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Malaysia’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2015: Time for Transformation?

This year, 2015, Malaysia takes up the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is an important year for ASEAN as its community building will be formally realized on 31 December 2015. While the attention has been paid to the creation of a single market and production base in the framework of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), this article will focus on ASEAN’s organizational developments and its relations with dialogue partners.

Southeast Asia is indeed a unique and complex region. In the past 60 years, almost all attempts to create regional blocs here failed miserably. At the end of the Bandung Conference in 1955, China revealed its intention to establish some sort of regional grouping in order to reinstall its sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) also came up with a similar idea of reuniting communist states in this region.

To contain both China and USSR, the United States launched its own regional initiative through the setting up of a Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), an Asian brother of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). All of these regional concepts either never took off or failed to live up to their original purposes. But the idea of regionalism became more tangible when ASEAN was founded in 1967.

Some argue that the failure of past regional blocs came down to the hands-on influence and heavy involvement of outside powers. This seems to suggest that the survival of ASEAN all these years may be thanks to the absence of superpower politics. Does this condition, however, always produce a positive effect on the overall development of ASEAN?

After 48 years, ASEAN has manufactured its own story as a success. Quite often, ASEAN has claimed that it helped prevent major conflicts among members and maintained a certain degree of peace. With the signing of the ASEAN Charter in 2007, member states are even more convinced that ASEAN represents a "new regionalism", a combination of an adherence to rules and regulations alongside the informal way of conducting diplomacy.

The Charter gives ASEAN a new personality, and thus a new meaning of regionalism. But is this new regionalism really new? The idea of regionalism has been around for a few centuries now. Bluntly put, it has revolved around the politics of exclusivity. Regionalism is about how member countries align or even gang up against outsiders. Accordingly, regionalism is not necessarily encouraging in itself. And this might turn precarious when a grouping is willing to tolerate the bad behavior of certain members and acts as their shield against outside criticism.

ASEAN has been very much a diplomatic community. True, it has woven strong bonds among foreign-service diplomats, military and economic officers. This has become a part of ASEAN's confidence-building exercise. The Charter is thus designed to facilitate the confidence-building process. Meanwhile, the Charter also codifies the existing norms, known as the "ASEAN way," which is meant to strengthen existing regimes. Dangerously, not all regimes in ASEAN are legitimate.

Also, through the years, ASEAN has insisted on remaining in the driver's seat in all initiatives and existing cooperative fora in the region and beyond. This explains why, when then Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, proposed the idea of an Asia-Pacific Community in 2009, which could potentially belittle the role of ASEAN, defenders of ASEAN regarded it as a threat to the organization.

But Stanford University Professor Don Emmerson posed a series of critical questions about ASEAN's yearning to remain in the driver's seat. For example, whether ASEAN has the "licence" to drive? If yes, then is ASEAN's driving licence out of date? What type of vehicle is ASEAN driving? How fast is ASEAN's vehicle? Whether ASEAN has chosen to go on the expressway? Whether ASEAN's vehicle is heading in the right direction? How do the passengers in the back seat behave? What is ASEAN's destination? What is the traffic like? Whether ASEAN has been overtaken by other vehicles? And is "being taken over" a good or bad thing?

Beneath these questions lies a more pertinent message: Time has changed since 1967, but has ASEAN changed accordingly?

So, when ASEAN talks about its desire to lead the region, backed up by its new outlook of regionalism, ASEAN is really talking about the building of a "superstructure" with itself at the core, while engaging with outside players. Yet, ASEAN has failed to build the "infrastructure" within its own organization. In other words, ASEAN has never been serious about developing the needed mechanisms that can be used to tackle its own internal problems.

This explains why ASEAN is unable to change the behavior of some undemocratic regimes in the region, including Thailand now under the military rule, and why it is unable to alleviate bilateral tensions between members, as shown earlier in the case of the Thai-Cambodian conflict. ASEAN apologists may claim that the group is willing to mediate in any conflict if the states involved would give ASEAN a chance. But ASEAN should not, and must not, wait for an invitation to intervene. What would be the point of celebrating the making of ASEAN's superstructure if it lacked authority over member states?

The making of a superstructure alongside the infrastructure is crucial if ASEAN wants to be a successful organization in the years ahead. ASEAN's future relies much on the leadership from its chair. Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship is timely. It is one of the founding members of ASEAN. While the emphasis is on strengthening the ASEAN Economic Community, Malaysia can play a role in the deeper developments of regional architectures, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, which deals with security issues, and the East Asian Summit which has involved key powers in the region.

Domestically, Malaysia has undergone its own transformation. Its ruling party lost the popular vote in the country’s election in 2013, signaling a call for decentralization in Malaysia. This is a part of the country adapting to change. The process could be painful, and at times unbearable. But the result could be worthwhile. ASEAN must soon begin with this same process.


Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.


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