ASEAN needs a makeover
ASEAN needs a makeover

ASEAN needs a makeover

It is time to ditch consensus rules and equip states with the means to address regional crises  

The military coup in Myanmar and its violent aftermath has raised existential questions about whether the Association of Southeast Asian Nations really serves any useful purpose for the region’s 632 million people. Facing a barrage of criticism within and from outside the region for having failed so far to use effectively the tools of diplomacy and engagement to address the crisis in Myanmar, ASEAN has reached a critical juncture in its long history.  

Finding a way to re-tool the grouping to be more responsive to crisis may not seem all that hard based on the association’s rather liberal charter, which came into force in 2008.  But unlike the African Union, which has used a strong peacemaking and security enforcement mechanism to intervene in countries that have descended into violence and instability, the inertia to remain weak and toothless will be hard to combat.

In the foreign ministries of the 10 member states there is a strong impulse to avoid strengthening even the capacity to address humanitarian crisis, for fear it would encourage more frequent intrusive interference in the internal affairs of member states. The Jakarta-based secretariat, which on paper at least, is tasked with providing assistance to member states in need, and whose secretary-general can notionally provide his or her good offices to resolve disputes, is poorly staffed and funded. 

Efforts in recent years to bolt on a human rights function and launch an ASEAN institute for peace and reconciliation have been circumscribed by weak and narrow mandates strictly enforced by member states. When the ASEAN Secretariat started to play a low-key role in helping Myanmar to address the Rohingya crisis after 2017, conservative member states fought to limit the scope of this engagement. 

Advocates of the status quo argue that ASEAN was never designed to do more than keep the peace between ASEAN member states, a function it has performed well. There have been some limited border skirmishes but no wars between Southeast Asian member states since its founding in 1967.  In terms of managing larger powers, ASEAN has also served well as a platform for convening dialogue partners – crucially the biggest powers, China and the U.S. — and helping to manage geopolitical tensions. 

But there have long been signs that this light model for functional cooperation is no longer adequate.  Rifts have appeared in ASEAN ranks over China’s regional role, over advocacy of human rights, and over divergent views on democracy.  The old consensus-building approach to ASEAN unity and cohesion has come up against a younger generation of Southeast Asian citizens in solidarity with their those resisting authoritarian military rule.  For the first time, popular opposition to ASEAN as a body has been evident, with ASEAN flags burned on the streets of Myanmar cities.

The Myanmar debacle highlights the need for a stronger ASEAN equipped to live up to its charter rather than seem divorced from it.  Given the entrenched limitations and modest aspirations for active regional cooperation, what could be done to make ASEAN more fit for modern purpose?

Realistically, the make-over will be slow and painful. It might start by empowering already established institutions such as the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Centre (AHA), which has already spent some years providing aid to regions affected by natural disaster. More recently, after the Rohingya exodus in 2017, AHA was tasked with assessing the needs in areas of Myanmar’s Rakhine State to prepare for Rohingya repatriation, a job for which it was not equipped. This time around, member states should be asked to donate more money, and more importantly more actively second staff to boost the humanitarian support function of the secretariat. 

On the political front, the ASEAN leaders meeting on Myanmar on April 24 already broke the mould by essentially agreeing to intervention in Myanmar.  The Five Point Consensus the leaders agreed to calls for the appointment of a special envoy to explore political dialogue and the provision of humanitarian assistance.  In the two months since then, the Bruneian Deputy Foreign Minister, serving as the chair of ASEAN, has mostly undermined this consensus by delaying the appointment of an envoy or envoys, and allowing Myanmar’s military leadership to coopt the strategy for its own purposes.  A senior ASEAN official complained that during his visit to Myanmar in June, the Brunei minister had appeared to ask the military government who it preferred ASEAN to choose as special envoy. 

One solution would be to skirt the ASEAN tradition of making decisions on the basis of a consensus between all 10 members – which, because of their divergence of views and positions, is becoming increasingly impossible. Instead, those who feel strongly about issues should take the lead on framing a plan and then go out and seek support from more recalcitrant member states.  One of the problems with implementing ASEAN’s Myanmar plan was every other member state’s deference to the country that holds the rotating chair, in this case small and weak Brunei. 

More decisive changes might include the establishment of an ASEAN peace and security mechanism mandated to explore collective action to safeguard the region’s security and stability. This could be modelled on the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, which is a decision-making body for the prevention and resolution of conflicts on the continent. Another element could involve empowering of the ASEAN High Council, a body enshrined in ASEAN’s foundational Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, to adjudicate on member states in breach of the ASEAN Charter, with the power of imposing sanctions.  The Council has never been convened, though its rules of procedure were established a decade ago. 

These stronger and more assertive tools for managing regional collective security will take time to establish, and may evolve too slowly to bolster ASEAN’s efforts to influence events in Myanmar. Meanwhile, the costs of not immediately streamlining decision-making on key political issues and building capacity to provide urgently required help to member states will be significant and harmful.  Disunity, already a problem because of pressure from outside powers, is growing from within.  Some states will start to feel they must act alone. That will leave ASEAN exposed to the threat of the very kind of inter-state conflict it was designed to prevent.  

Published by Nikkei Asia on 30 June 2021

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