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Robert A. Manning -- Time to rethink ASEAN

The East Asia Summit takes place in a shifting landscape. Tensions are brewing in the South and East China seas, the global economy is growing only slowly, and major trade accords face an uncertain future. Yet few expect solutions from Asia-Pacific leaders gathering at the EAS. One major reason is that the group is a creature of ASEAN, which is dedicated to process, not results.

With its 50th anniversary approaching in 2017, ASEAN continues to struggle -- failing to articulate a collective, lucid, view on these pressing topics. For Asian multilateral institutions to become more functional, it is time to rethink ASEAN, which has been far more successful in holding endless meetings and generating myths (for example, the ASEAN way, and "ASEAN centrality") than solving problems.

The South China Sea crisis has brought ASEAN's limitations into sharp relief. Nothing highlights this more clearly than an embarrassing episode in July, when ASEAN was pressured by China to retract a statement on the South China Sea. In July, ASEAN agreed to negotiate a code of conduct with China -- an idea that has been kicking around since 2002 -- by 2017. Beyond lowering tensions in the run-up to China's hosting of the G-20, the result of the protracted China-ASEAN talks is anyone's guess.

Not much in common

One might think that a grouping of 10 nations, with 625 million people and an economy of some $2.4 trillion -- one that declares its "centrality" to all things Asia-Pacific -- would have a clear, coherent voice. Perhaps it would even play a mediating role on issues of existential concern to its maritime member states -- Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei -- such as disputes with China.

In reality, to view ASEAN as more than a loose coalition of disparate nations, economies and cultures is to invite unrealistic expectations. Its members range from Singapore -- a dynamic, Los Angeles-like city-state with a per capita gross domestic product of $56,000 -- to small, backward communist dictatorships like Cambodia and Laos, to democracies like Indonesia and the Philippines. Culturally, they range from Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia and Malaysia, to Buddhist-majority states such as Thailand. Only in geographic proximity does any idea of real community seem plausible.

ASEAN's economic integration has been shaped mainly by its role in global supply chains, first, in the 1980s by Japanese auto companies, and more recently by electronic assembly and textiles. Intra-ASEAN trade is barely 30% of the total (overall intra-Asian trade is 53%). Thus, it is no surprise that some ASEAN states -- Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam -- separately joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Nonetheless, the group declared itself the ASEAN Economic Community as of Jan. 1. While ASEAN has eliminated 95% of internal trade tariffs, the elements of the purported community are supposed to include harmonized regulations, free movement of labor and a unified market for goods and services. Don't hold your breath. These elements are only aspirational and will take years to be realized.

Help wanted

In every crisis since the Vietnam War -- the East Timor conflict, tsunamis in Indonesia, cyclones in Burma and now the South China Sea -- when Asia dials for help, it is the U.S. -- or occasionally Australia or Japan -- that answers. One huge obstacle ASEAN seems unable to overcome is that is operates by consensus, with an ethos of noninterference in the internal affairs of member states. This so-called ASEAN way is a dead end, making collective action nearly impossible. Cambodia and Laos are beholden to China, effectively giving Beijing a veto over ASEAN decisions affecting China.

ASEAN has shown time after time that it leaves much to be desired as a collective actor. Nor do any of the ASEAN-centered multilateral groups such as the ASEAN Regional Forum or the East Asian Summit have more than a secondary role in the regional political and security order. Of course, leaders talking is better than leaders not talking. But after two decades of multilateralism, regional security is more at risk than ever. If you ask the question: If ARF, EAS and other such acronyms disappeared tomorrow, would Asia be any less secure? The answer is: Probably not.

In fact, the more consequential things that underpin security in the Pacific are the U.S. alliances and military presence, security guarantees and defense partnerships -- and increasingly, bilateral and trilateral security cooperation that has evolved as a strategy to counterbalance China. There is an unprecedented surge in intra-Asian security cooperation: Indonesian-Malaysian-Philippine maritime patrols; joint military exercises; Japanese defense ties to Vietnam and the Philippines; even India-Vietnam defense ties. These have all evolved in less than a decade in response to Chinese assertiveness. And I would argue that these developments are of more practical value than the largely political theater of the ARF.

Playing along

Yet despite the gap between aspiration and reality, ASEAN insists on the principle of its "centrality," and the U.S. and other Asia-Pacific actors have pledged allegiance. So all ARF and all EAS meetings are hosted by ASEAN in Southeast Asian capitals, with ASEAN shaping the agendas.

Because no major powers are threatened by ASEAN, and the multilateral meetings do no harm and serve as convenient venues for bilateral meetings of foreign ministers and heads of state, no one will point out that the emperor has no clothes -- that few regional problems are being addressed.

So why do the U.S. administration and other major Asia-Pacific powers say in communiques that they are "dedicated to ASEAN centrality?" After all, the Asia-Pacific economy, military spending, nuclear weapons and potential major-power conflicts are all overwhelmingly concentrated in Northeast Asia. 

The tail is wagging the dog. Why? The answer is a case of bad habits. Since the end of the Cold War, ASEAN-centered multilateralism has become institutionalized as bureaucratic ritual, driven by inertia. All are too diplomatic to risk discord and be politically incorrect. Ministers and heads of state meet, wear funny shirts, play golf, make declarations and go home.

How to remedy this? One simple step would dramatically improve ASEAN's functionality and relevance as a regional organization: majority-vote decision-making. Or to make it less divisive, perhaps voting by two-thirds majority. But despite receiving this recommendation from its own Wise Man's Commission in the 1990s, it has refused to adopt the measure.

ASEAN could and should be an important institutional pillar of the regional order. But it is hostage to its old conceits and habits, and "the ASEAN way" of consensus and avoiding any controversy. That has worked to reduce tensions, such as those between Indonesia and Malaysia in its formative years. Avoiding confrontation among its members and building a sense of common identity was an important achievement. But both ASEAN and the region have reached a new stage. To retain its relevance and create a more secure and prosperous Asia-Pacific, ASEAN needs to change with the times.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council, Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. 

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