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Why ASEAN needs overlapping but relevant regional institutions

The implementation of the ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) Community on Dec 31 marked an important point of integration of the 10-member regional pact. Despite recent emphasis on its economic and social contributions, ASEAN has also played a significant role in shaping the evolving regional security architecture. This consists of a complex, overlapping framework of institutions often criticised for its indirect approach to advancing regional security.

Why ASEAN needs overlapping but relevant regional institutions

Foreign leaders at last year’s East Asia Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur. Given its exclusion from the ASEAN Plus Three, the US prefers the EAS, a view also held by Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand, which are also not part of APT. Photo: Reuters

The implementation of the ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) Community on Dec 31 marked an important point of integration of the 10-member regional pact. Despite recent emphasis on its economic and social contributions, ASEAN has also played a significant role in shaping the evolving regional security architecture. This consists of a complex, overlapping framework of institutions often criticised for its indirect approach to advancing regional security.

Such criticisms are unfounded.

The region will face many critical issues in the coming years, such as maritime disputes, trans-border economic and political issues, and transnational terrorism. This requires increased cooperation and mechanisms to manage disputes.

However, resolution mechanisms must operate within the existing regional architecture to manage the diverse interests and diplomatic practices of different states. The overlapping framework helps serve different constituencies and address different needs.

An overview of these institutions demonstrates their continued relevance and the need to work within the existing system, rather than look for new solutions.

‘SOCIALISING’ MAJOR POWERS

With 27 member states, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has been fundamental to building mutual trust and confidence between South-east Asia and major Asia-Pacific states. It introduced the norm of cooperative security based on consensus dialogue among diverse participants.

While some consider the non-binding consensus process a weakness, it is important that major powers — most notably China and the United States — would not be so willing to participate if it required a greater investment of political capital.

It is through such dialogues that major powers are socialised into the norms of the region. Socialising China and the US to become more “consensus-seeking” and consultative is an achievement in itself.

At the same time, the ARF’s inclusive dialogue gives a voice to its small member states. Thus, the broad-based appeal of the ARF will remain relevant as the region tries to grapple and make sense of the evolving geopolitical dynamics.

Two other institutions have also been instrumental in linking Southeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region: The APT or ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), which comprises the 10 ASEAN members plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, the US and Russia.

Both are helping to shape a rising China’s regional integration. They have been successful in engaging China, while helping to keep the US invested in the region.

The APT and EAS are divided along their respective memberships. The APT promotes an exclusive regionalism, and the EAS, an inclusive form of Asia-Pacific cooperation. China prefers the APT as it affords Beijing a greater voice in matters of regional security cooperation and economic engagement, while minimising US involvement, which is perhaps detrimental to the region at a time when greater American economic engagement is needed alongside its traditional military commitments.

Given its exclusion from the APT, the US prefers the EAS, a view also held by Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand, which are also not part of APT. An interesting aspect is that Japan also favours the EAS, reflecting its rivalry with China and its desire to engage the US in Asia-Pacific affairs.

In comparison with the APT, the EAS promotes an outward-looking, inclusive approach to regionalism. This is increasingly necessary to promote cooperation within the Asia-Pacific region. The accession of Russia and the US in 2011 highlights the ability of the EAS to incorporate diverse stakeholders and act as a central component of the institutional architecture.

The region has also benefited from institutions such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which promotes greater trade liberalisation and advanced economic integration among its 21 member economies. It has also moved to include issues such as counterterrorism and health. APEC should be seen as complementary and not a competitor to the EAS and APT.

The emergence of new institutions such as EAS and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus Eight (ADMM-Plus) has added more layers to the regional architecture. It need not be viewed in a negative light. Rather, the region’s relative peace and prosperity can be attributed to these multiple “webs” of networks and institutions that engage the interests of regional stakeholders.

The ADMM-Plus is a good example of working within the existing system to address unmet needs. Before 2006, regional defence cooperation took place at the bilateral level. A major advance in regional security cooperation was the 2010 initiation of the ADMM-Plus, which expanded the original ADMM to include defence officials from the eight non-ASEAN partners that now participate in the EAS.

The expanded grouping upholds the regional norms of sovereignty, non-interference and consensus while also engaging China, the US and other major actors participating in the EAS. It exemplifies working within the existing system of ASEAN cooperation and dialogue partners while moving in the direction of a more coherent and functional framework of cooperation.

Although ASEAN prides itself on its role as the driver of regional institution building, the risk is that ASEAN may end up as the chauffeur, with the direction set by others. Security-focused think tanks in the Asia-Pacific region that are part of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) have recommended measures to avoid this outcome and to reinforce ASEAN’s centrality.

Their recommendations focus on strengthening the capacity of the ASEAN Secretariat and its integration with institutions such as the ARF, EAS and ADMM-Plus. More specifically, they recommended that the EAS play a more significant role in leading regional multilateralism.

This could be done by institutionalising the EAS through establishing a secretariat to ensure continuity, and implementing joint chairmanship with a non-ASEAN country to engage key actors in the wider Asia-Pacific region.

One concrete outcome of a recent biennial conference of CSCAP was a suggestion to set up an informal working group of its members from EAS countries to prepare recommendations for the EAS on an ongoing basis. Such an initiative would facilitate coordinated approaches by the EAS and ARF.

The Asia-Pacific architecture is complex, multi-layered and sometimes overlapping. However, it is precisely this complex arrangement that has afforded the region, generally, the stability it has enjoyed this far. It is also a resilient system that both major powers and small powers are comfortable with and can agree upon.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Barry Desker is distinguished fellow and Jesse Caemmerer is a research analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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