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  • ASEAN’s Tough Balancing Act
  • Siew-Mun Tang (bio)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) today occupies an integral role in the Asia-Pacific regional architecture—a fortunate happenstance that its founders neither planned for nor envisioned. In fact, the signatories of the 1967 Bangkok Declaration—Indonesia’s Adam Malik, Malaysia’s Tun Abdul Razak, the Philippines’ Narciso Ramos, Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam, and Thailand’s Thanat Khoman—would have been surprised with ASEAN’s success at enlarging the regional organization’s footprint beyond Southeast Asia.

The primary motivation for establishing ASEAN was to maintain the independence and preserve the sovereignty of its founding member states by building a strategic wall that would stem the rising Communist threat and keep the major powers from interfering in their domestic affairs. The latter point was reinforced by the adoption of the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in 1971, which sought to keep Southeast Asia “free from any form or manner of interference by outside Powers.”1 In hindsight, ZOPFAN was a novel idea that was all but impractical to operationalize, considering the member states’ high dependence on the U.S. security umbrella (and, to a lesser extent, on the Five Power Defence Arrangements). Gradually, ASEAN evolved from an inward-looking group to an outward-oriented one as it shed its inhibitions toward external parties. Accordingly, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the peace treaty among the original ASEAN states, was amended on December 15, 1987, to allow for the accession of states from outside Southeast Asia.

This essay discusses the rationale, dynamics, and challenges facing ASEAN as it strives to balance the goals of maintaining its centrality and widening its arc of cooperation and engagement beyond Southeast Asian states. [End Page 48]

Moving Beyond Southeast Asia?

ASEAN can be criticized for many shortcomings, but having lofty ambitions is certainly not one of them. The institution did not aspire to be in the driver’s seat of the regional architecture, nor did it have any illusions of regional leadership. On the contrary, the two significant milestones of its 50-plus years were driven by external circumstances. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which marks its 25th anniversary this year, was born of the intention to bring an element of strategic stability during the uncertain times of the post–Cold War period. The ARF was also a response to calls for a regional mechanism to discuss wider security concerns and issues. Similarly, the idea for the ASEAN Economic Community came out of the long-term concern of ASEAN being sandwiched between Asia’s economic and political powerhouses, China and India.

Other institutions that have come to define ASEAN’s extensive reach in the regional architecture have been driven by the same impetus. The objectives of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) were instructive in their exclusive focus on Southeast Asia as the primary geographic area of cooperation and for embedding ASEAN’s dialogue partners in a web of confidence-building initiatives. Similarly, the establishment of the East Asia Summit (EAS) was driven by the need to ensure that the major powers were invested in Southeast Asia’s security. ASEAN-led processes such as the ARF, ADMM-Plus, and EAS ostensibly gave the impression of ASEAN’s success in expanding its strategic presence beyond Southeast Asia when these initiatives were in reality focused not on extending ASEAN but rather on bringing external parties into Southeast Asia.

Indonesia’s attempt to elevate ASEAN onto the global stage did not gain traction. By using “ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations” as the theme of its chairmanship in 2011, Indonesia tried to galvanize a common and united regional response to global issues. The failure to issue a joint communiqué at the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting the following year under Cambodia’s chairmanship was a wake-up call against taking ASEAN unity for granted. The organization has not returned to the high-water mark set during the Cambodian conflict in the 1980s and 1990s, when it took a leading role in sponsoring numerous resolutions at the United Nations and spoke at other international forums. Except for rare instances, ASEAN’s focus has...


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pp. 48-52
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