Written by Linda Quayle.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) turned 50 this month, and the range of commentary accompanying the golden jubilee certainly indicates that Amitav Acharya hit the nail on the head when he characterized the grouping in 2009 as ‘an essentially contested institution’.

The theme that most obviously unites observers is the need for ASEAN to overcome its longstanding elitism and make more effort to involve the region’s people. Civil society groups understandably long for more dialogue and a more inclusive approach.

Rather than requiring ASEAN to jettison its creaky but diversity-accommodating model, then, it may be more apposite to suggest that global multilateralism might imbibe a little more of the ASEAN style.

It is certainly difficult to argue with this point. ASEAN itself has repeatedly affirmed the need to be a “people-oriented, people-centred community”, and has made stalwart efforts to lift its game in terms of publicity and outreach.

There is still a long journey ahead, however, with many studies underlining a fundamental lack of ASEAN awareness among large sections of the region’s populace. Elitism, meanwhile, is in the grouping’s very bones, and many of its member states still struggle to relate to civil society at regional level.

Two other themes very obviously divide commentators. The first is the issue of ASEAN ‘centrality’ in the wider region.

This concept refers to ASEAN-led groupings such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), which have traditionally contributed to an even-handed ‘enmeshment’ of the extra-regional powers, and provided comfortable platforms for a highly disparate collection of states to discuss a broad range of topics.

Always notorious for their slowness and risk-averseness, these forums – and indeed ASEAN’s more general goal of keeping extra-regional powers in ‘balance’ – have in recent years also been somewhat overshadowed by the growing rivalry between China and the United States, and the always-intrusive issue of the South China Sea.

Some observers lament that ASEAN is already ‘lost’ to China. At the other end of the spectrum, a much more sanguine element insists that ASEAN is ‘more important than ever … an indispensable diplomatic platform’, and trusts that ‘ASEAN’s anti-colonial DNA’ will ensure resistance to domination while remaining an actor that is ‘courted’ by all the major powers.

Most convincing, perhaps, is the middle strand of commentary, which admits to anxiety, but still sees room for manoeuvre, urging ASEAN, in the face of pressure from both China and the US, to rebuild the balancing role that characterised its early Cold-War history.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi captures this strand very aptly in her depiction of the tension between caution and resolve:

‘ASEAN-led mechanisms [such as the ARF and the EAS] have unconsciously caused the culture of dialogue to grow and thicken. And this culture is a rare and expensive commodity these days… [But] ASEAN’s unity and centrality must be maintained… Without unity, there is no ASEAN centrality. And without unity and centrality, ASEAN will lose its relevance as a region that provides an ecosystem of peace.’

The second theme that clearly and deeply divides observers is the advisability of maintaining the region’s trademark ‘ASEAN way’.

This is a modus operandi that privileges consultation, consensus, and soft socialization, rather than coercion, majority voting, and enforcement. Culturally influenced, this approach has been blended with a reasonably strict (though not entirely consistent) interpretation of international norms such as sovereignty and non-interference.

The resultant package has often been blamed for ensuring that progress on almost any issue is slow, and aspiration often runs far in advance of implementation. Conversely, it has been credited with enabling ASEAN’s famously diverse members to come together and stay together with a notable degree of peace.

From the perspective of the denigrators, the ‘ASEAN way’ is a ‘burden’ that readily enables the ‘tyranny of the minority’; it is ‘not suitable to the present-day reality’; and ASEAN’s challenge, therefore, is ‘to introduce mechanisms and enforcement tools compelling member states to play by the rules’.

From the perspective of the proponents, ditching consensus-based regionalism would be disastrous. As veteran diplomat Tommy Koh puts it:

‘ASEAN is evolving in the right direction. If we become impatient and insist that the majority should prevail and we should not allow the minority to block consensus, we may feel triumphant but we may be doing harm to ASEAN. The outvoted minority may withdraw from ASEAN, leading to the breakup of ASEAN. That would be a tragedy.’

Others agree. By prioritising the culture of dialogue, and avoiding ‘megaphone diplomacy’, this style of regionalism ‘has kept the Southeast Asian region from confrontation’; it is slow, but essentially peaceful; and ASEAN is much less likely to face a Brexit-equivalent because ‘its fundamental promise to its members is that it does not challenge their sovereignty’.

It is hard not to be swayed by the second line of argument, unappetizing though some of its corollaries are.

In an era when the European Union has struggled to maintain the levels of regional unity it aspires to, when many kinds of multilateral endeavours are facing pushback, and when some commentators are pronouncing the end of the post-Cold War era, and the beginning of a period characterised by substantial divergence, it seems illogical to be requiring from ASEAN an immediate commitment to a modus operandi that seems to be struggling elsewhere.

Globally, it has proved difficult to move forward on sticky issues such as the environment without re-learning the virtues of consensus-building. Rather than requiring ASEAN to jettison its creaky but diversity-accommodating model, then, it may be more apposite to suggest that global multilateralism might imbibe a little more of the ASEAN style.

ASEAN, after all, has worked with divergence for 50 years, and has learned that more ambitious forms of cooperation, though highly desirable goals to be striven for, cannot be wished into being, but have to be worked for with patience, compromise, and not a little humility.

Linda Quayle is a lecturer in the School of Politics, History, and International Relations at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Her main research areas are ASEAN (particularly the areas covered by the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community), and Indonesia’s role in the region and the world. Image credit: CC by U.S. Department of State/Flickr.

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