I saw ASEAN being born. Actually, it wasn’t even ASEAN, but ASA or the Association of Southeast Asia. I watched from the window of my classroom at UP in Padre Faura as dignitaries drove up what was then the Department of Foreign Affairs, now the Supreme Court.
I was in high school at that time and I was fascinated with what was happening next door. ASA was then composed of the Federation of Malaya, Thailand and us. Soon, there were more high level meetings at the DFA when Maphilindo was born. That’s the grouping composed of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Maphilindo was essentially a Malay-based grouping. If it worked, it would have fulfilled a dream of Dr Jose Rizal for all the Malays to rediscover their pre-colonial roots… It was not to be.
Indeed Maphilindo was shortlived. The animosities rooted in our colonial past were too powerful to overcome. Indonesia’s Sukarno adopted a policy of konfrontasi against the newly formed Malaysia. We had our claim on Sabah, a territory the British turned over to Malaysia.
ASEAN was formed in 1967, expanding beyond the Malay part of Southeast Asia to include Thailand, Singapore, and eventually what was then known as IndoChina. It was initially a largely anti communist grouping that responded to the fear that one country after another will fall to the communists, or the so called domino theory.
ASEAN proved to be a rather benign association of nations, seemingly devoted to the illusion of regional unity and the primacy of its lavish annual summit meetings. ASEAN members walked on eggshells to avoid the real tough issues that matter as it followed a policy of non interference in each other’s domestic affairs.
Indeed, ASEAN was almost killed a year after its formation when we renewed our claim to Sabah and mutual distrust rekindled. It took the communist victories in IndoChina to get the ASEAN leaders to take the ASEAN idea a step further by signing a treaty of amity and cooperation in a summit meeting in Bali. They pledged to “refrain from the threat or use of force… and settle disputes among themselves through friendly negotiations.”
They adopted the so-called ASEAN Way which is to work by consensus and turning a blind eye to unpleasant developments in each other’s territory. ASEAN has since doubled in size from five to 10 members. Its aspirations also got more ambitious, the most significant being its goal of integrating their economies along the lines of the European Economic Community.
By and large, ASEAN has proven to be all talk and little by way of cooperation where it mattered. It had the opportunity to put China in its place in the South China Sea disputes with some of its members, but a consensus to do this never materialized. ASEAN members are just too divided on China to stand up for the rights of its members.
Now it is probably too late for ASEAN to do anything about the neighborhood bully. Many of its members are too dependent on China’s economic and military assistance for a united ASEAN position to put China in its proper place.
Economic integration is proving to be elusive. ASEAN members are just too focused on their internal problems, too parochial in outlook to realize that working together will actually help them improve their people’s lives.
Indeed, it is difficult to ignore ASEAN’s huge market of $2.6 trillion and over 622 million people. ASEAN leaders should learn to leverage their growing importance among its so-called dialogue partners. But ASEAN must come together and show a united front to the rest of the world.
ASEAN had been making noises about regional economic integration as the way forward. It has produced a number of acronyms to show its intentions.
For example: ASEAN economic community (AEC) by 2025, a pan-Asia free trade organization, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Then there are the regional initiatives from the security-oriented ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) currency swap arrangement. ASEAN has an alphabet soup of good intentions.
But the reality on the ground is that economic integration is behind schedule. It has abandoned the 2015 AEC target originally set in 2007 and it is now set for 2025.
The average tariffs on goods may have dropped, but the number of non-tariff measures (NTM) to limit imports in key sectors increased threefold. Cross-border movement of labor, including professionals, has not been eased.
Cooperation on regional security is iffy. ASEAN’s code of conduct for territorial disputes in the South China Sea has been on the table since the early 2000s. It is doubtful ASEAN can progress on this issue. ASEAN also ignores controversies such as the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state.
Moving forward, ASEAN leaders will buckle under the pressure of re-emerging nationalism and populism in their domestic politics. ASEAN leaders have supported free trade in the past, but may reconsider given the backlash against globalization.
China’s rise will divide ASEAN and China is capitalizing on this division. Ambassador Rodolfo Severino, who was ASEAN secretary-general once, commented with regard to China: “I don’t think you can get ASEAN to agree to anything, because each country has a different perspective on it. It’s all national interest or what they think are their national interests…”
Form rather than substance highlights the annual ASEAN summit meetings. Form is a way of pretending to be busy, but evading the substantive issues demanding attention. It is unlikely the sacrifices of Metro Manilans shut out of their streets for the ASEAN meeting for a week will be worth it.