Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order, 3rd Edition

Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia

Author:       Amitav Acharya

ISBN:           978-0415747684

Publisher: Routledge

Year:           2014

Price:         £100



Reviewed by William J. Jones, Ph.D Candidate at Mahidol University, Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Senior Lecturer at Mahidol University International College, Thailand

This volume is an updated version of Amitav Acharya’s best known work Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order which stands as a cornerstone of research for ASEAN regionalism. The theoretical model which Acharya employs is centered on constructivist International Relations theory which argues that ideational formations of socialization can bring together disparate actors towards common interests and values. This strain of security studies theory derives from Karl Deutsch who argues that security communities can be built in a successful manner where war and open conflict among its members ceases to be thinkable between its members (Deutsch 1988). The process by which this happens is generalized as transactionalism. Transactionalism is the overarching process whereby members interactions over a period of time can stimulate a sharing and blending of social and cultural norms which stem from ideas and agency of individual actors in a social setting bound by rules and norms that produce a collective ‘we’ feeling among its members. The end product of constructivist socialization is bound around identity formations which shift over time in accordance with the setting, rules, ideas and values of its members within an organization. It should be noted that given that context of identity and security communities it should not be assumed that all identity forms will end up along a linear pathway liberal in nature but can and do often produce illiberal outcomes as well.

The author argues that ASEANs original members were an unlikely grouping of newly independent and/or consolidating regimes that faced numerous challenges to state building projects. The major issues facing these weak regimes were challenges to political authority internally from rebellions and insurrections and externally from the larger Cold War environment. Furthermore, many original ASEAN members faced cross fertilized hostility in the support for rebellions among one another and contested territorial claims between each other. These formidable obstacles were the coalescing point for cooperation after the overthrow of Indonesian President Sukarno by General Suharto and the ending of Indonesia’s belligerent foreign policy of Konfrontasi with Malaysia, Singapore and to a lesser extent Brunei. The author further argues that the need for regional autonomy was the larger functional purpose of ASEAN so that these disparate regimes could engage in capitalist led state building and political consolidation. This is reflected in ASEAN core principles which uphold Westphalian principles of sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs of states, peaceful settlement of disputes and specific to ASEAN avoidance of military pacts (the last point is somewhat contentious considering the historical influence of American defense relationships with various ASEAN members). Internal ASEAN norms are colloquially known as the “ASEAN Way”. This refers to the general and consistent practice of how ASEAN decision-making is undertaken which is based on consultation and consensus in an informal and non-legalistic format. (pp. 44).

The first half of this volume is dedicated to an historical evaluation of ASEAN development and security based initiatives of a diplomatic and strategic nature. This covers ASEAN as an organizational grouping throughout the Cold War period and ending with the Paris Peace Accords that brought a seeming end to the Cambodian conflict. The Cambodian conflict was the crowning achievement of ASEAN from its inception. Acharya posits that ASEAN norms were extremely successful in terms of being taken as abstract organizational principles and socialized to performance capacity by member states. This is exemplified by the common position taken by ASEAN states toward the perceived threat of frontline ASEAN states in the wake of Vietnams successful ousting of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. ASEAN states ability to form a united and sustained diplomatic front allowed the Khmer Rouge to hold on to their United Nations seat and though to the 1990s while not allowing the de facto Vietnamese sponsored regime international legitimacy or access to international support. The common position taken by ASEAN states allowed ASEAN to steer the path of the Paris Peace Accords and design the eventual domestic political settlement in Cambodia.

In the post-Cold War period Acharya argues that ASEAN core norms have been under challenge and contestation. The challenge to supposed ASEAN unity is due to a number of issues which is taken in the latter half of the book. These challenges are the enlargement of ASEAN to encompass Cambodia, Myanmar, Lao PDR and Vietnam (also known as the CMLV countries), South China Sea dispute and regional security architectures such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and ASEAN Plus arrangements. In essence there appears to be a twofold dynamic unfolding with ASEAN that is laying bare the fundamental problem with ASEAN as a regional organization, ASEAN has grown out of its singular purpose (Cold War solidarity) and is facing new challenges which its norms are no longer well suited. In the post-Cold War period has widened its membership and issues of substance it engages in while simultaneously attempted to deepen its organizational mandate while being hamstrung by its original organizing principles which are holding back all of its initiatives. This is best seen in older member states willingness to challenge non-interference by trying to institute ‘enhanced / constructive engagement’ to ASEAN problems while newer member states insist on operating according to original principles which were the part and parcel the reason they joined the organization in the first place. This dichotomy of interpretation of the need for updated organization engagement is at the heart of ASEAN transforming itself into an organization with relevance in the 21st century.

