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.
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.”
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.