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ASEAN Way: Moving Forward

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by Juan “Jed” E. Dayang, Jr.

To view “ASEAN Way” as all about consensus is inconclusive. From the standpoint of negotiations and decision-making, the “ASEAN Way” is better viewed as a code of conduct that seeks to guide rather than seen as a method of explicit rules of procedure.

Jürgen Haacke found six norms that may be inferred in the way ASEAN conducts its business. These norms are: “sovereign equality”, “non-use of force and peaceful conflict-resolution”, “non-interference and non-intervention of ASEAN in unresolved bilateral conflicts”, “quiet diplomacy”, and mutual “respect and tolerance”.

From a western realist standpoint, “ASEAN Way”  is not effective since the realists view use of power as leverage in negotiations. However, the “ASEAN Way” may derive more sympathies from liberals who view the importance of international cooperation. ASEAN diplomacy may also be supported by constructivists who view international affairs as being defined by identity and ideas. From the perspective of   ASEAN leaders, there is no clear definition of “ASEAN Way”.  Rodolfo Severino, former secretary-general of the Southeast Asian organization, said that ASEAN leaders emphasize friendship, understanding, consensus, and non-intervention to promote regional peace and stability.  For example,  the five initial member countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines  Singapore and Thailand) emphasized their shared common interests rather than their divergent socio-political and economic backgrounds. As a behavioural norm, the “ASEAN way” made it possible for diverse member-states, form a regional identity.

Strengths of ASEAN Way

The process of consultation allows members to discuss in an informal manner their shared interests. Thorny bilateral issues are avoided and conflicting regional issues are not discussed until such time when everybody is comfortable  to do so. The benefit of ASEAN’s consensus approach is empowering members to have an equal say in shaping the agenda. Revolving chairmanship and consensus deter any single member from dominating the other members. For instance, larger states like Indonesia cannot dominate the agenda of the sub-regional body.

Consultations and consensus are the most enduring features of ASEAN. Despite its slowness, once consensus is reached, agreements are easily implemented. During the Vietnam Invasion, the principle of non-intervention of ASEAN was apparent.  It was only when the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was created that  leaders were able to discuss more openly some of the critical security concerns of the region.

Critics point out ASEAN’s weakness in solving complex and persistent conflicts of this century. They view “ASEAN Way” as being too soft on the problem.   For decades, diplomacy has been played out in the West, especially since WWII, through “carrots and sticks” strategies. By using threats or actual use of force and economic sanctions, major powers have proven that they could compel or coerce the adversarial party to change its behaviour. Considering the success of coercive diplomacy in preventing major wars during the Cold War (i.e. Cuban Missile Crisis), critics sees ASEAN’s lack of teeth to promote peace or to curb human rights abuses in member states (i.e. constructive engagement with Myanmar).

In my view, the “ASEAN Way” has proven to be an alternative in regional multilateralism.  For ASEAN, its soft regional approach has allowed its member-countries with conflicting bilateral concerns (i.e. Malaysia-Philippine territorial disputes) to sit at the same table by leaving behind their animosities for the time being. On the issue of Myanmar’s human rights violations, many ASEAN members have openly criticized the military regime and are polarized.  However, all agree to ASEAN’s “constructive engagement” with Myanmar.  It is still early to say whether Myanmar is adjusting its governance as a result of socialization and ‘peer pressure’ from its fellow members.  For ASEAN, harsh diplomacy is counter-productive. For ASEAN leaders, humanitarian considerations are important and could be best achieved without the use of sanctions. Economic sanctions and suspension of relief assistance only exacerbates the suffering of the people and should be avoided.

ASEAN’s diplomatic culture may in the long-run serve peace. In forging regional security cooperation, it has rejected a more militarized form of regionalism. The preference of ASEAN towards non-confrontational engagement has its roots in the various material constraints and incentives it has faced.     For ASEAN, the “policy of friendship is better than a policy of containment”.  As a way to move forward in regional cooperation, ASEAN has engaged East Asia through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, Republic of Korea), and the East  Asia Summit. In the ARF powers like the United States, China, India and Japan participate in the ASEAN regional multilateralism.  By default, ASEAN is in the “driver seat” in East Asian institutionalization. ASEAN is the only venue where Japan, Korea, and China could dialogue  despite their bitter past.   Since there is no clear acceptable leader in the region, ASEAN has provided its leadership and good offices for greater regional cooperation.  China’s active relationship in ASEAN has provided a fresh impetus in the emerging East Asian community.

As a model of regional multilateralism and institutional building, “ASEAN Way” has influenced the other regional groupings. An example is the way African Union is trying to pattern its norms based on the ASEAN model.   ASEAN is also engaged with the world. It has successfully managed the Cambodian conflict in 1990 in coordination with the international community.  During the Cold War, when South and North Vietnam reunified under communism, ASEAN strengthened its relationships with the U.N. and the U.S.  Likewise, the U.S. engaged ASEAN to counter the spread of communism. This mutual cooperation is one example of how both parties influence each other through the exploration and development of shared interests.  In this light, we could see that ASEAN Way does not only exert influence in the region and in East Asia but also the world in shaping an alternative diplomatic cultures and security cultures. The strength and relevance of ASEAN in international politics, is therefore indisputable.

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