With regard to the long running South China Sea dispute the author argues that different positions which are based on national interest have led to a lack of ASEAN unity and common positions with regard to China and dealing with the dispute. ASEAN states with maritime territorial disputes with China such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have attempted to no avail to get ASEAN to take a common position condemning China’s behavior while pushing for a legally binding multilateral framework. States without territorial disputes such as Thailand and most notably Cambodia have stymied all ASEAN efforts to find a common position and is leading to fractious within the organization. To prove this the author considers the lack of progress of the Code of Conduct which has been stalled since its inception in the early 2000s and Cambodia’s insistence on not bringing up the dispute at the 2012 ASEAN Summit which it chaired due to Chinese influence via foreign aid and loans. This was notable as it was the first time ASEAN had failed to issue a joint communique in its history and issue causing this was Philippine insistence on solidarity with its national plight and Cambodia’s insistence that its national interest and relations with China were more important by invoking the ‘ASEAN Way’ principles of not naming names and finding consensus. Interestingly, the author notes that increased economic interdependence has not stimulated ASEAN based interdependence in the field of trade with intra-ASEAN trade still stagnant at historic levels of around 25% despite increased volume of trade (pp. 144).

The author then moves to consider the central regional organization dedicated to security concerns, the ASEAN Regional Forum. He argues that the ARF is a composed of a broad constellation of states numbering twenty-seven that has struggled to move forward from being a talk-shop to a substantive organization that produces legally binding constructs. The reasons for this lack of substance from an ostensibly ASEAN created organization are its organizing principles of informality, consensus decision-making and incremenatlism. The inability to engage in substantive legally binding frameworks has led the ARF to be unable to forge consensus among its members. Thus its members have sought engagement outside of the ARF to balance an increasingly tenuous relationships due to China’s rise with America for security concerns (pp. 181). On the other hand the author argues that the lax nature of the ARF has allowed a multiplicity of membership which engages all great and emerging powers. He sees this a point of strength by providing a platform for the easing of American hostilities for Asian based security initiatives and sharing of normative behaviors. Yet it is the very strength that brought this regional initiative to fruition which is impairing its development. Other ASEAN initiatives such as the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Plus agreements have shown similar problems with development beyond shallow cooperative arrangements and heady diplomatic talk. Given the larger context of lack of substantive progress and the fact that these are all ASEAN based initiatives the author questions the ability of ASEAN to actually find a dominant role in driving its own creations forward in a manner that suits its collective needs. This is prescient in that all of these initiatives are essentially due by default to ASEANs geographic position between all the world’s great and emerging powers and the historical luck of having the only regional organization to exist but not due to any great drive or comprehensive platform for actually getting things done on a broad basis.

Internally, ASEAN within the last decade has on the surface developed astonishingly fast with the formal signing of the ASEAN Charter which allegedly turned ASEAN into a rules based organization and expanded its mandate to issue areas far outside of its traditional comfort zone. This is noted in the creation of the ASEAN Community and its associated pillars of the ASEAN Economic Community, Political-Security Community and Socio-Cultural Community. He evaluates the still incomplete AEC (which was supposed to be completed by January 2016) which has its lineage in the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement which he notes was less than successful but was implemented largely due to unilateral trade reduction or global WTO forces. As per the APSC the author finds a mixed bag of initiatives that from the surface seem progressive such as the Human Rights Commission but are largely a reflection of other ASEAN initiatives due to their mandate and terms of reference which inculcate the very same ASEAN norms which have atrophied all other programs. He locates this in the conflicting normative values based in the ASEAN Charter which hold to core ASEAN principles while espousing a ‘democratic and people-oriented’ ASEAN which are fundamentally at odds given the reality of ASEAN (pp. 240). It is this lack of coherent and indeed ‘shared values’ that is facing ASEAN and leading to lack of progress on all fronts. This is best characterized with regard to Cambodia’s behavior in the run up to the failed joint communique fiasco where he states that this “shows that ASEAN as an institution is yet to develop a mindset that rises above national interests and serves the common interest of the organization when the situation calls for it” (pp. 237).

Since the end of the Cold War ASEAN has been struggling to find a purpose other than ‘maintaining the relevance of ASEAN’ and locating this in focus of substantive output of its own regional initiatives. In other words the reasons for the historical success of ASEAN is no longer relevant in an ever changing world yet the inability to organizationally evolve is a product of that very success. There is an underlying and unspoken vein of reality throughout the book which is only addressed indirectly. That is that while ASEAN is spoken of as a regional entity with some measure of agency (a secretary general, international legal personality etc) in reality it is a purely intergovernmental organization made up of 10 wildly different states. The lack of ASEAN Secretariat funding and manpower are only two of the easiest ways to demonstrate a lack of organization capacity which is wholly premeditated by its member states and indicative of the power of state sovereignty in the 21st century regarding Southeast Asian regionalism.

Regarding ASEAN and Southeast Asian regional studies Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order is a must read for scholars and students. It is well researched and is accessible to readers of wide variety. Many may and indeed have taken to task the author’s constructivist approach. However, a fair and balanced approach allows for reading of the changing nature of ideational notions within ASEAN that have led to both unity and disunity. As with most constructivist scholarship one must take a different tact when evaluating its efficacy. Constructivism is a post-positivist research paradigm best suited to explaining history and change from a macro perspective but largely ill-suited for prediction. This does not take away from the relevance and strength of this book which the reviewer considers a required touchstone for any student of Asian regionalism or contemporary regional politics and security of Southeast Asia.

Suggested Citation:

William J. Jones (2016), Review of “Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order, 3rd edition”, by Amitav Acharya, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 9, no. 2.