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  • Southeast Asia and ASEAN:Running in Place
  • Donald E. Weatherbee (bio)

When Indonesia took the reins of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the grouping's 2011 chair, expectations ran high that Jakarta would inject a new sense of urgency into the organization. Jakarta's activist agenda was designed to push the organization faster and further towards the goal of achieving a prosperous, peaceful, just, and democratic ASEAN Community by 2015.1 Indonesia was going to lead ASEAN (if it could be led) out of the doldrums of Thailand's 2009 chairmanship, crippled as it was by domestic political turmoil, followed in 2010 by status quo-oriented Vietnam. In the politesse of ASEAN discourse, Indonesia's stewardship has been praised for leading ASEAN to meet the challenges presented by community building. Indonesia handed off ASEAN's Chair for 2012 to Hun Sen's Cambodia, which received essentially the same package of unresolved issues and problems that Indonesia had wrestled with. Indonesia's major accomplishment was to keep the vision of community intact, although real community seems no closer today than it did when Indonesia assumed the chairmanship. The possible exception is political change in Myanmar.

Indonesia's hope to save ASEAN from itself was undone by the realities of ASEAN's workings. Outside of its creeping, hesitant economic integration, a faltering ASEAN has not delivered the political and strategic coherence required for the unity of will and purpose necessary for it to be an effective actor in the regional international order. The "ASEAN way" has been a dead end in terms of ASEAN common policymaking. The grouping has not demonstrated the "organizational coherence and clarity of leadership" necessary, as Alice Ba wrote, to maintain its influence and claim to centrality in Asian regionalism.2 [End Page 3]

Indonesia gave it a new best try with the "Bali Concord III", which calls for coordinated, cohesive, and coherent common positions so that ASEAN can have a single international voice on matters of common interest.3 As long as ASEAN's decision-making reflects controversy avoidance and lowest common denominator consensus on crucial issues of politics and security, the ASEAN voice will continue to be expressed through declaratory and platitudinous formulations rather than coordinated policy actions. It cannot really be expected that ASEAN's immediate future leadership — in order, Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar, and Laos — will do any better than Indonesia in giving coherence and clarity to the organization as it marches (or slouches) towards the 2015 culminating ASEAN Community. This is particularly true of the ASEAN Political-Security Community in which Indonesia's democratic ethos is not widely shared by its fellow members. Clarity in action and purpose in Southeast Asia is found only in the individual ASEAN member states' pursuit of national interests in the competition and conflicts in Southeast Asia's international relations. At the three levels of state behaviour important to the ASEAN Political-Security Community — great-power politics, intra-ASEAN politics, and ASEAN domestic politics — Jakarta found that being ASEAN Chair, let alone Southeast Asia's largest nation, was largely unavailing in terms of influencing outcomes.

At the level of the high politics of the great powers, rather then Indonesia's preference for a "dynamic equilibrium" (however that might be defined), great-power antagonism and tension increased. The playing out of contending interests in the South China Sea disputes became emblematic of the overarching contest between China and the United States for power and influence in the region. It is not beyond reason to fear the emergence of a classic security dilemma as the two powers face off. Within ASEAN, which conceives a balance of power as a condition of not being forced to choose sides, there will be increasing pressures to enhance security cooperation with the United States even as China looms ever larger as the regional economic engine.

After the November 2011 round of ASEAN summitry in Bali, Donald Emmerson identified a tendency in Southeast Asia to think of China and the United States as playing specialized roles: "China the economic partner who facilitates prosperity, America the security provider who guards the peace".4 In this dichotomous structuring of the Chinese and American roles in...


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