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The Continuing Impotence of ASEAN

by Joshua Kurlantzick
May 10, 2011

ASEAN leaders walk after they held a retreat at the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta May 8, 2011.

ASEAN leaders walk after they held a retreat at the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta May 8, 2011. (Supri Supri/Courtesy Reuters)

This past week’s ASEAN Summit in Jakarta only further highlighted the organization’s continuing impotence at a time when the United States is reengaging with ASEAN and, Indonesia, returning to its role as regional power, is trying to make ASEAN work more effectively. The first U.S. ambassador to ASEAN has arrived, and Indonesian officials have become more involved in everything from Myanmar to the ongoing border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.

Yet the organization itself still lacks coherence, strong leadership, and speed, and it increasingly appears likely that it will never have these characteristics. Despite Indonesia’s best intentions, ASEAN mediation has produced few results in the Thai-Cambodian dispute, and the organization has not been able to resolve another lingering problem: Myanmar is in line to host the 2014 ASEAN summit, which would almost surely mean the U.S. president will not attend any meetings with ASEAN that year, since he or she will not want to appear to support Myanmar. Some of the more democratic members of ASEAN, including the Philippines and Indonesia, wanted Myanmar to relinquish this right, as it had in the past, but as usual with ASEAN, the organization could reach no consensus–ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan just endorsed Myanmar’s right to host –and so the likely result will be some kind of muddle.

ASEAN’s leadership abilities are only going to get weaker. Though Singapore’s recent election was a step forward for open politics in the city state, it did result in the loss of a seat for longtime foreign minister George Yeo, who has been a driving force for stronger ASEAN leadership and action. Moreover, in the next few years the organization will absorb Timor Leste as its eleventh member, a correct decision, given Timor’s tough history, but one that will only slow down policymaking even more.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

    I think it is wrong to assume that U.S. re-engagement with ASEAN is the only way to make ASEAN work more effectively. It will be a big boost; no doubt. But it is certainly not the only way. ASEAN has been growing steadily during the last two decades in spite of the absence of active U.S. interest in ASEAN.

    In my opinion, the most important way is encapsulated in the oft-quoted (by ASEAN) concept of ASEAN centrality, which includes the following: prompt delivery of regional commitments, including compliance in good faith with the ASEAN Charter; actual mobilization of necessary and ASEAN’s own resources to build the ASEAN Community; and improving ASEAN’s leadership in the various dialogue and cooperation processes.

    I believe Indonesia is already trying to exert its leadership of ASEAN, which I believe is strong and appropriate. But whether or not the other ASEAN Member States would see it in positive light is another question. And whether or not the other Member States that will succeed Indonesia in leading ASEAN can fill in the huge Indonesian shoe is yet another big question.

    Impotence in mediating the Thai-Cambodian border conflict? Well… this is the shortcoming of doing things by consultation and consensus in ASEAN. Moreover, I suspect the Thai Army doesn’t quite like the idea of any intervention by a third party, no matter how well-meaning it might be.

    However, the most important issue that I want to comment on is the claim that “SG Surin Pitsuwan just endorsed Myanmar’s right to host” (to chair ASEAN) in 2014. This is wrong.

    Dr Surin merely pointed out relevant factors that need to be considered by the ASEAN Leaders:

    1. Whether or not this is going to be a swap between Myanmar and Laos : Cambodia is scheduled to chair ASEAN in 2012, Brunei Darussalam (because of a swap with Indonesia) will chair ASEAN in 2013, Laos is scheduled to chair ASEAN in 2014, Malaysia in 2015, and Myanmar in 2016.

    2. If it is going to be a swap, some explanation is required, because when Indonesia swapped its turn to chair ASEAN with Brunei Darussalam’s, in the 16th ASEAN Summit Chairman’s statement of 9 April 2010, it was mentioned that : “…we affirmed that such exchange shall not create precedence (sic) in the future.”

    I think it is important not to set any precedent that deviates from provisions in the ASEAN Charter, in which Article 31 Paragraph 1 states: “The Chairmanship of ASEAN shall rotate annually, based on the alphabetical order of the English names of Member States.”

    3. And the third factor to consider is whether or not Myanmar is claiming its rightful turn to come in to claim the ASEAN Chairmanship when it is ready. If so, then Laos would come back immediately after Myanmar, in 2015.

    Indeed there was an understanding among ASEAN Foreign Ministers, as recorded in their statement issued in Vientiane on 25 July 2005 after Myanmar “agreed” to skip its turn to concentrate on domestic political reconciliation (in 2006), that “… once Myanmar is ready to take its turn to be ASEAN Chair, it can do so.”

    I believe Dr Surin just wanted Member States to first of all determine whether Myanmar was going to claim its lost turn, or to swap its turn with Laos’.

    Most probably, it is going to be another swap — because Malaysia is known to want to chair ASEAN in 2015, which will be the pivotal year for charting the future of ASEAN Community beyond 2015.

    I should like to point out that at the 18th ASEAN Summit, ASEAN Leaders “considered” Myanmar’s proposal to host the ASEAN Summits in 2014, based on its firm commitment to the principles of ASEAN.” No final decision on this just yet.

    And the SG of ASEAN certainly was not and is not in a position to endorse or object. The decision is entirely in the hands of ASEAN Member States.

    Hope this helps to keep everyone interested in ASEAN on the same up-to-date page.

  • Posted by Edward Hain

    Myanmar will definitely be given the Asean chairmanship. It will not be a “muddle”. Indonesia, under Western pressure, simply does not want to seem to be rushing to a early confirmation.

    How can Asean say Myanmar, which has just had elections, however flawed, and opposition party members in government – be declared less ‘fit’ for the chairmanship than Laos, a one-party communist dictatorship (Laos being the country that would get the chairmanship if Myanmar doesn’t)? Myanmar is less democratic than Indonesia, a couple of other Asean countries, but certainly no less so than Brunei (absolute Islamic monarchy), and Vietnam and Laos (communist dictatorships).

    It’s time to stop applying double-standards. To many Asians, the US-UK obsession with Aung San Suu Kyi is looking more and more absurd, more than slightly sexist (what if she were an ugly man rather than an attractive Asian woman?), self-defeating, and a clear sign that this region is not really taken seriously.

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