See More on Facebook

Analysis, Diplomacy

ASEAN meets in Bangkok but old problems remain

As ASEAN’s leaders attend the bloc’s annual two-day summit in Bangkok, many unasked and unanswered questions remain about the group’s viability going forward.

Written by

Updated: June 24, 2019

Since its conception 52-years ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has maintained a policy of political non-interference. All statements released together as a group must be unanimously approved less it hinder domestic considerations.

During the last 52 years, many countries within the bloc have transitioned from despotic, totalitarian rule to semi-democratic and fully democratic states. Gone are the Marcos, Suhartos and Sarits of yesteryear, replaced by a new guard with clearer mandates and blossoming economies.

But as ASEAN members have transitioned and politically matured, so to has the world around the region. Gone are the black and white days of the cold war, replaced by a burgeoning China, a still powerful United States and competing transnational corporations all vying for the region’s currency, its workforce and its favour.

Convenient non-interference

But as ASEAN members have matured, the bloc itself has remained stagnant. Bound by its rules of non-interference, the bloc has not been able to mount a cohesive response to the challenges facing its members states from both without and within.

One example of how this dynamic comes into play is the  South China Sea, which provides several countries with food security and others with natural resources, but is contested by several bloc members and China.

While Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines would undoubtedly benefit from a united ASEAN response to China’s growing encroachment, any unanimous response is hindered by Cambodia and Laos who rely on Chinese investment and expertise.

“Is there a consensus among ASEAN nations that China’s operations in the South China Sea is illegal and unfair? Behind closed doors, absolutely,” said one senior Thai diplomat who asked to not be named.

“But you will never get a single voice because Cambodia and Laos will be under pressure to not [upset] their paymasters.”

The South China Sea is not the only topic on which ASEAN members have had to be reticent.

Over the past several years, Myanmar’s treatment of its Muslim minority group, the Rohingya, has drawn the attention of some ASEAN  members including Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia.

According to the United Nations, nearly 1 million Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh to escape persecution, mass killings and livelihood destructions. One human rights group has gone so far as to call the persecution a genocide.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia have rebuked Myanmar for its action with Malaysia most pointedly breaking the bloc’s long held tradition of political noninterference.

“Myanmar’s security forces are killing even women and children without pity. These are humans. These people are not animals. We may have our differences, but we have to stand together on humanitarian grounds,” said Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi at an ASEAN ministerial meeting radicalisation and violent extremism.

He also questioned Myanmar’s blocking of assistance to the Rohingya.

“If you are really a democratic country as you say you are, then you should not stand in the way of humanitarian aid.”

Yet even as Malaysia and Indonesia delivered public rebukes, the bloc as a whole failed to unanimously condemn the actions of the Myanmar government, which would have sent a much stronger signal regarding the gravity of this situation.

But there is a clear strategic reason these states remain silent

“I think that the reason that countries do not want to condemn, as a bloc, these actions is because they do not want to face the same scrutiny,” said the senior Thai diplomat.

“Everyone is guilty of something in this region. Does Thailand want others to scrutinize its persecution of its dissidents? Does Brunei’s Sultan want his neighbors to scrutinize the new sharia laws that punishes homosexuality? What about Indonesia’s actions in West Papua over the last half century?”

“Non-interference has worked very well for ASEAN.”

China’s sphere

But whether non-interference continues to work well going forward remains to be seen. ASEAN’s inability to form a cohesive, united response to internal and external factors will be tested as regional powers grow in might and ambition.

China, with its aggressive expansion of its One Belt One Road initiative and its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, has more say than ever in the affairs of ASEAN nations.

China is currently involved in infrastructure projects in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. It is selling arms to nearly all ASEAN members. China’s tourists frequent the beaches, temples and mosques of Southeast Asia.

Doing business with China is lucrative. But the cost of doing business with China is to surrender to Beijing’s growing hegemony. Countries have had to be reticent about issues they may feel strongly about less it damage its relationship with beijing.

Needing to Evolve

Throughout the past weekend, ASEAN leaders have professed the necessity for the bloc and its collective bargaining power both behind closed doors and in public. ASEAN, according to the politicians anyway, is a safeguard against foreign encroachment and a united entity to negotiate trade with bigger economic powers.

Yet despite the speeches in Bangkok,  ASEAN has yet to really move beyond the model set over half a century ago of non-interference and weak relationships.  Unless the bloc evolves out of its archaic restrictions and offers a truly united front, the unity that could see the region truly prosper will continue to be handicapped.


