This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  While starting as a loose coalition of developing countries, ASEAN is now recognized as an increasingly capable regional and international player.  ASEAN countries, however, face a number of internal and external challenges, including social instability and regional economic and military imbalances.

The ASEAN Charter, which will become legally binding at the end of this year, seeks to build a more effective mechanism for cooperation and coordination among Southeast Asian countries to address the pressures of globalization and the build-up of larger, non-ASEAN neighbors.

Carnegie Beijing sponsored and co-hosted a policy debate with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and the Center for Regional Security Studies (CRSS) to address the current internal and external challenges ASEAN countries face and the Charter’s implications for alleviating some of these problems and improving regional relations. 

Participants included Han Feng, Deputy Director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Affairs and the Center for Regional Security Studies; Cheng Ji from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Yuan Bo from the Research Center of International Trade and Commercial Cooperation under the Ministry of Commerce; Zhang Xuegang from the China Modern International Relations Research Institute; Shen Shishun from the China Institute of International Studies; Liu Lin from the Academy of Military Sciences; Li Huimin of the China Friendship Association; and Xiong Wei from the Institute of Foreign Affairs. 

Internal Challenges
One of the most serious obstacles to ASEAN integration is unresolved territorial disputes between member countries.  Forum participants doubted that these disputes will be addressed comprehensively given the historical reluctance of ASEAN countries to discuss matters they describe as “internal affairs.”  ASEAN’s “consensus approach” to decision-making, whereby a country can prevent the passage of a proposal if it disagrees with it, is highly inefficient when trying to reform the organization.  This difficulty is compounded by the political instability and social upheaval within many of the member countries that rode the third wave of democratization. 

External Challenges
Participants identified three external challenges facing ASEAN: globalization, regional imbalances, and a lack of engagement mechanisms.  Many speakers contended that ASEAN’s development necessarily carries with it the drawbacks of globalization.  For instance, rapid regional development has led to fierce competition between ASEAN countries.  Others urged ASEAN countries already involved in international banking and foreign investment to strengthen their financial capabilities to avoid meeting the same fate as East Asian countries that were embroiled in the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.  ASEAN countries are also worried that Western values have eroded support for their own values. 

The second point of insecurity for ASEAN is its neighbors.  The rise of large neighboring countries coupled with increased investment in their militaries and economies has made ASEAN countries extremely nervous.  In recent years, American, Japanese, Chinese, and Australian interest in Southeast Asia’s affairs has also risen, making them worry that they may be marginalized.   

The third challenge is ASEAN’s ability to cooperate and coordinate regionally and internationally.  While many participants described ASEAN as a passive global player – one that is often an observer rather than an actor in its interactions with the world – they also acknowledge that its engagement capabilities are limited. ASEAN-initiated forums and summits are ineffective mechanisms for decision-making because they usually do not include global powers. 

The ASEAN Charter
The ASEAN Charter defines it as a legal entity and inter-governmental organization that has authority over its members.  Underlying the move towards unity and integration is its new motto: “one vision, one identity, one community.”

The Charter improves ASEAN’s system of decision-making and enforcement.  In the past, the absence of such authority led to instability and a lack of cohesiveness and efficiency.  Decision-making and implementing bodies are currently split into three defined groups: the ASEAN summit, the ASEAN Coordinating Council, and the ASEAN Community Council.

The Charter strengthens the authority of the ASEAN Summit as the highest decision-making body.  If it discovers a member country that is not implementing ASEAN proposals or decisions, or discovers a serious breach of the charter or ASEAN’s basic principles, the Summit is empowered to issue a resolution on the matter.  The Summit will also receive an annual report from the secretary-general as well as three separate reports and suggestions from the Community Council.     

Implications for Regional Politics
The forum predicted that ASEAN integration will strengthen it as a regional player and perhaps offset the dominance of greater powers in the area.  Integration will undoubtedly affect regional cooperative efforts in the Asia-Pacific; ASEAN can serve as a model for other East Asian partnerships.

Many participants saw integration as a means of enhancing the internal stability of member countries, thereby providing a foundation for future regional partnerships.  Others raised the possibility that a stronger ASEAN identity may weaken its willingness to participate in East Asia-led cooperative efforts.   

ASEAN: Another EU?
A central debate during the conference focused on whether a meaningful comparison could be made between ASEAN and the European Union (EU), especially now that ASEAN has assumed legal status.  

The aims of both bodies are quite similar: economic prosperity and the preservation of competitiveness in a globalizing world, regional security, and stronger influence vis-à-vis powerful neighbors.  ASEAN seeks to mirror the EU’s economic integration.  Furthermore, its three decision-making and implementing bodies mimic the EU’s set-up.

However, the respective forms of integration within the EU and ASEAN are fundamentally different.  The EU is a supranational model of cooperation.  Member countries share in decision-making that transcends national boundaries.  ASEAN, on the other hand, is strongly committed to an intergovernmental approach in which integration allows states to cooperate in specific fields while retaining their sovereignty.  This unwillingness to cede power for joint cooperative efforts hinders economic initiatives.  This lack of unity can be seen in member states that, frustrated by slow progress on trade negotiations, broke rank to sign bilateral trade agreements.  It reveals a gap in intra-ASEAN expectations: some members want collective negotiation and others want faster progress.  It is unclear whether the Charter will allow for nimbler negotiations or resolve these issues at all.