The Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s (ASEAN) recently concluded 55th Foreign Ministers’ Meeting has confirmed yet again that the 10-country regional organization is in an unprecedented and existential crisis.
While the 29-page joint communique that came out of the meeting runs the routine gamut, from promoting connectivity and smart cities to cybersecurity and maritime cooperation, thorny geopolitical dilemmas and ASEAN’s internal conundrum over Myanmar’s coup and civil war dominated the agenda.
At issue is the end of ASEAN as we’ve known it since the promising launch of the ASEAN Charter in November 2007. Salvaging what’s left requires accepting this reality. ASEAN can still do a lot together, but the organization needs to regroup with a new chemistry and modus operandi.
Notwithstanding its many bureaucratic and functional pledges to do more together, the joint statement acknowledged that intra-ASEAN trade in goods remains low at 21 percent, while services trade among the regional economies is under 12 percent. On the other hand, ASEAN depends on outside sources for 88 percent of investment in the region.
As opposed to the European Union, economic integration was never within ASEAN’s mandate. Connectivity in hard and soft infrastructure — from roads, rails and flights to people-to-people contacts — is key to Southeast Asia’s internal locomotion and external appeal.
For a while after the ASEAN Charter took effect with its three-pronged political-security, economic and sociocultural communities, it appeared as if Southeast Asia’s premier club was going places. As the fastest-growing region in the world back then, ASEAN’s upward trajectory coincided with Myanmar’s post-2011 decade of political opening, economic reforms and development progress. The bloc built on its internal momentum to helm regional architectural projects for peace and security and took a central role in the development of institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus Three, East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus.
This was a time when corporates and investment funds formulated ASEAN strategies and departments, banking on Southeast Asia’s promise as a connected production hub with a combined market of more than 600 million and an overall GDP approaching $3 trillion, buoyed by a relatively youthful population and an expanding middle class. But by the time ASEAN reached its 55th year, which it commemorated on August 8 last week, its narrative had lost luster because its geopolitical setting had changed dramatically and adversely.
For ASEAN to thrive, the surrounding major powers must be in rough balance and remain at relative peace. When the big powers are in confrontation and conflict, as is now the case with the Russian war in Ukraine, the deteriorating situation in Myanmar and intensifying U.S.-China geostrategic rivalry and competition, ASEAN tends to get picked apart and become a divided region, much like it was before Cambodia joined as the grouping’s 10th and last member state in 1999.
On critical fronts – from the rivalry between claimants in the South China Sea, Myanmar’s internal conflict and Russia’s aggression – ASEAN is split in different directions. When it comes to China’s interests in the South China Sea and Myanmar’s coup and crisis, Cambodia is supportive of Beijing and the Myanmar military (also known as the Tatmadaw), but not so on Russia. Laos’ position appears to back all three: China in the South China Sea, Myanmar’s coup and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Vietnam has been critical of China, silent on Myanmar’s military dictatorship and sympathetic to Russia. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore are aligned in their concerns about China’s belligerence in the South China Sea, the Tatmadaw’s takeover and Putin’s war in Ukraine. Thailand has been soft on China’s South China Sea assertiveness and Myanmar’s putsch, while taking a measured stand against Russia’s aggression.
Myanmar itself is a telling case. The United Nations (UN) still recognizes its ambassador from the ousted civilian-led government, while ASEAN so far has denied the Myanmar junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) representation in major gatherings and instead requested a nonpolitical nominee, including at the recent foreign ministers’ meeting. Accordingly, Myanmar voted against Russia at the UN while the SAC supported the Kremlin.
Having failed to promote dialogue and negotiation in Myanmar with its Five-Point Consensus, ASEAN under Cambodia’s chairmanship, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, is now pressing harder against the SAC and its chairman, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Top-level meetings with world leaders in Phnom Penh in November are now at risk because of what is happening in Myanmar. Indonesia’s and Thailand’s hosting of the Group of 20 (G-20) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits respectively are similarly complicated, compounded by the Russian aggression.
What ASEAN needs is a new approach of like-mindedness. Those willing and able to take common positions short of a regionwide, 10-member consensus should do so. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore are already leading the way on some key issues. such as their opposition to Myanmar’s coup and call for the restoration of democratic process.” Others, such as Thailand and Vietnam, can join on issues and areas they deem in their interest.
As for the rest, they can sit out or come in as they see fit in an “ASEAN 5 plus X” kind of formula. The original ASEAN member states — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore — need to show and lead the way as the renewed core of the organization.
ASEAN as we have known it is gone for good. While it won’t be disbanded and will still be around, what’s left of ASEAN as a relevant and central regional organization needs a cold and hard realignment among the original five members plus Vietnam. Myanmar’s military must not be allowed to hold ASEAN hostage at the grouping’s expense. If they want to be bona fide ASEAN member states, Cambodia and Laos need to gravitate toward the ASEAN middle, not the external powers’ fringes.
The aspiration and outlook of an ASEAN economic community, connectivity and all that was promised under the ASEAN Charter, now ring hollow. Multinationals, funds and other businesses with a stake in Southeast Asia’s neighborhood need to think and frame ASEAN’s way ahead as “a la carte” rather than a set menu.
Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a senior advisor at BowerGroupAsia and political science professor at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University.