Southeast Asia in Search of An ASEAN Community – Insights from the former ASEAN Secretary-General

Southeast Asia in Search of An ASEAN Community

Author:      Rodolfo C. Severino

ISBN:           978-981-230-389-8

Publisher: ISEAS Publishing

Year:           2006

Price:          $54.90


Reviewed by Vincent K. Pollard, Asian Studies Program, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa

Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began by seeking to cool tensions and restore diplomatic relations among themselves and to enhance regime security of the first five members. Subsequently, ASEAN undertook deeper forms of cooperation. Eventually, membership increased to ten. Scholars of regional cooperation and integration should read Southeast Asia in Search of an ASEAN Community: Insights from the former ASEAN Secretary-General. This book matters because of who wrote it. Educated in the humanities and world politics, Filipino diplomat Rodolfo Severino is a experienced practitioner. Among other foreign service assignments, he has been posted to the U.S. and China—two countries whose governments have paid attention to Southeast Asian regional organizations. During 1998-2002, the author was ASEAN’s Secretary-General. And he has contributed to the ASEAN-China Group of Eminent Persons.

Reviewing the establishment of ASEAN, Chapter 1 explains “The ‘ASEAN Way’: Its Nature and Origins” (pp. 1-40). Severino notes the experience of ASEAN’s founders in the earlier Association of South-east Asia (ASA) and Maphilindo, yet he overlooks the South East Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SEAARC) foreign ministers meetings during 1966-1967. Those events involved diplomats from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Convening in Bangsaen and Bangkok, SEAARC renamed itself ASEAN on 8 August 1967. Severino asserts that international news media paid “little notice” to ASEAN’s Bangkok Declaration (p. 3). Not so. Unsurprisingly in light of overt and covert American advocacy of indigenous Southeast Asian regional associations, ASEAN was announced in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the weekly Time magazine. Publicity also appeared in media as diverse as Japan Times, Xinhua News Agency, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the London Times and Izvestiya. Southeast Asian newspapers also played up the Bangkok Declaration. Eschewing majority-vote and winner-take-all executive decision making, an informal consensus-oriented “ASEAN Way” held the Association together through its difficult early years (pp. 11-16). The examples are worth studying closely. However, insisting on the pristine “ASEAN Way” as the only method of decision making and implementation will, the author argues, has increasingly limited ASEAN’s future effectiveness. Slowly, the “ASEAN Way” has evolved and has been supplemented with alternatives (pp. 16-18). In coming years, attentive observers will likely see that transformation of ASEAN’s decision making mechanisms remains a delicate issue.

Chapter 2 (“Who Belongs in ASEAN?) summarizes how ASEAN’s more recent members were oriented—socialized—by the original five members in the 1980s and 1990s (pp. 41-84). First among the more recent members to join ASEAN is Brunei Darussalam. Although the Sultan of Brunei rejected UK pressure to join the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, twenty-one years later Brunei’s transition to full membership in ASEAN in 1984 is described as relatively smooth. In contrast, complications created a more recent path to ASEAN membership for Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar in the 1990s. And Cambodia’s admission to ASEAN in 1999 was unprecedentedly conditioned on its domestic situation. Severino acknowledges that his account of delays in Cambodia’s admission is challenged by Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, then Executive Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. Membership expansion in the second half of the 1990s has led to a “two-tiered ASEAN,” and Severino details some of the problems and possible solutions. ASEAN may be characterized as “two-tiered.” On the one hand, the first six ASEAN members have two to four decades of common experiences in the Association; on the other hand, their domestic political and economic trajectories and values diverge. The reader will also learn why other countries have not been invited to be members. However, Severino’s summary of the case of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is disputed by Neville de Silva of Sri Lanka’s foreign service. In de Silva’s version, non-aligned Ceylon was sensitive to military alliances between four of SEAARC’s members and the U.S. or U.K. and, as a result, was not particularly interested in joining (“ASEAN: Were we blocked or did we decline?” The Sunday Times Online, vol. 42, no. 11 [12 August 2007]).

Chapter 3 focuses on “The Issue of Non-Interference” (pp. 85-160). Some Southeast Asian societies democratized more quickly than others. And transborder assertion of human rights for individuals and associations in ASEAN by civil society organizations in the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere gradually made it expedient for their national governments to address these matters within ASEAN’s councils if they wished to retain credibility domestically. If Severino had applied Robert Putnam’s notion of “two-level games,” he could have made this point. But illusions associated with the Westphalian stereotype of sovereignty die slowly in countries that won their independence not far in the distant past. Tensions on the erosion of “Non-Interference” have not yet fully been resolved.

In an affirmation made in ASEAN’s 1967 Bangkok Declaration, “all foreign military bases are temporary and remain only with the expressed concurrence of the countries concerned.” Only twenty years later, private ASEAN reassurances that continuation of “temporary” U.S. military facilities were desirable failed to meet the needs of a changed domestic political situation after the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was expelled from the Philippines. As former President Corazon Aquino later described her dilemma, she was left weakened in the face of domestic anti-bases opposition by the unwillingness of ASEAN’s “free riders” to state publicly what President Suharto of Indonesia and Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia were saying to her privately, namely, that they wanted U.S. military bases to remain (Vincent K. Pollard, Globalization, Democratization and Asian Leadership: Power Sharing, Foreign Policy and Society in the Philippines and Japan [Ashgate, 2004], p. 108.).

