Familiar questions about unity and centrality are being asked as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit gets underway in Vientiane, Laos. Issues including the South China Sea disputes, transnational crime and human rights underscore the importance of regional dialogue but also the inadequacy of ASEAN as an arena in which such matters can be resolved. This reflects the norms and institutional design of ASEAN but also, crucially, the diversity of interests and allegiances of its member states. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s calls for stronger regional unity may bode well for Indonesia’s traditional leadership role in ASEAN but we are unlikely to see significant progress on key regional governance challenges.
Observers are once again asking whether the summit will lead to meaningful progress in resolving the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The short answer is no. The reality is that ASEAN member states do not have a uniform position on the South China Sea – they cannot, given that several (the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei) are themselves claimants, while others have close relationships with China and will not act against its sovereignty claims. The notion that ASEAN might do more than simply raising its “concerns” in the joint communiqué traditionally issued at the end of these summits is overly optimistic.
Given its persistent desire to maintain the appearance of unity, member states will likely wish to avoid the embarrassment of the 2012 Summit in Cambodia, where – for the first time – they failed to produce a joint communiqué at all. But like Cambodia, Laos has strong ties with China, symbolised by recent talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Lao President Bounnhang Vorachit. It will likely resist any calls to make the South China Sea disputes a central issue for ASEAN dialogue. Given the role of the chair in shaping the tone of the summit, it hard to realistically see the 2016 Summit making progress in this area. (And while the Permanent Court of Arbitration recently ruled in favour of the Philippines, China has refused to recognise the legitimacy of the process, and ASEAN may not even acknowledge the ruling.)
The downgrading of the South China Sea disputes at the ASEAN Summit will likely happen despite US President Barack Obama’s calls for “tangible steps” to lower tensions in the region at the US-ASEAN Summit in February. This raises questions in regard to ASEAN’s “centrality”. ASEAN likes to see itself as driving regional dialogue and cooperation. This is reflected in the many meetings attached to the summit, including “ASEAN Plus” dialogues with external partners such as the United States and Australia – and, of course, the East Asia Summit. These are certainly significant in that they bring together the leaders of key states in the region. But this does not, in itself, signify ASEAN centrality. The question remains whether tangible progress can be made on resolving key regional governance problems. If not, the centrality of ASEAN as a key regional dialogue must be called into question.
ASEAN continues to construct the appearance of unity when the evidence suggests it is not particularly united. A headline in the South China Morning Post this week – “Why does ASEAN pretend to be united when it’s not?” – captures the conundrum facing analysts. Indeed, the pursuit of unity is itself a misnomer. Unity is often used by ASEAN as an excuse for a failure to act, with leaders pointing to the norm of consensus decision-making as a restriction. As prominent ASEAN analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak notes: “We are likely to see some kind of sweeping of the South China Sea under the ‘ASEAN unity’ carpet again”. The irony is that the diversity among ASEAN states means that a common response to regional problems – a practical and coordinated policy response, not just a joint diplomatic statement – is extremely difficult to achieve.
Indonesia’s position is of particular interest here. This week Jokowi argued that: “Without the unity and centrality of ASEAN, I am sure that the role of ASEAN as an important contributor to the security and stability of the region will disappear.” This sentiment will likely be a relief to observers who worry that Jokowi may be less focused on ASEAN than his predecessors. If Jokowi advances this position at the summit, other leaders will hopefully engage in some critical reflection about the role of ASEAN, and its relevance and credibility.
Of course, as Evan Laksmana has pointed out, ASEAN centrality does not require that member states are always united. In fact, the “ASEAN Minus X” arrangement allows for states to tactfully abstain from decision-making in order not to undermine the appearance of consensus. Yet if ASEAN cannot be seen as making tangible progress on resolving regional governance problems, then its claims to centrality in regional cooperation will continue to be undermined. On security issues such as the South China Sea disputes, it is simply unrealistic to expect the unity or centrality of ASEAN.
The 2016 ASEAN Summit is also likely to focus on transnational crime, particularly terrorism and drug trafficking. In part, this reflects the influence of recently elected Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has indicated that he will emphasise these issues at the summit. Duterte’s inflammatory rhetoric has been linked to a recent spate of violent acts by police and vigilantes in the Philippines, in the name of cracking down on drug-related crime.
Unfortunately, while such tough approaches to transnational crime can lead to human rights violations, they are often depicted as necessary to protect the rights of broader society. Indonesian Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo, for example, last year argued that implementing the death penalty for narcotics crime was necessary to “save a generation”. This tendency of some officials invoke human rights while calling for a hard-line stance on transnational crime is concerning.
In summary, the 2016 ASEAN Summit reminds us about the distinction between ostensible aspirations and the political realities in the region. While ASEAN routinely refers to the importance of regional security cooperation, it has, in fact, never had a collective security arrangement. This is not necessarily a failure of ASEAN. The experience of the European Union suggests that a supranational approach to security is difficult to achieve. But talking the talk is becoming tiresome. Yes, ASEAN has made some progress on economic cooperation, but meaningful policy coordination in response to regional security challenges remains elusive.