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  • [Re]Negotiating East and Southeast Asia: Region, Regionalism and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
  • Deepak Nair (bio)
[Re]Negotiating East and Southeast Asia: Region, Regionalism and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. By Alice D. Ba. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009. Hardcover: 325pp.

One of the rare points on which scholars of different theoretical persuasion seem to agree upon is that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has much to do with talk. Clefts open right away though, with some viewing the apparatus of ASEAN's chatter as somewhat meaningless if not, in more extreme assessments, simply pathological, while others take pains to show how it matters and indeed shapes social reality. Alice D. Ba's contribution to the study of ASEAN positions itself explicitly in the latter, and in doing so, identifies itself as a constructivist exploration into the rationales that undergird the founding and continued salience of ASEAN in the talk of Southeast Asian and East Asian security.

Ba's study is animated by two simple puzzles: how could a process of supposedly "weak cooperation" have contributed to the stabilization of relations between states in a region that had previously experienced armed conflict? And second, how could an organization of small powers in Southeast Asia create and frame the terms of much larger East Asian organizations involving the Great Powers? Theoretical approaches wedded to a materialist ontology are, in her view, unable to offer adequate answers to these questions. Indeed, their theoretical commitments blind them to the possibility of alternative answers. By foregrounding the role of "ideas" and a conception of cooperation that takes into account not only the negotiation of material interests but also social relations, practices and identities, Ba argues that a process of "dialoguing, arguing, framing, affirming, [and] negating" (p. 5) have produced norms of regional interaction, a culture of dialoguing and a range of cultural and institutional practices which constitute the organization itself. It is in this sense that talking has had causal effects, and hence, explains why ASEAN matters.

Divided into seven chapters, the narrative proceeds chronologically. Ba begins by setting up the theoretical positions pursued in the book by critiquing the utilitarian conceptions of cooperation in extant theories and by emphasizing the need to view regionalism not in terms of binding outcomes but as a "cumulative social process" (p. 19). She also locates the work within constructivist scholarship, specifically with regard to the value it adds to current formulations. Rather than focus on testing the strength or weakness of a norm at [End Page 147] a given moment her object is to highlight the "incremental process of socialization" which pays attention to the "content of norms and practices over time" (p. 23).

Chapter Two explores the constellation of domestic and international developments that made the regional idea a viable one: the ouster of Soekarno in 1966 by Suharto which moved Indonesia away from revolutionary politics in the region; the election of Ferdinand Marcos in 1965 which led to improved relations with Malaysia; and US intervention in Vietnam in 1964-65 which highlighted the link between domestic vulnerability and the threat of intervention besides heightening anxieties over the dependability of external powers in securing the region. Arguing that these historical and "structural" conditions provide a necessary but not sufficient explanation, Ba draws in, and underlines, the role of a set of agents, specifically regional elites who framed, incentivized and sold the idea of a regional organization as a basis for pursuing national security. These actors — notably Thanat Khoman of Thailand, Adam Malik of Indonesia and S. Rajaratnam of Singapore — were instrumental in nesting the regional idea within nationalist sensitivities, and were successful in tying domestic resilience to a need for regional resilience.

Ba is quite effective in highlighting the discourses and conceptual strategies by which regionalism was made "relevant to the priorities of nationalist construction, consolidation, and autonomy" (p. 67). Importantly, and in an idea similar to Amitav Acharya's formulation of a "cognitive prior", what emerges from this formative debating and discussing is an "agreed upon grammar" (p. 67) that would serve as an interpretive lens through which future leaders of ASEAN would continually refer to in...


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pp. 147-150
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