FOR A LIQUE grouping, the top ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which this week it is Brunei’s turn to welcome, has a resolutely sacramental quality. On the one hand, in years without a pandemic, there is always a cathedral – a brilliant convention center, often freshly built. And there is a creed that all bow to, the “ASEAN manner”.
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Like most dogmas, this one becomes more and more spongy towards its core, but the ASEAN way is precisely not to sting it. Part of the dogma concerns order, civility and harmony: ASEANis sacred “consensus”. The obsession with appearing harmonious is perhaps not surprising in a region with a modern history full of disharmony and whose political systems range from absolute monarchy (Brunei itself) to imperfect democracy (the Philippines). . History is strewn with wars (undeclared war of Indonesia against Malaysia) and invasions (Vietnam, Cambodia). There have been coups d’état (Thailand), civil wars (Vietnam) and ethnic or religious pogroms (Indonesia); Myanmar has had all three. All this at least enhances the external manifestations of agreement in a scispar region. The flip side of consensus is an allegedly inflexible commitment to “non-interference” in the affairs of other members.
Inflexible, at least, until now. Because mid-October, after intense discussions behind the scenes, ASEAN has decided to bar General Min Aung Hlaing, the military ruler of Myanmar, whose coup in February toppled Aung San Suu Kyi and his civilian government, from sitting at this week’s summits. In other parts of the world, this snub to a junta leader who jailed an elected government, started an orgy of bloodshed and brought the economy to the point of collapsing would be a bare minimum. However, in South-East Asia, it is “the most severe sanction which ASEAN has passed on to another member state in more than five decades of diplomacy, ”notes Aaron Connelly of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Singapore.
Non-interference, a ASEAN the ambassador explains, “that doesn’t mean closing your eyes and covering your nose”. The Burmese junta, which is in dire need of legitimacy abroad and respect at home, is dismayed. The general’s exclusion, he said, was contrary to the group’s “cherished dispositions, purposes and principles”.
As for ASEAN, the way his high priests explained their decision shows a masterful mastery of liturgical matters. The general’s delisting was not a departure from the consensus canon, they intoned, but rather a consequence of an earlier “five-point consensus” agreed with Myanmar at a special summit in April. These included initiating a dialogue with “all parties”, putting an end to the violence and enabling a ASEAN special envoy to the country. The junta didn’t do any of these things – the envoy was denied even 15 minutes with Miss Suu Kyi. Until that consensus is reached, consensus on the General’s invitation will have to wait.
The snub does not extend to the invitation of the government in exile which wears the mantle of the ousted Democrat. It is not certain that even the countries of ASEAN the most critical of the coup, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, wanted to go this far. Yet to do nothing for Myanmar, as Teodoro Locsin, the Philippine foreign minister, said, would mean that “our credibility as a true regional organization would disappear”. This would only highlight how ASEAN is “a bunch of guys who always agree with each other on worthless things.”
Although some reviews of ASEAN insist that the snub always has a primarily symbolic effect, Mr. Connelly argues the opposite. A lack of action would have “considerably diminished ASEAN in the eyes of diplomats around the world and, perhaps more importantly, of his own people, ”he says. Moreover, despite protests from Myanmar, a consensus emerged among the remaining members, a consensus that brought together more authoritarian countries like Thailand (itself ruled by a coup leader), Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. of the more critical position shared by the rest of the region. This, in turn, helped narrow the alarming gap that had grown in Myanmar between an overly complacent attitude ASEAN and other countries around the world – in June, only Belarus opposed a UN resolution containing much stronger language on Myanmar than ASEAN had succeeded. With the delisting of General Min Aung Hlaing, ASEAN avoided international irrelevance.
The bluff of the bland man
A desire for relevance has everything to do with the second sacred board of dogma, ASEAN “Centrality”. It’s jargon for ASEAN being the first port of call for issues affecting South East Asia. ASEANits centrality obliges them to recognize its interests. The main one is to keep the great powers at bay, either to prevent their interference in the region, or to prevent their rivalries from playing out there. It was a founding principle in 1967 of ASEANoriginal members of, who designed it as a bulwark against Soviet influence during the height of the Vietnam War.
Until recently, centrality seemed to work. It also helped to confer a convening power to the ASEAN during a plethora of summits where the group brings together global and regional leaders – this week, US President Joe Biden, along with Narendra Modi and Li Keqiang, prime ministers of India and China, joined ASEANAnnual East Asia Summit via video link. It is true that form often trumps substance in these talk shops. But they are pretty much the only ones going to a region that is notably lacking in institutions. And they helped ASEAN hitting above its weight.
Yet the great power rivalry is playing out again in Southeast Asia, this time between America and China. Centrality has not prevented China from expanding its presence deep in the South China Sea, encroaching on its waters. ASEAN neighbors. More recently, this has also not stopped America from seeking to counterbalance China’s military build-up through “minilateral” alliances such as the Quad, a consortium with Australia, India and the United States. Japan, and AUKUS, which, along with Britain, will provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines that can patrol Southeast Asian waters. Although they make symbolic confessions of ASEAN centrality, neither China nor America is asking the group’s permission on these issues. The limits of centrality are then laid bare.
Some ASEAN diplomats, broadly endorsing a strong US presence in Southeast Asia, argue that the dogma of centrality no longer serves Southeast Asian interests at a time when China’s growing military might must be countered . Foreign policy institutions from Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam have generally welcomed AUKUS as helping to restore a regional balance of power. Thailand, America’s ally by treaty but close to China, is silent. Perhaps out of fear that China would be offended by AUKUS, Malaysia’s new Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, returned to the shibboleths that Southeast Asia is a “zone of peace, freedom and neutrality” or, in the region’s pathological penchant for acronyms , ZOPFAN. More intransigent policymakers in Malaysia describe the retrospective statements of their political masters on the subject as “reckless”.
Yes ASEAN is to remain central in more than rhetorical terms, argues a Singaporean strategist, he needs to be clearer about what he is ready and not ready to do with America – and with China. This will require a new consensus on centrality, which will prove to be much more difficult to achieve than the new one on Myanmar. ASEANthe existential moment of s arrives.■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “ASEANgst”