Southeast Asian Regionalism: New Zealand Perspectives

Southeast Asian Regionalism

Author(s): Nicholas Tarling

ISBN: 978-9814311496

Publisher: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

Year: 2013

Price: $54.95

Reviewed by Kai Chen, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Zhejiang University, China.

Nicholas Tarling is one of the most outstanding scholars of modern Southeast Asia and editor of The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. His recent book, Southeast Asian Regionalism: New Zealand Perspectives, is an impressive piece of research and an invaluable study of the ancestors of ASEAN——ASA and SEAFET. The book’s main focus, as the title indicates, is Southeast Asian Regionalism in the perspective of New Zealand, with particular emphasis on the strong motive behind the early attempts at collective defence of Southeast Asia. In Tarling’s view, the strong motive is to “limit disputes among themselves and the intervention of states external to the region”(p.92).

Obviously, Tarling is a knowledgeable scholar and turns to the archives of external powers, which “contain not only reports from New Zealand diplomats but also from Australian and Canadian diplomats as well”(p.2). The book is well organized: it is divided into a number of sections, and each section focuses on a specific historical period of Southeast Asia.

One of the main strengths of Tarling’s work is to explain the strong motive behind the early attempts at collective defence of Southeast Asia in two aspects, one is to avoid the dominance by one substantial regional power, the other is to restrict the intervention of major outside powers.

 Within the region of Southeast Asia, the strong motive behind the early attempts at a regional association was an attempt to confront with the disparate size and power of Indonesia, because the states of Southeast Asia were “equal in sovereignty, unequal in power” (p.2). In the early years of ASEAN, the uncommitted countries cause Southeast Asian regionalism experience many ups and downs. Especially, the proposals about establishing regional association, which were advanced by Indonesia, such as “Colombo Powers”, failed to achieve the purpose. For the other Southeast Asia countries, their own feeling is that “until Indonesia shows herself to be really committed to a peaceful-neighbour policy we cannot give too much weight to such ideas” (p.23). For any attempt at a regional association in Southeast Asia, it was “rather difficult to widen its scope to include countries such as Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia” (p.10). In other words, “if regional cooperation is to be expanded on a broad and meaningful basis, it is important that uncommitted countries like Indonesia and Burma agree to participate” (p.13). As the situation developed, the Southeast Asian countries cast away grievances and met each other halfway. Concerning the ASEAN members, they accepted that “non-interference and non-aggression are basic principles which Southeast Asian countries must unequivocally accept before any further steps can be taken” (p.39).

 As is clear the book provides a detailed exploration of the motive in restricting the intervention of any outside powers. Since the disappearance of the imperial structures, the newly-independent Southeast Asian countries were prepared to ” explore seriously any option that holds a promise of long-term security” (p.45). In Tunku Abdul Rahman’s word, if Southeast Asian countries did not do it, “they would have to look outside the area for protection and the full meaning of independence would be lost” (p.4). According to a copy of the first draft of an agreement, which sent by Walter Ayathuray (head of the Malaysian ASA secretariat), insisted that the arrangements of collective defence should not be used to serve the particular interest of any of the big powers” (p.27).

 Furthermore, Southeast Asian countries tried their best to diminish opportunity for the intervention of outside powers. During the process of establishing a regional association in Southeast Asia, the Southeast Asian countries always used the strengthen of the Western powers to achieve collective defence through regionalism, which could kill two birds with one stone, not only eased the internal threats in Southeast Asia, but also added the bargaining chips in political deals. However, ASEAN is “developing in ways its creators could not have foreseen” (p. 92). As a barely satisfactory outcome of compromise, ASEAN is “an economic and cultural association only, its more important positive achievements have so far been in the political and, less openly, in the security fields” (p. 92).

 A shortcoming of the book is that there should have been a more detailed analysis of ethnic conflicts in the early years of ASEAN, which was an essential negative factor of Southeast Asian regionalism. Of course, Burma and Vietnam showed hesitancy in promoting Southeast Asian regionalism, because they remained uncommitted to Indonesia’s proposals. On the other hand, Burma and Vietnam endured hardships of ethnic conflicts. At that time, the two countries were weak in economy and defence, and they need time to rebuild orders at home. That ‘s an important reason why Burma and Vietnam showed little interests in joining any regional association or promoting collective defence.

ASEAN is “deploying the style and instruments of their diplomacy in novel ways” (p. 92). The ground-breaking ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus Eight (including China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, United States and Russia) convened for the first time in 2010. For the new members of ASEAN, “move gradually towards developing closer political links with ASEAN, distinct from (their) bilateral relations with its member states” (p. 88). The most significant role of this institution is to bring together the external powers as well as ASEAN members, participate in disaster relief, humanitarian aid and peace keeping. Considering the different cultural norms, political regimes and economic systems, the contradictions and competitions in the process of ASEAN Plus Eight will be expected, especially in the initial years.

 Moreover, in the face of ASEAN Plus Eight, which contains China, United States and Russia, how could ASEAN occupy the leading position as it used to be? It’s traditional tactic for Southeast Asian countries to enlarge the membership of ASEAN and introduce more external powers to hold each other up. But the tactic is not proved effective every time. There are two key factors hampering the process of the enlargement of ASEAN. First, the problem is the ethnic conflicts in some ASEAN members, especially in Burma, which has seriously prevented Burma and its neighboring countries to play an more active role in Southeast Asian regionalism. For instance, the stakeholders of the ethnic conflicts in Burma always go around ASEAN, and turn to international society. This situation reflects that as a regional association in Southeast Asia, ASEAN is at a loss what to do, and the basic principles of ASEAN also have no scope for their abilities. The other problem is that public participation in the decision making of ASEAN is still limited. The most pressing matter is not the enlargement of membership, but enhance the sense of participation in Southeast Asia. ASEAN should represent the interests and rights of more ethnic groups and interests groups in the region, and encourage more non-state actors to participate the process of Southeast Asian regionalization.

 Words of Henry VI by Shakespeare come to mind: “Glory is like a circle in the water. Which never cease to enlarge itself, til by broad spreading it disperse to naught”. Whether ASEAN will have a leading role in ASEAN Plus Eight remains to be seen.

 This is a work of admirable scholarship, which will not only an enriching and important contribution to “study the early years of ASEAN in more detail” (p. 93), but also be recommended to all those interested in the international relations of Southeast Asia.