In Chapter 4 (“Regional Security: The ASEAN Role”), Severino acknowledges that ASEAN has been concerned with security from the outset (pp. 161-211). In this respect, he goes beyond early commentators. Many of them bristled defensively at the slightest hint that ASEAN was political. Also transcending the prevalent mindset prevalent in the years immediately following the establishment of ASEAN, environmentalist and other concerns for humans and nature have since found their way into ASEAN discussions of security. Severino calls for a “more proactive” role for ASEAN in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) (p. 193).

Chapter 5 is focused on “Integrating the Regional Economy” (pp. 212-255). Vexing challenges range from free trade and investment to industrial complementation, product standards and transport to tourism and labor. In the absence of an ASEAN economic integration treaty or a supranational authority, “political leadership” is required to steer changes in “domestic law” (p. 252). On economic and other issues that challenge is stiff. Let me suggest analogizing from Segundo E. Romero, Jr.,’s observation that the narrowness of the domestic political constituency for the Philippines’ “one-China” policy stems from its genesis in the depths of martial law under Marcos: So, too, earlier debate over ASEAN might have stimulated emergence of broader pro-ASEAN constituencies among interested publics today because robust discussion of pros and cons has a tendency to leave the participants feeling invested in the process. Guided from above, ASEAN lost the benefit of vigorous public debate of fundamental political issues in the societies of the first six members.

In Chapter 6 (“ASEAN and the World”), Severino reminds us that “the ASEAN system of dialogue partnerships” began in 1972. This chapter nicely outlines ASEAN’s expanding relations with a diverse array of countries ranging from India, Canada and the U.S. to China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and the Russian Federation (pp. 256-341).

In Chapter 7 (“The ASEAN Community: Is It for Real?”), the author suggests benchmarks for a more proactive ASEAN (pp. 342-371). Economic community, market integration and alternative procedures for implementing decisions supported by an ASEAN majority without being delayed by a minority are among issues to which Severino draws the reader’s attention. Concerns about piracy and maritime security are raised. Also, weapons of mass destruction are discussed (pp. 362-363). This discussion may also be appreciated in light of civil society groups and constitutional commissioners in the Philippines. Activists opposing the U.S.-Philippines Military Bases Agreement redefined security to include freedom from the threat of accidental detonation of nuclear bombs or weapons-related radiation leakage on U.S. military facilities. In any case, Severino proceeds to argue, “Southeast Asia cannot be an enduring security community or an effective economic community—indeed it cannot be an ASEAN community in its truest and deepest sense—without being a socio-cultural community” (p. 370). This strategic assertion is buried deeply in this lengthy book. An ongoing test of ASEAN’s ability to improve the quality of lives in its members’ societies, in my view, will be the extent that it is not deterred from amplifying human rights and other dimensions of nontraditional security merely because one or two noncompliant states initially resist pressure from other ASEAN members. Chapter 7 also emphasizes the salience of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the value of cooperation with the United Nations. Addressing an imposing challenge, Severino notes the “uneven” pace of ASEAN economic integration (p. 374).

And Chapter 8 asks, “What Kind of Future for ASEAN?” (pp. 372-385) and begins by claiming that “generally, ASEAN has served its members well.” Severino points out that trade and economic integration among ASEAN countries have lagged behind. ASEAN needs to take steps, he believes, if it is to play a true leadership role in Asia during coming decades. To strengthen  ASEAN, he proposes institutional changes like greater focus on threats to nontraditional security. In his view, this would ease the transition to ASEAN preventive diplomacy. Recapitulation of inferences and suggestions made in earlier chapters would have strengthened the concluding chapter. Indeed, insights found in Severino’s “ASEAN at a Crossroads” report to the ASEAN Summit on 2 November 2002 (Appendix E, pp. 416-420) and other appendixes could have been integrated more thoroughly in Chapter 8.

Who will make the changes recommended by Severino? And which Southeast Asia seeks “an ASEAN community?” To apply an insight from Benedict Anderson, Southeast Asia is also an “imagined community,” but not everyone imagines it in the same way. More explicit reference to the book’s purpose and its intended audience might increase readers’ patience for ploughing through a hefty volume. In his “Preface,” the author hopes that the future “ASEAN community” will include Southeast Asian readers of this book who have underestimated or misunderstood ASEAN’s institutional accomplishments. Severino warns against complacency with ASEAN’s accomplishments. He nudges them to create a more productive future for ASEAN (p. xi). Among his envisioned readers are “academics…..but not necessarily specialists,” as well as “journalists, other persons concerned with the region or with public affairs in general, and, hopefully, policy-makers in Southeast Asia and elsewhere” (p. xii). In light of the arguably limited impact of civil society organizations on the formation of ASEAN and on ASEAN’s course during its first few decades, this is a substantial challenge.

In the “Foreword” Ambassador Tommy Koh of Singapore suggests that ASEAN’s Group of Eminent Persons may wish to read this book before making recommendations for ASEAN’s future (p. ix). By now, surely it already has had influence in ASEAN’s inner circles. My criticisms notwithstanding, journalists, historians, economists, civil society organizations, governmental practitioners, comparative politics specialists and foreign policy analysts can also use the book.

(also available as paperback edition: ISBN-10:981-320-388-X, US$ 38.90)