Formed in the mid-1960s by five anti-Communist states, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) serves the Southeast Asia (SEA) region as a multilateral institution with the primary responsibility of promoting social and economic cooperation among its members and maintaining peace in the region. ASEAN is quite unique in that it is built upon a cultural respect for the authority of individual nations to control what goes on within their boarders with little complaint or judgement by those on the outside, or even within ASEAN. The decision making process of the group requires complete consensus or ‘mufakat’ before any decision or action is taken by the Association. (Amer 1999, 1035)
Several agreements, concords and treaties guide the actions of the members of ASEAN. The Declaration of ASEAN Concord specifically addresses the goals of managing disputes and expanding cooperation among members. (Amer 1999, 1035) The Bali Treaty provides more specific guides for conflict management with regard to the peaceful settlement of disputes, and is open to both ASEAN and non-ASEAN members. (Amer 1999, 1035) Protocols have been amended to these two cornerstones of ASEAN participation, but their original purposes remain the same—maintain peace and stability between ASEAN members and within SEA.
ASEAN has not developed into a wholly exclusive grouping of nations. It has remained a “loosely co-operative and consultative” group with its members equally pursuing bilateral links with each other and with the outside world. (Evans 196) It was formed so that regional countries could determine regional politics in a peaceful and respectful manner, and through expansion has encompassed every nation of SEA and is now expanding Northeast Asian partnerships.
The 1990s saw an attitude of expansion within the members of ASEAN and this desire has continued into the new millennium. The initial expansion of ASEAN, as discussed below, was for the purpose of furthering the political and security desires of member states. Today’s efforts to expand ASEAN also seek to security and political stability, but the potential for increased trade and economic stability is a major consideration. As this paper will show, ASEAN should take care in future expansions unless it is prepared to manage the potential instituation instabilities resulting from continued economic incongruencies and other management impediments resulting from a larger ASEAN.
Initial Expansion of ASEAN
ASEAN’s initial five members were Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. In the 1990’s, ASEAN sought to expand its membership as the result of relatively normalized relations in the region, therefore seeking to include Laos, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia. Cambodia was the last member to join in 1999 due to its internal instabilities that ASEAN was unprepared to deal with. The initial expansion of ASEAN was the result of the “gradual rapprochement between the ASEAN members and Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Vietnam respectively.” (Amer 1999, 1038)
The initial drivers for the initial expansion of ASEAN were political and security related. Economic benefits were in the minds of the new members, but this was not a key driver in the initial expansion in the minds of the established members of ASEAN.
Overcoming the historic animosity that existed between ASEAN and the Indo-chinese nations of Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam, was a huge hurdle during the time leading up to the initial expansion of ASEAN. ASEAN sought a relationship with these new countries through the process of constructive engagement serving to engage these potentially threatening and assertive neighbors into peaceful relations thus increasing the security of the region.
Fulfilling the ASEAN notion of “One Southeast Asia” was the underlying political rationale for initiating the process of membership expansion.” (Amer 1999, 1032) This was seen as a step to improve relations between ASEAN’s original 6 and these four new nations making all parties part of the desired One SEA region.
As mentioned above, economic considerations were not key drivers in the initial expansion, at least not for the members of ASEAN. Their goals were primarily to engage their potentially dangerous neighbors and improve political relations in their region. However, the new members were undoubtedly very interested in the potential for their new ASEAN partners to be foreign investors and major trading partners in their economies.
Impact of Initial Expansion
The initial expansion of ASEAN brought historic enemies into the peaceful fold of ASEAN, yet the potential existed and still exists for fragmentation based on the various ideals and interests of the participants. ASEAN was initially formed as an anti-Communist protectionary alliance, but now with such members such as Vietnam and the formerly Khmer Rouge-run Cambodia, the membership has much higher potential for a difference of ‘authoritarian opinion’ thus making the expansion of ASEAN an exercise in conflict management. (Amer 1999, 1040)
Additionally, the wide range of economic development between the established and new members had the potential to cause problems especially as Asia entered into the stressful financial crisis of the late 1990’s.
The initial expansion of ASEAN accomplished its goal of engaging potentially dangerous neighbors into a relatively peaceful situation, but it did little else. ASEAN remained a weak regional institution with potentially more problems now then pre-expansion.
Current Expansion of ASEAN
ASEAN has recently been looking North in recognition that the region “could be much stronger and influential in world affairs if the three major Asian powers up north are eventually brought into the regional picture.” (Teo 2000) The expansion of ASEAN to 10 in the 1990s faced the Association with political, economic and social incongruencies that it has not been able to address, and ASEAN members are currently facing domestic tensions in most of their countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Laos, and Malaysia. The newest wave of expansion involves expanding ASEAN into an “ASEAN +3” position. ASEAN is seeking to involve China, Japan and South Korea in its Association to improve regional security, economic, and political positions.
ASEAN is still standing by its objective of constructive engagement, and sees an expanded ASEAN as being able to further relations with potentially threatening countries through political, economic and security cooperation.
