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  • The Myth of ASEAN Centrality?
  • Amitav Acharya (bio)

"ASEAN centrality" has become a prominent and perhaps fixed notion in the vocabulary of Southeast Asia's and Asia's international relations. But its origin is obscure and meaning unclear.1 And there are misconceptions or myths about ASEAN centrality that need to be understood and clarified.

First, contrary to what many observers may think, ASEAN centrality is not an entirely novel or distinctive term. Rather it is related to a number of similar concepts: ASEAN as the "leader", the "driver", the "architect", the "institutional hub", the "vanguard", the "nucleus", and the "fulcrum" of regional processes and institutional designs in the Asia-Pacific region. A second popular misconception about ASEAN centrality is that it is about ASEAN itself. More accurately, it is really about the larger dynamics of regionalism and regional architecture in the Asia Pacific and even beyond. A third myth about ASEAN centrality is that it is the exclusive handiwork of ASEAN members—it is not.

Herman Kraft, a Filipino scholar, speaks of a "significant shift in the evolution" of ASEAN "from an association dedicated to keeping the Southeast Asian region free from being enmeshed in great power rivalries to one which accepted its 'centrality' in a wide East Asian and Asia-Pacific regionalism, a process that would entail accepting involvement of and engaging the major powers in the context of the region".2 Well put, but the very notion that ASEAN "accepted" its centrality implies that it did not necessarily create it.

At least not alone. ASEAN centrality is as much a product of external players in Southeast Asia as it is of the ASEAN members [End Page 273] themselves. In fact, one suspects that its emergence had more to do with the dynamics of Great Power relationships than with any projection of ASEAN's internal unity or identity.

Taken together, the notion of ASEAN centrality has a number of inter-related dimensions. In its most direct and limited sense, ASEAN centrality means that ASEAN lies, and must remain, at the core of Asia (or Asia-Pacific) regional institutions, especially the ASEAN Plus Three (APT), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asian Summit (EAS). ASEAN provides the institutional "platform" within which the wider Asia Pacific and East Asian regional institutions are anchored. To put it another way, without ASEAN, it would not have been possible to construct these wider regional bodies.

A related meaning of ASEAN centrality is that ASEAN is the "origin" or the first viable regional grouping in Asia. ASEAN centrality also implies that Southeast Asia is at the "hub" of Asian regionalist debates and interactions over changing norms and mechanisms for regional cooperation in Asia, such as debates about non-interference and legalization. And lastly, although it may seem a bit of a stretch, in the minds of some of ASEAN's most ardent champions, ASEAN centrality means that ASEAN provides a "model" for other subregional groupings in the Asia Pacific and beyond.

In whatever way one might read it, ASEAN centrality is the most ambitious and elaborate projection of a subregional entity to a wider regional and global stage. It is certainly a far cry from the way its founders envisaged it. A survey of British documents of the period3—and the British were a much more avid follower of ASEAN's initial years than any other Western power including the United States—shows that ASEAN's founders wanted to keep the grouping's role limited, even in the context of Southeast Asian affairs. They could not have imagined that ASEAN would one day acquire a "centrality" in the diplomacy and regional cooperation in the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Consider the views of one of ASEAN's founders, Singapore's Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam. His views on ASEAN's role and prospects were summarized in a diplomatic cable from the British High Commission in Singapore in the following words:

A.S.E.A.N. was an association of relatively poor and under-developed countries...What the organisation ought not to do was burden itself with responsibility for resolving the ideological, military and security problems of S.E. Asia. Economic problems alone would strain...