Southeast Asia’s regional organisation turns 50 – RTÉ World Report

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Indonesian president Joko Widodo and ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta on Aug 8 2017 (Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA — Marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Nations, or ASEAN for short, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told a gathering of Jakarta-based diplomats that “together with Indonesia, ASEAN is strong.”

There is no doubt the region is on the up economically. The ten ASEAN member countries have a combined GDP of $2.6 trillion, bigger than any European country bar Germany, and if growth rates hold up, ASEAN as a whole will be behind only the European Union, China and the United States by 2030.

ASEAN countries have committed to increased economic integration, and like the EU, to which ASEAN is often compared, the group has forged free trade agreements — with neighbours such as Australia, China and India.

But did the Indonesian president really mean what he said about “strong,” beyond the reference to his own country, which with a population of 260 million is by far the biggest in ASEAN and has an economy more than twice the size of Thailand’s, the second biggest in the region?

Founded in 1967 by the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, ASEAN was originally a loose-knit grouping on the watch for the spread of communism at the height of the war in neighbouring Vietnam.

Only in the last two decades or so did ASEAN become more formalized, with regular meetings and annual summits, after it expanded to take in other countries in the region, bringing its present day population to 629 million.

The new additions included Laos and Vietnam, still run by Communist parties; post Khmer Rouge Cambodia; Myanmar, for fifty years a military dictatorship; and Brunei, a tiny oil-rich Muslim sultanate on the island of Borneo.

The differences between ASEAN’s wealthy countries — Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia — and the poorest member-states Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, where average incomes per person per year are around a thousand euro, will remain much wider than the gap in average incomes between the EU’s wealthiest and less well-off member-states of eastern Europe.

The budget for the modest ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, where the Indonesian president gave his anniversary speech, is a mere US$20 million a year, a fraction of the running costs of the EU institution buildings in Brussels, Frankfurt and Strasbourg.

In contrast to the EU there is little by way of so-called “supranationalism” in ASEAN and most agreements come with the caveat that implementation is down to the discretion of member states — “the clause that kills everything,” according to Fauziah Zen, an economist with the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

Zen was discussing the region’s attempts at aligning aviation and maritime transport systems, but national opt-outs remain the norm across almost all ASEAN agreements.

And there is no equivalent to the acquis, the onerous set of conditions that an EU membership applicant must meet before joining. But on the other hand, while EU member states must be democratic, there is no such requirement to join ASEAN, where only Indonesia and the Philippines now have fully democratically-elected governments.

The one prospective new ASEAN member, East Timor, is arguably more democratic than any of the group, but is seeing its membership application stalled as some of the ASEAN member states do not believe that East Timor, which only regained its independence in 2002, has the money or personnel to manage the deluge of meetings and administration that ASEAN membership entails.

Then there is the so-called “ASEAN way” that prioritizes consensus and non-interference in domestic politics, even if it means discussions on important issues end up getting shelved.

That need for consensus meant, for example, that ASEAN could not agree a common statement about the assassination in February of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, even though the hit was carried out in Malaysia, a founding member of ASEAN.

Consensus and non-interference meant that when Myanmar joined in 1997, the military junta could block any attempt by any of the other governments to criticize it over the detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

ASEAN governments set up a human rights commission in 2009. But this body has little scope to do anything about abuses in member states — be that Vietnam jailing people who want multiparty elections, or the army taking power in Thailand, or Islamists in Aceh flogging young couples for perceived extra-marital relations, or the oppression of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority. There is certainly no comparison with bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights, for all its flaws.

According to Eva Kusuma Sundari, an Indonesian MP and member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights group, the commission “needs a stronger mandate, including the authority to take up and investigate cases of alleged human rights abuses.”

ASEAN’s culture of consensus is not just a concern for the region: it has potentially major geopolitical implications related to the growing tensions between China and the US.

Several ASEAN member-states have claims to part of the South China Sea, through which around a quarter of all world trade in goods passes each year. But China claims almost the entire waterway for itself, putting it at odds not only with half of Southeast Asia, but with the US, which has military alliances with Thailand and the Philippines and which says there should be freedom of navigation through the sea.

But despite China’s sweeping claim cutting into waters claimed by Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, Beijing’s growing economic influence over the likes of Cambodia has meant ASEAN is unable, as a group, to take a strong stand against China.

And with the U.S. swaying from isolationist-sounding rhetoric one day, and threats to launch a trade war with China the next, it is difficult for countries in Southeast Asia to know how to react when China asserts its expansive claims, which in the end could force countries in the region to take sides with either the U.S. or China, a choice no country in Southeast Asia wants to face.

For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Jakarta

Attendees and staff at the ASEAN Golden Jubilee event in Jakarta on Aug 8 2017 (Simon Roughneen)


The ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak heading for the signing ceremony of the ASEAN community on Nov. 22 2015 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Hun Sen, Cambodia’s PM , at the ASEAN summit in Hanoi in late 2010 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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