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The ASEAN Dilemma

By Alexa H. BacayNovember 12, 2017

Can there be a fully integrated singular ASEAN community?

Not so soon, says a scholar on Asian and Southeast Asian studies, who sees the organization’s influence as “limited by a strategic vision, diverging national priorities, and weak leadership.”

Dr. Aileen Baviera, an Asian Studies professor of the University of the Philippines, explained the challenges facing ASEAN integration, one being that the countries comprising the ASEAN do not always agree on everything.

“There are still some conflicts within and among its members that remain unresolved,” she further elaborated. “The principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs have been emphasized, often at the expense of effective cooperation and integration.”

According to Baviera, ASEAN is too process-oriented ‘organizationally’, while inadequate in achieving timely results and impact, and that consensus among member-states remains shallow, “even on certain critical issues that require solid agreement.”

“The goals of building a socio-cultural community is a relatively new concept and will be very challenging for ASEAN but [it will be] extremely important [for the members] to move in that direction, she said. “The absence of a common foreign policy and differences in security priorities and threat perceptions continue to stand in the way of a true political-security community.”

The ASEAN was formed in 1967 to promote economic, political, and security cooperation among its 10 members — Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the ASEAN community has a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of US$2.57 trillion all while advocating economic integration as it signs six free-trade agreements with other regional economies.

However, Baviera noted that while the approaches and institutions have changed much according to the regional environment, the basic mandate of promoting regional peace, stability and prosperity for its people remain the same. Better yet, might have been easier for the Philippines to promote its political agenda and grievances if the country was not chairing the event.

“All member-states have to do their share. Chairmanship at a time when ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary is very important. But it does not necessarily mean putting your own agenda above those of your neighbors,” Baviera explained.

Beyond ASEAN, the meetings with dialogue partners including major powers — especially the East Asia Summit, will help set the tone for regional cooperation. That said, with regards to territorial and maritime disputes, the Duterte government must consult its partners, its internal stakeholders, and try harder to make progress, given the excellent economic relations it now enjoys with political and economic powers like China.

“Like the Philippines, they are also concerned about military modernization and territorial assertiveness, but as small and medium-sized states, they would rather rely on diplomacy, negotiations, economic engagement to manage the issues,” Baviera added. “At the same time, they know regional cooperation is very important to face future uncertainties, including whether China-US relations will be cooperative or competitive in the next few years.”

When asked about the misconceptions regarding ASEAN integration, Baviera noted that ASEAN will never be like the European Union with a “European identity” as ASEAN is “too culturally, politically, and ideologically diverse to have a shared identity.”

“ASEAN does not have the capability nor the intention to ‘solve’, Baviera reiterated. “Only if the association only tries to ‘manage’ or prevent its members from directly communicating with superpower countries and starts to build confidence among its neighbors will ASEAN become stronger and more relevant.

 

Dr. Aileen San Pablo-Baviera is a professor at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines. Her areas of research include contemporary China, international relations, Southeast Asia-China relations, and Asia Pacific security.  She is editor-in-chief of Asian Politics & Policy, president of Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, Inc. and author of Challenging Geopolitical Seascapes: Southeast Asia and the Big Powers in the South China Sea. Dr. Baviera finished her MA in Asian Studies and Ph.D in Political Science from the University of the Philippines.