Enjoyed this story? Share it.

About the Author: ANN’s current Chairman is Mr Warren Fernandez, who is also Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times, Singapore. He is the current President of the World Editors Forum.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia

Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.

By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Analysis, Diplomacy

Internet healthcare serving homebound patients in China

Online consultations, pharmaceutical deliveries play vital role during outbreak. One recent rainy day, Wu Hong was waiting at the gate of her residential community in Wuhan, Hubei province. When a deliveryman with a bag of medicine came into sight, she was greatly relieved. Wu’s mother-in-law is a breast-cancer patient and needs to take medicine regularly. Wu’s father suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and inhalers have been in short supply. As the novel coronavirus epidemic grew more serious, Wu wasn’t permitted to take her family to the hospital for drug refills. She was left in a state of restless anxiety. On Feb 26, Wu and her husband saw a news segment on TV saying that the Wuhan government had enabled online reimbursement se

By China Daily
March 13, 2020

Analysis, Diplomacy

India’s Congress suffers setback after key leader defects to BJP

Move by Scindia and 22 legislators could trigger fall of Congress-led govt in central Madhya Pradesh state. The Congress has suffered a political setback following the resignation of Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia and 22 legislators in Madhya Pradesh state, deepening an existential crisis for a party that is struggling for political relevance in modern Indian politics. Mr Scindia, 49, an articulate leader, yesterday joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with legislators loyal to him expected to follow suit. The move could lead to the collapse of the Congress-led Madhya Pradesh government. That would give the BJP a chance to form the government in the Hindi heartland state, which is seen as key objective for

By The Straits Times
March 12, 2020

Analysis, Diplomacy

Chinese Red Cross teams aid Iran’s COVID-19 fight

Humanitarian group to help Iranians with containment measures that worked in China. Voices on the other end of the line cut in and out due to a poor phone connection as officials at the Red Cross Society of China’s headquarters in Beijing attempted to talk to staff members on the ground in Iran on Tuesday morning. As the signal stabilised, the latest developments in controlling the novel coronavirus pneumonia epidemic in Teheran streamed into a conference room packed with Red Cross managers. Zhou Xiaohang, head of a five-member team-four medics and a Farsi interpreter sent to assist with COVID-19 control in Iran-said Iranians are increasingly taking precautions such as wearing face masks and washing their hands more often.

By China Daily
March 11, 2020

Analysis, Diplomacy

Shortage of Masks, Handwash due to panic- buying: Leave some for everyone

Despite repeated calls by global and local health experts and warnings from government, panic-buying grips the country. Global health experts have warned against hoarding masks, handwash and sanitisers during the coronavirus outbreak as it could worsen the situation by depriving those who might need them. Despite this, panic-buying of these products in Dhaka has been triggered by news of the first confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. Across the capital, several pharmacies and superstores have been facing a shortage of masks, antiseptic liquids and sanitisers since Sunday afternoon. The demand for tissue papers has also almost doubled overnight, some retailers claimed. Many of the retail stores, super shops and pharmacies in Karwan Bazar, M

By Daily Star
March 10, 2020

Analysis, Diplomacy

MH17 trial in Malaysia begins today

It was reported that MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile while flying over the conflict-hit eastern Ukraine. The trial will begin today. All eyes will be on the District Court of The Hague at the Schiphol Judicial Complex (JCS) in Badhoevedorp as the criminal proceeding against four men accused of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 begins. It was reported that MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile while flying over the conflict-hit eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board, comprising 43 Malaysians, 193 Dutch nationals and 27 Australians, were killed. Members of the Malaysian media here to cover the start of the trial were given a briefing by press secretary for the judge, Yolande Wijnnobel, on what to expect at the start of the much-awai

By The Star
March 9, 2020

Analysis, Diplomacy

OPINION: ‘Righteous’ women

So who is this ‘righteous’ woman that would never dare join Aurat Marchers? ‘TIS the season to be righteous, or so many prominent Pakistanis on TV and social media along with the religious right would have us believe. Pakistan suffers from hypocritical moral policing at the best of times — in homes, colleges and universities, places of religious worship, and the workplace — but the trigger for the current frenzy is the impending Aurat Marches in many cities of the country. Given that these marches only began three years ago, one can only marvel at how rapidly they have gotten under the proverbial skin of their highly agitated opponents. Enough has been said and written about the wider context of the marches and why they threaten the

By ANN Members
March 6, 2020