ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia

ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia

Author(s): Lee Jones

ISBN:          978-0-230-22896-2

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Year:          2012

Price:         $90.00

Reviewed by Christopher Gennari, Assistant Professor of History, Camden County College, New Jersey, United States.

Lee Jones’ book is a very detailed analysis of a region of the world which does not receive much research attention.  Additionally, this work concentrates on the interaction between Southeast Asian states when most of the literature deals with Southeast Asia’s interaction with the American or European world.  He also focuses on small nations, especially Cambodia and East Timor, which are usually overshadowed in the literature by their larger neighbors. In writing this book, Jones’ work is an important and significant contribution to academic literature.

The book deals with inter-Southeast Asian relations between the early 1960s and the 2000s.  The main character is not a person or an event but an association: ASEAN, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which was created in the 1960s as an anti-communist collective defense organization.   Jones clearly places himself against the current of the typical historiography – by arguing that ASEAN, an organization outwardly dedicated to the non-interference of outside nations within domestic situations, actually interfered in Southeast Asian nations’ domestic spheres all the time.  Moreover, Jones argues, that the policy of non-interference was a cudgel used by domestic forces to protect themselves from criticism abroad while smashing unrest and opposition at home.

To demonstrate his argument Jones divides the book into three parts. Part 1 is a significant introduction in which he explains the prevailing literature on the topic.  In Part 2 he discusses events during the Cold War and in Part 3 he discusses the post Cold War restructuring of Southeast Asia in the context of ASEAN.  The book has general chapters where he discusses the large view of events in the region and then has specialized case-study chapters in which he discusses a specific nation during a specific event.  He discusses Indochina in the Cold War section, East Timor and Cambodia in both Cold War and post-Cold War and then discusses, timely given the recent democratization, Burma in the post Cold War section.

It is a thin volume with clear, articulate and straightforward prose.  The volume also has attitude in its language.  This is not some drool account of vapid diplomacy; this work is a forthright presentation of ideas and positions.  And, for its part, it loves pointing out hypocrisy (p. 11).  In fact, a large part of the argument with the historiography is about reflecting the difference between words and deeds.  A founding principle of ASEAN, one of which is credited with creating international peace (or, at least, the lack of foreign invasion) in Southeast Asia is the concept of non-interference as a respect for sovereignty.  But, Jones illustrates that sovereignty was defined by the present empowered elites and thus non-interference was meant to deflect international criticism, the helping of rebels and support for so-called subversives (p. 4).  ASEAN, rather than providing an international framework for regional peace, was a method of allowing entrenched patriarchs to remain empowered without resorting to domestic or popular reforms.  His argument is furthered by illustrating events of intervention – which were used to maintain the status quo – whether it was Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 or Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978.  Both are portrayed as “defensive” wars fought to maintain stability instead of territorial conquest; a very Roman theory of Bellum iustum.  Intervention, in these cases, was justified and used, unlike in Congo-Zaire (in one provided example), to maintain stability rather than foster instability (p. 43).

In the invasion of East Timor, Jones points out that ASEAN ignored its own principles to support the invasion stating “in practice principles could always be sacrificed to preserve anti-communist regional cooperation (p.71).”  Jones’s argument runs counter to the traditional expansionist theories where control of resources (or western hegemony) dictated motivations.  It makes the South East Asian state, for good or ill, the primary actor in its actions.  And for that perspective, this is an important work. In the first part of the book the boogeyman to regional harmony is portrayed as international socialism – first the Soviet Union through its Vietnam ally and then China – as the near-regional behemoth.  The second part of the book is after the fall of the Soviet Union and the 1989 liberation movements.  The enemy of stability shifts from communism to capitalist liberalism.  Jones demonstrates continuity of behavior of ASEAN and the regimes – illustrating their resistance to the West. Though, the lack of counterweight to the West and the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s forced these states to give in to Western democratic-capitalist pressure especially in the cases of East Timor, Cambodia and Burma.  Nonintervention and withdrawal was thus another move toward domestic stability – this time in allaying the West whose political friendship and economic help was the lifeline to battered authoritarian regimes and nascent democratic governments in the post Cold War landscape.  Jones illustrates that this behavior was one more event on a continuous timeline. Domestic capitalist reform  in the 1990s was simply a new version of the regional economic alliance founded, in Bangkok in 1967, with the goal of fighting communism (and thus providing stability) by the betterment of the economic lot for the masses (p. 43). Consequently, Southeast Asia was a region seeking stability from larger world actors who created forces of instability: first the communist and nationalist revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s (reliant on the USSR, PRC and USA), then the western liberal reforms of the 1990s and 2000s promoted by American and European states and corporations.  Jones argues that ASEAN shares more in common with the theories of Bismarck and Machiavelli than Thomas Jefferson and Rousseau.

This book is clearly an academic book written for an academic audience.  This is not a work for the general audience or one unfamiliar with the region’s politics and history.  It is a narrowly focused argument on a narrowly focused region.  This narrow focus brings about several flaws in the work.  First, the work assumes a high level of specific knowledge by the reader.  Names are mentioned without reference to the lives or importance of the personalities: who was Adam Malick?  Admiral Sundardi? Who was Suharto before he took over Indonesia’s government?  The reader is forced to other sources to understand the personal dynamics of the story.  In this way the book treats the state as an organic being rather than a collection of individuals.  There is also no mention of which countries are in ASEAN and when they join.  Does Vietnam join? It seems not to be in the group in the 1960s but what about in the 1980s?  How is the organization organized – are there annual meetings or only crisis meetings? Is it like the Organization of American States or different from that organization?  Again, the reader is sent off to other sources to find out information about important specifics which are oddly left out.  Surprisingly, given that part of the argument deals with ASEAN defending itself against outside influences – much of the discussion of ASEAN occurs in a historical vacuum without much mention of the larger events like the Vietnam War, the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, the Sino-Soviet break, or American withdrawal from Southeast Asia.  Australia, for instance, plays no role in most of the narrative despite being the closest western state, the richest state in the region, and a close neighbor to East Timor.  Did Australia have no relation to any of these events?

There are surprising points missing in this tale – especially given the construction of using case studies.  For one, the genocide in Cambodia is not mentioned, while support for the Khmer Rouge by ASEAN against a Vietnamese invasion is given great attention. One of the few things the general audience will know about is the “killing fields” of Cambodia which consumed between two to three million people.  Even if one did not want to venture into controversial territory by discussing the genocide itself, it seems it should have been mentioned in ASEAN’s support for the committers of genocide.  How could (or did) pro-western states, even if fighting a communist enemy, justify support for mass murderers?  As Cambodian refugees flooded into Thailand to escape the genocide – certainly this became an ASEAN issue.  If not, why not?  The same deficient also applies to another case study state of East Timor where the Indonesian government was notoriously brutal.  It seems strange to have a book this incisive yet never mention the elephant in the room.

 Despite its deficits, Jones adds an important topic to the literature.  There are not many works out there dealing with regional South East Asian relations.  The work is well written, insightful, and declarative in its tone.  It is a narrow topic told narrowly and that is its great strength.

Suggested citation:

Christopher Gennari (2012). Review of ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia” edited by Lee Jones, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 6, no. 8 , Internet file: