Monetary Union and the single currency. Initiated since in 1969, the euro has entered into effect in 2002.

In further developments, various responses over European integration stem from anti-EU (Euroskeptic), pro-EU (Euro-enthusiastic) and those who are neutral. The todayโ€™s issue of bail-out from EU provided for Greece, Ireland and Portugal to recover from economic crisis provokes a pro-contra row. But, in a reversed question to ASEAN, did it play a major role in the 1997-1998 financial and economic crises to help its member states out of crisis?

It goes without saying that ASEAN and EU differs one another in terms of several aspects ranging from historical legacy, socio-political structure, economy, culture to its particular context and motives. Nevertheless, the similarity between them lies in the elite-driven mechanics that underpin these regional arrangements. The challenge for ASEAN is how to bring ASEAN closer to ordinary people.

Critics have been posed to state-centric character of ASEAN. Some contend that the association looks like a diplomatic caucus with ample ceremonial events.

Over the last one decade, ASEAN has produced many initiatives, declarations and frameworks of institutional mechanisms to advance ASEAN community.

It can be seen from Bali Concord II with the adoption of three ASEAN pillars, the 2004 Vientiane Action Program, the 2007 Cebu Declaration, and the 2009 Cha-am Hua Hin Declaration.

However, skeptics may contest the ASEAN ability to set up institutional rules and manage intra-mural tensions. It is not surprising that member states, such as in Sipadan-Ligitan case, would rather prefer to appeal the dispute before international judicial arbitration than through ASEAN system.

Looking at regional potentials, ASEAN partners like EU, Australia and New Zealand eager to hammer out free trade agreements. But, with the lack of single voice and strong institutional capacity, how does ASEAN overcome negative effects caused by such agreements as it happens in ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA)? At the end, bilateral mechanism will be opted to be pursued, not though ASEAN level where the agreement is made.

If ASEAN community is slowgoing to transform, it is most likelyย�that ASEAN-skeptic will emerge as a sort of โ€œexpectation deficitโ€ to the association.

The writer is a graduate of the Political Science program at the University of Lille 2, France, and currently lectures at the School of Social and Political Sciences, State Islamic University, Jakarta.


By: Faisal Nurdin Idris, Jakarta Post
When: 7/2/2014

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