Author(s): Alice D. Ba
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Price: $29.95/ $75
Reviewed by Enze Han, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, The George Washington University, USA
How do we evaluate the success of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)? Is it, as claimed, a mere “talk shop” where nothing is getting done? According to Alice Ba, this view of ASEAN has totally missed the point of this regional organization’s success. In fact, ASEAN has survived in a region with fragile inter-state relations and has deepened cooperation among states despite geopolitical and domestic challenges. That, according to Ba, is a success story. Thus, for Ba, it is most interesting to ponder the question of how this volatile region with divergent and competitive states managed to “expand and deepen areas of cooperation, and become ‘One Southeast Asia”? (p.3) Furthermore, how did this organization of “lesser powers” in Southeast Asia become the center of growing regionalization in the post-Cold War East Asia?
Ba traces the formation of ASEAN and its success at managing regional relations to a set of ideational factors that have been ignored by previous IR theories on regional cooperation. The utilitarian approaches that emphasize the role of economic and security interests have difficulty in explaining ASEAN’s resilience as a form of regional cooperation. Instead, Ba argues that we should look at the founding ideas about ASEAN and how regional elites’ conceptualization of the Southeast Asian states as divided and vulnerable for external intervention has provided justification for the formation of this regional organization. Furthermore, Ba points out that we should look at cooperation as a “social process involving interactive and cumulative social negotiations” (p. 4). Thus, the “talk shop” provides a venue for dialogues, debates, and exchanges, which have transformative powers. Through these exchanges and interactions, common understandings of new social norms and culture of dialogues emerge, which in turn informs new institutional practices that emphasizes consensus building and non-confrontational engagement.
The book is divided in two parts. The first part focuses on the origin of ASEAN. Here Ba traces the emergence of the founding narrative of ASEAN that emphasizes the fragility and division within and among Southeast Asian nations, and how this narrative heightened the sense of vulnerability and insecurity among regional elites against outside “predators”. The pressing need to have unity and solidarity thus opened doors for these elites to pursue regional cooperation. Ba illustrates her argument with three intra-ASEAN debates – the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), ASEAN’s response to the newly reunified Vietnam, and ASEAN’s 1977 Preferential Trading Arrangements (PTAs). Through these three debates, Ba demonstrates how ASEAN’s founding narrative became the coordinating principle guiding various states’ responses to new development and challenges.
The second part of the book examines ASEAN regionalism in the post-Cold War era and the expansion of ASEAN towards East Asia and the greater Asia Pacific region. Chapter 4 looks at ASEAN’s extension of membership to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). Here Ba points out that it was the idea of “One Southeast Asia” that guided the membership extension despite unclear benefits and various other concerns. Chapter 5 and 6 pays attention to ASEAN’s efforts at dealing with the bigger powers, such as the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Chapter 7 specifically examines ASEAN’s dealing with the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Throughout these chapters, Ba directs readers’ attention to how the ASEAN norm of consensus-building and non-confrontational engagement has been extended to the larger East Asia, and how this particular diplomatic and institutional culture has been solidified among ASEAN members in their dealings with those major powers.
In sum, Ba’s book makes a theoretical contribution to IR theories on regional cooperation, especially in its efforts to highlight the transformative power of ideas and social interaction in overcoming coordination problems. It provides detailed information about the origin of ASEAN and how the “talk shop” has transformed the Southeast Asia into a region that is relative stable and where regionalization is deepening. It is thus a necessary read for people who are interested in regionalism in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the book also opens up space for readers to think about the challenges facing ASEAN with its current expansion, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Plus Three (APT). It should be of interest to people who are intrigued by the future of regionalization in the border region of East Asia.