The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

An ASEAN-led Asia-Pacific: Wavering Regionalism?

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on July 12, 2011

The role and effectiveness of ASEAN-led regionalism is under the microscope again as it looks to convene the East Asia Summit (EAS) in mid-November 2011, with new members US and Russia joining for the first time. Indeed, in response to these countries’ successful membership bids, 2010 has been described as a ‘banner year’ for ASEAN centrality. It now leads most of the key regional multilateral institutions, including ASEAN Plus Three (ASEAN+3), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the recently-established ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), which brings together dialogue partners encompassed by the broader EAS – ASEAN member states, Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Russia – in a platform specifically designed for security and defense cooperation.

ASEAN’s acceptability as the driver of East Asian regionalism has long been premised on its neutrality, which derives mostly from its consensus-based decision making, an important aspect of the normative framework known as the ‘ASEAN way’. Members of ASEAN-led regional institutions are comfortable in the knowledge that they will not be coerced into any form of cooperation or action. Recently, however, its role as a somewhat-passive driver of regionalism has not been without its challenges (if only in principle), including Hatoyama’s ‘East Asian Community’ proposal, as well as Kevin Rudd’s ‘Asia Pacific Community’ initiative which ostensibly sought to establish an institution that incorporated the entire ‘Asia-Pacific’ region (i.e. included the US) and a more effective body less encumbered by ‘ASEAN’ processes.

While the EAS has addressed the membership issue, it remains to be seen whether in the future a failure to sanction more concrete cooperation will – rather than secure acquiescence to its centrality – begin to erode ASEAN’s legitimacy. Cognizant that its political and security authority is left wanting, ASEAN has been making a conscious and explicit effort to further integrate its members and extra-regional powers to enhance economic integration and prosperity, as well as political and security cooperation, including building the relationships and mechanisms necessary for sustaining regional stability. However, recent fighting across the disputed Thai-Cambodia border and the demonstrable fragility of ASEAN-led mediation efforts suggest there will persist a significant legitimacy gap between the grouping’s vision for ASEAN-based regionalism and its own political authority (i.e. the capabilities that its members are yet willing to endow it with).

The South China Sea (SCS) security challenge will pose another test of ASEAN’s utility and relevance as the core driver of regional multilateral institutions. China’s recent assertiveness in the SCS has reignited this long-standing security issue again, with China’s position contrasting sharply with the US administration’s clear desire to deal with the maritime territorial dispute head on. One of the greatest challenges will be whether ASEAN-led regionalism can provide the appropriate forum to deal with the issue. While many concede that ASEAN has achieved its position of centrality by default, premised largely on the acceptability to all parties of the ‘ASEAN way’ approach, the emerging Asia-Pacific regionalism may conceal more conflicting interests yet conceivably also demand more concrete outcomes. In this sense, the very foundations of its ‘default’ centrality may in the long-run constitute the seed to its unravelling.

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