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ASEAN can learn from the EU's integration successes and setbacks

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U.S. President Barack Obama, center, is flanked by ASEAN leaders at a summit in Rancho Mirage, California, on February 16.   © Reuters

A generation or two ago, university courses in Southeast Asia compared the fledgling cooperation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to Europe's impressive integration. Southeast Asia's aspirational regionalism then was inspired and informed by Europe's methodical climb from a postwar customs union to an expanded "single market" and eventually a full-fledged political and economic entity with collective security and defense policies, relatively borderless populations and a single currency.

This is no longer the case. Brexit, the U.K.'s decision to go it alone after a 43-year membership in the European Union, is merely the latest manifestation of Europe's unappealing mixture of debt and financial destruction, migration and refugee influxes, and sporadic jihadi terror, among other foreboding crises. Yet for ASEAN, as the central platform for regional order-building in Asia, Europe after Brexit is instructive for the future navigation and direction for the 10-member group and for the rest of Asia.

WHEN TO STOP The chief Brexit lesson for Asia is to pursue continued regional cooperation without going all the way to integration. To be sure, Asia never harbored Europe's Greco-Roman roots of a common identity, nor the recurrent historical enmities that fueled two devastating global conflicts in half a century that eventually drove the continent to close ranks and come together. While the European project was fundamentally set up to reduce Franco-German rivalry by binding Berlin into a regional organization, Asia has been different. Japan, Asia's Germany equivalent, was rebuilt under America's tutelage. Asia's problem is that its rough-hewn regional order under American auspices dating from the Cold War no longer works, contested as it is by China's assertive rise and compounded by the global preoccupations and domestic polarization of the U.S.

In its place, ASEAN has been the fulcrum for regional architecture-building in Asia, but with limited success. If Europe went too far with economic integration and political union, ASEAN has not gone far enough. It still needs to do more in institutionalizing its cooperative ventures, even though it has spawned a clutch of regional vehicles that have kept Asia stable and prosperous, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 1989, the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1992, the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994, the ASEAN+3 in 1998, the East Asia Summit in 2005 and the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus. More recently, ASEAN's crowning achievement was the launch of the ASEAN Community, comprising three pillars known as the ASEAN Political-Security Community, the ASEAN Economic Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.

But this crucial constellation of regionalism requires organizational wherewithal that can draft and enforce rules and ensure collective action to address regional tensions. The South China Sea issue, for example, has emerged as the existential geopolitical contest between maritime ASEAN claimant states and China at a time when rules are lacking and the chance of conflict has increased. The Philippines and Vietnam have been forced to draw in the U.S. as a counterweight to China. A "code of conduct" to govern interstate relations in the South China Sea is elusive because ASEAN is disunited and divided by Beijing's strategy to keep Southeast Asian states off balance.

NOT THE EU ASEAN's way of integration is loosely structured and essentially nonbinding, based on norms, functions and "connectivity" work plans on the ground rather than supra-nationality and legalistic and binding treaties. Its secretariat in Jakarta is dwarfed when compared to the massive and overweening EU bureaucracy in Brussels. With ASEAN being consensus-driven, without majority voting or any effective dispute settlement mechanism, state sovereignty has been so well-maintained that it precludes the organizational teeth needed to promote common causes, such as greater economic integration, mitigation of environmental damage, and elimination of human trafficking, among a wide array of nontraditional security issues.

Many in Southeast Asia will look to Europe's disarray after Brexit as a vindication that the "ASEAN Way" of cooperation had it right, that supra-nationality and outright integration are not worth the price of sovereignty and the democratic deficit that leads to popular disillusionment. Such a takeaway would be misguided. In the end, the postwar European enterprise that turned into a political and economic union may prove to be several steps too far. But this is not a time to discard global and regional integration for a "go-it-alone" world.

The EU can still regroup and reinvent itself by internal reforms and retrenchment to ease integration up to a point that satisfies the demands and addresses the anxieties of its populations. For ASEAN, this is a time to look at how much political and economic integration can achieve and at how much Europe has gained from it. Brexit will result in Asia gaining more attention as global power and wealth shifts to this most populous region with the biggest land mass and strongest growth potential in the world.

Asia certainly does not want to move anywhere close to European integration, but it needs more cooperation and collaboration. ASEAN's central organizing role remains the main game in the region by default. Its leaders should recognize the ironic lesson from Europe that this is a time to accelerate regional cooperation and collaboration where and when they can, with the ultimate aim of achieving measured and selective integration down a road yet to be determined.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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