It blunts the effectiveness of Asean, especially in matters of security of the region
ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) was formed pursuant to the Bangkok Declaration on Aug 8, 1967 by Malaysia and four of her closest neighbours — Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The declaration was signed by the five countries’ foreign ministers — Adam Malik of Indonesia, Narciso Ramos of the Philippines, (Tun) Abdul Razak Hussein of Malaysia, S. Rajaratnam of Singapore, and Thanat Khoman of Thailand. They are regarded as the association’s founding fathers.
In 1976, Papua New Guinea was accorded observer status. On Jan 8, 1984, Brunei Darussalam became the association’s sixth member, a week after the country attained its independence. On July 28, 1995, Vietnam became the seventh member state to join Asean.
Laos and Myanmar became members of Asean on July 23, 1997. Cambodia originally intended to join Asean together with Laos and Myanmar, but internal issues delayed the decision. Finally, after stability was restored in the country, Laos joined Asean on April 30, 1999.
For the last eight years, Asean membership has remained at 10. In five decades, Asean has doubled its original size. Soon, it will celebrate its 50th anniversary. According to media reports, there is already a plan to make the association bigger than before. Clearly, as a living supranational organ, it is continually growing in size, but is it getting any more effective than before in achieving its stated purposes and goals? Has it been able to resolve the issues it has been facing for some time now?
Just over a year ago, on Dec 31, 2015, the Asean Economic Community (AEC) was established. One of the stated objectives of AEC is to streamline the processes, rules and regulations of doing business in the region. According to the World Bank 2017 report on “Ease of Doing Business”, Singapore is ranked second while Malaysia is ranked 23rd, Laos at 139 and Myanmar at the lowest spot (170). The establishment of the AEC is the culmination of the AEC Blueprint adopted in 2007.
AEC is tasked with achieving the following four objectives — integrating the market and production base, facilitating economic integration of the 10 economies in the Asean region, offering new opportunities for businesses and investors within and outside the region, and changing the economic landscape and the approach and strategy to do business in the region.
An important document titled “AEC Blueprint 2025” has been drawn up to foster an integrated and connected global economic system, a business-friendly and market-driven environment, a dynamic region that inspires innovation where businesses thrive and consumers’ rights are protected, and a connected region with improved connectivity.
Collectively, Asean is the 7th largest economy in the world. It now plans to grow even bigger by establishing smart partnerships with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand through RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). Asean is currently America’s fourth largest trading partner.
As a body, Asean interacts with China, Japan and South Korea in the “Asean Plus Three”, with five other states (Australia, India, New Zealand, Russia and United States) in East Asia Summit, and has an informal multilateral dialogue with 27 member states in the Asean Regional Forum.
Enlarging Asean means having more member states joining the association. This has been done in the past five decades and there is no reason to believe it will stop here.
Another alternative for Asean is to go “deeper”, not just “wider” — in other words, intensifying the existing relations (economic, socio-cultural and politico-security) and taking them to the next level. The economic and trade issues have been taken care of in the AEC Blueprint 2025, but what of the other issues, especially the politico-security matters?
Asean faces, for the moment, two extremely complex public law issues — the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the overlapping claims of jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Posing the biggest hurdle to their solution is the “consensus rule”, which binds all Asean member states.
Nothing can be done by Asean countries at resolving any important or critical issue on the global arena until all the Asean member countries agree to it.
Describing this consensus rule as blunting the effectiveness of Asean, Le Hong Hiep (fellow at ISEAS-Yusoff Ishak Institute, Singapore) said the rule had prevented the association from dealing effectively with the Chinese territorial claim in the South China Sea, as well as the Rohingya issue in Myanmar. He suggested that the consensus rule should be reserved (applied) only to matters which have obvious implications for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and domestic autonomy of a member state, not when the issues concern the security of Asean as a region (“Consenus rule blunts Asean’s effectiveness”, Japan Times, Nov 6, 2016).
It is due to this inability by Asean as a regional body to deal with the Chinese territorial claim that the Philippines was forced to refer the matter to international arbitration at the Hague.
Under the Asean Charter, which was adopted in November 2007, Article 20 states that: “(1) As a basic principle, decisionmaking in Asean shall be based on consultation and consensus. (2) Where consensus cannot be achieved, the Asean Summit may decide how a specific decision can be made”.
Asean leaders must revisit this provision, if it wishes the expanding organisation to be really effective in maintaining and enhancing “peace, security and stability” in the region (as stated in Clause 1 of Article 1, Purposes of the Charter).
Collectively, Asean is the 7th largest economy in the world. It now plans to grow even bigger by establishing smart partnerships with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand through RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership).
Asean faces two extremely complex public law issues — the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the overlapping claims of jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Posing the biggest hurdle to their solution is the ‘consensus rule’, which binds all Asean member states.