ASEAN's much underrated soft power

#CriticalThinking

Asia

Picture of Jan-Willem Blankert
Jan-Willem Blankert

Author and Asia analyst

The 10-nation Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) still doesn’t figure high on Europe’s foreign policy agenda, yet the EU’s chances of stronger political, business and security profile in Asia rest on forging stronger relations with it. This means EU governments must have a clearer understanding of ASEAN and its many little-noticed achievements.

With its policy of quiet, cautious and often not so fast regional co-operation and “preventive diplomacy”, ASEAN has managed to achieve peace and stability in the region. Slowly but steadily, ASEAN members are integrating their economies and institutions, making the group a respected political force in the region.

Peace and stability in South-east Asia was certainly not a given when Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia signed the political declaration in 1967 that formed the basis for ASEAN. In a climate of uncertainty and suspicion, ASEAN started as a purely political undertaking. One big difference between the EU and ASEAN is that by starting as a political project, it wasn’t until 1993 that the ASEAN agenda, inspired by the EU, was extended to cover economic integration.

And even then, ASEAN’s goal of establishing an economic community by end-2015 with a “single market and common production base” doesn’t mean it’s on track to become another EU. ASEAN’s economic integration is less ‘deep’ than that of the EU. In addition to its own integration, it is the group’s policy to push ahead with the knitting together of its many different free trade agreements into one over-arching accord. The goal is to establish by 2015 an umbrella trade deal known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and New Zealand as part of a policy of “widening”. The RCEP is designed to create a free trade zone for a market of 3bn people with an economy of $17 trillion.

Slowly but steadily, ASEAN members are integrating their economies and institutions, making the group a respected political force in the region

Equally impressive is ASEAN’s role as a political stabiliser in the region through its network of dialogues on issues ranging from maritime security, health and climate change. These ASEAN-driven initiatives tend to go largely unnoticed in the west but they are the tools of preventive diplomacy.

ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Co-operation (TAC) began as a “peace treaty” between its own member states but now includes a growing number of countries and ‘regional organisations’ (since the TAC was adapted so the EU could join) that have committed to the TAC’s message of “peaceful co-operation and non-interference”. In 2003, China was the first non-ASEAN member to sign up to the TAC, and others that have followed included the U.S. in 2009, the EU in 2012 and Norway and Pakistan as the most recent members, with Turkey and Brazil about to join.

ASEAN has, significantly, managed to keep relations with China on an even keel despite the tensions in the South China Sea over conflicting territorial claims of China and Vietnam, and China and the Philippines. This may lead some to indulge in simplistic conclusions of “inevitable war” in the region – but the reality is very different. China, after long, patient but relentless lobbying by ASEAN, has finally agreed to talk with ASEAN as a bloc about a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. This ASEAN-China dialogue is still fragile, and fresh incidents could yet lead to future misunderstandings and escalation, so armed conflict can never be ruled out. In the meantime though, ASEAN has played an important stabilising role.

Indonesia, accounting for some 40% of ASEAN’s population and economy, is in the vanguard of efforts to keep the peace with China and has steered clear of China-U.S. rivalry in the region. Indonesia seeks to keep ASEAN, which includes some very pro-U.S. members and others who are allied with China, on a similarly neutral course. When East Timor said it wanted to join ASEAN, Indonesia was clear about ASEAN’s role as a counter-balance to China, with Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa warning that a negative ASEAN reaction to East Timor’s entry bid could only lead to “greater influence of China in East Timor”. This said, the minister has stressed on more than once occasion that there is “no need to create a new Cold War climate”.

ASEAN-driven initiatives on issues ranging from maritime security, health and climate change tend to go largely unnoticed in the west but they are the tools of preventive diplomacy

ASEAN executed much behind-the-scenes influence to spur political change and reform in Myanmar. Its decision in 1997 to accept military-ruled Myanmar as a member was in part related to growing Chinese influence in that country, and ASEAN member states felt it was better to deal with Myanmar through a policy of “constructive engagement” than to exclude it.

Myanmar’s ASEAN membership of course led to difficulties in relations with the EU, the U.S. and other Western countries. But ASEAN felt it was not up to those outside the region to pass judgment on the issue, and it can now claim with some justification that this inclusive approach towards Myanmar produced the right results. ASEAN diplomats like to explain that it played an equally important role by showing Myanmar that the ‘international community’ was not composed of a bunch of unpleasant bullies.

ASEAN’s rapid response to cyclone Nargis when it struck Myanmar in 2008 also helped to spur change in the country. Former ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan convinced Myanmar’s leaders of the need to accept foreign assistance, and in addition, there was constant soft pressure from Indonesia, whose leaders never spoke out openly against the regime, but for many years met with their Myanmar counterparts to underline the importance of becoming democratic, holding up their own country as an example of a transformation from an authoritarian regime to a vibrant democracy. Myanmar isn’t there yet, but the process of change now underway is testimony to ASEAN’s little-noticed soft power.

China, after long, patient but relentless lobbying by ASEAN, has finally agreed to talk with ASEAN as a bloc about a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea

ASEAN’s post-modern diplomacy and its role as a factor of stability and peace in the region have long been underestimated by Europe and the U.S. But both Brussels and Washington are now waking to ASEAN’s importance, recognising that it shares with the EU the fate of a regional “peace organisation” that seldom makes the headlines. ASEAN plays a crucial stabilising and balancing role in a south-east Asia, and in the face of rivalries between China, the U.S., Australia, India, Russia and others, its protective fence is of utmost importance to the region’s smaller countries. And even Indonesia finds itself better able to promote its policy of “zero enemies, thousand friends” in the ASEAN context than alone.

In spite of the shouting matches that at times erupt between individual ASEAN members and China, ASEAN as a group has a constructive relationship with its huge neighbour. ASEAN-China co-operation covers many sectors and the two sides have concluded an ambitious free trade agreement. There remain problems, but these are dealt with in a way that is arguably more mature and proactive than, for instance, the uneasy relationship between the EU and Russia.

ASEAN’s soft power may be hard to understand for those who think of power in terms of helicopters and gunboats. But today’s world needs peace-builders and conflict managers – and ASEAN’s stabilising role should not be underestimated. It is time Europe took note.

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