According to Surin Pitswan, Thailand’s Foreign Minister, “ASEAN may need to build upon the success of existing regional security institutions in order to preserve the stability of our region and avoid the danger of over-reliance on third parties.” (Suryodinigrat 1999, 1) This is one of the goals of ASEAN’s current expansion. It is seeking to engage the potentially dangerous communist China and a Japan who is being strengthened by the resources of the US.
As in the past, ASEAN is pursuing a conflict management role in order to encourage both economic and political cooperation and contributing to the enhanced security of the region.
The primary driver for the most recent expansion of ASEAN is the hope of economic and trade improvements.An improved and strengthened economic relationship with the Northern powers of Asia is dependent on the political and social stability forwarded by ASEAN’s constructive engagement and conflict management commitments, but this expansion more than past expansions looks beyond the security benefits more fiscal concerns.
Current expansion to include China and Japan would create a larger market for intra-ASEAN trade through the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA). Intra-ASEAN trade has been increasing since 1993 and regional exports have almost doubled, and now account for 25 percent of overall trade by ASEAN. (Jeyasingam 2001) The presence of stronger Northern Asian nations would strengthen this trade and perhaps lessen the effects of the considerable economic discrepancies between the old and new members of ASEAN. Additionally, a larger ASEAN might attract more trade and foreign direct investment to the Asian region.
The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s severely stressed the economies of ASEAN members making economic considerations a key factor in considering expansion. With Indonesia, ASEAN’s largest member, in such an unstable position after the financial crisis, ASEAN must do what it can to involve the larger and economically stable countries of Northern Asia to participate in Southeast Asian economies.
Northern Asian nations have not historically supported ASEAN or the idea of a regional forum for peaceful resolution of disputes and negotiation. Before 1971, Beijing viewed the non-communist countries of Southeast Asia as ‘stooges of the West’ and was paranoid that a militarily strong ASEAN could become a military alliance against China. Japan had its own bumpy history with the region, as did South Korea. But the relationships of these powers with each other and with the region seems to be putting Northeast Asia in a ‘more upbeat mood.’ (Teo 2000)
There are signs of increased relationships in the Northern region. Tensions between the two Koreas have been settled through a mass reunification of the two powers, and Seoul and Tokyo are now negotiating a free trade agreement. (Teo 2000) While there still may be future stresses over the China-Taiwan situation, Japan and China have been strengthening historically non-existant ties since Japan is supporting China in its WTO positioning and China is backing Japan’s ‘regional currency swap mechanism’. (Teo 2000)
The strengthened political relationships between the Northern powers may give ASEAN the boost it needs to become a stronger political force in both the north and south regions of Asia.
Impact of Current Expansion
Economic and political benefits not withstanding the challenge of bringing in more members to ASEAN may be too much for the institution to withstand. It is already having trouble balancing the social and economic diversities of its members after the first expansion. If ASEAN proves incapable of managing the participation of these newest members, the Association could be lose all credibility in the region.
Yet, the integration of these new members could be a way of defusing deep-rooted suspicion and conflict behavior in the same fashion as was done in the initial expansion of the 1990s. (Amer 1999, 1049) ASEAN definitely needs a new impetus, which may best come from Northeast Asia. If the ASEAN +3 countries consolidate, an East Asian regional Association and perhaps even a new Asian multilateral entity encompassing both Northeast and Southeast Asia could emerge as a force of peace and economic success in the future. (Teo 2000)
ASEAN faces many security and economic challenges in the upcoming months and years. Its choice to expand membership to include some of the weaker and less stable members of the SEA region in the 1990s may have been detrimental to the overall effectiveness of the Association, though has undoubtedly contributed to the relative peacefulness of the region.
Current decisions to expand ASEAN to include Northern powers is primarily driven by economic considerations because increased trade within and outside the region would help some of the struggling ASEAN economies continue to recover from the Asian financial crisis.
If these new members are successfully integrated into ASEAN, the Association will be better able to manage conflicts through the Asian region as well as establish a strong trading alliance. If this integration process proves too complicated for ASEAN to handle, then the Association could lose even more respect inside and outside the region.
Future expansions may involve countries like Australia or members of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), but I think ASEAN is best advised to prove it can manage the responsibilities that have come with its past and current expansion efforts before considering any more growth spurts.
Amer, Ramses. 1999. “Conflict Management and Constructive Engagement in ASEAN’s Expansion.” Third World Quarterly. 20:5, pp 1031-1049.
Evans, Gareth and Bruce Grant. 1995. Australia’s Foreign Relations. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Jeyasingam, Jothi. 2001. “Express trade expands ASEAN.” New Straits Times-Management Times, January 9, 2001.
Suryodinigrat, Meidyatama. 1999. “ASEAN stresses the importance of regional security.”Jakarta Post, July 24, 1999.
Teo, Eric. 2000. “ASEAN needs East Asian Regionalism.” Jakarta Post, August 30, 2000.