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The balance sheet of Asean shows rich gains and massive losses in the 1967-2017 period. The anti-communist group has resolved some of its knotty bilateral territorial disputes just as successfully as its original five members have ensured high living standards for its people. Its newer members, however, are struggling to construct their economies. While it has done well in tackling intra-Asean disputes, it is riven with internal differences in its diplomacy with outside powers such as China over the South China Sea disputes, and its drive to integrate the economies of its ten member countries has been a partial success. The Asean human rights commission has given much cause for concern over its silence on the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas of Myanmar.

THE IDEA OF ASEAN WAS AN EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIMENT THAT  brought together a group of unstable countries that had won their freedom from the Western colonial powers only a few years earlier. Indonesia had fought its Dutch colonisers who left in 1945, the Philippines freed itself from the United States in 1946, Malaysia was liberated from British control in 1957, and Britain dissolved its Crown Colony in Singapore in 1963 when it merged with Malaysia in that year, but Singapore would break away just two years later as an independent city-state.

A creation of the Cold War, Asean unabashedly forged an anti-communist identity right from the start by joining a U.S.-led bloc of Asian countries that also encompassed South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Its formation in 1967 was an effort to fence off the region from the communist guerrillas that had renewed their war in Malaya in the same year, and the even more powerful communist forces in North Vietnam that were repeatedly inflicting military defeats upon the United States. The end of the Cold War, however, threw Asean into an existential dilemma, as it now sought to frame a new identity for itself in order to stay relevant.

Asean was, at once, a grouping that, on the one hand, sought unity in forging a common regional diplomatic strategy in resolving festering crises within the region, and only after some of them were resolved did it turn its attention to integrating its economies. And, on the other hand, it closely coordinated its diplomacy with the major global and regional powers in order to secure both collective security and economic prosperity. Yet, Asean has come in for criticism. But it is necessary to revisit the hostile conditions under which it was formed, and to examine why some of the old animosities have persisted and why new ones have emerged.

The original Asean five—Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines—were an ill-fitting group of military dictatorships, nascent democracies, and a new city-state. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia were embroiled in disputes. It fell upon Thailand to try and broker reconciliation among the three. It then occurred to the four countries that a rare historical moment for regional cooperation had arrived, and that if the moment passed, the region would remain unstable in the future. One of the protagonists of that historic process, the foreign minister of Thailand, Thanat Khoman, remembers: “At the banquet marking the reconciliation between the three disputants, I broached the idea of forming another organisation for regional cooperation with Adam Malik.[1]

The Indonesian foreign minister, Malik, quickly agreed, but he sought more time to talk with his government, and most importantly to normalise relations with Malaysia now that the period of “Confrontation” between them was over.[2]

Thanat recalls that the Thai Foreign Office prepared a draft document on the new institution. He, then, invited Malaysia and the Philippines, the two former members of the Association for Southeast Asia (ASA, a predecessor of Asean that lasted briefly from 1961 to 1967), as well as Indonesia to a meeting in Bangkok. The foreign minister of Singapore, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, came to see Thanat about joining the intriguing new entity. Thanat explains: “Although the new organisation was planned to comprise only the ASA members plus Indonesia, Singapore’s request was favourably considered.”

The camaraderie between the foreign ministers was on display. In early August 1967, the five ministers spent four days in the relative isolation of a beach resort in Bang Saen, a coastal town less than one hundred kilometres southeast of Bangkok. The urbane quintet informally negotiated what would become the Asean Declaration. They would later delight in describing it as “sports-shirt diplomacy.” They developed unity with a deliberate use of humour at the negotiating table in order to set aside their differences in much the same way as they would on the golf course where they, again, employed diplomatic humour about one another’s game.

At Bang Saen, once the Asean Declaration was drafted, the foreign ministers explained the goals of the semi-fledged organisation. The formalities began with the first speaker, the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Narciso Ramos, remarking in candour that “the fragmented economies of Southeast Asia” were each pursuing their own limited objectives and “dissipating” their meager resources in overlapping or even conflicting endeavors. These states carried “the seeds of weakness in their incapacity for growth and their self-perpetuating dependence on the advanced, industrial nations.” Ramos, whose only son, Fidel V. Ramos, would become a future president of the country, suggested that Asean, therefore, could marshal the untapped potential of the rich region through united action.

Asean foreign ministers signing the Asean Declaration on August 8, 1967. Photo by the courtesy of Asean.

The deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak, presciently put forth the idea that in future Asean would include all the countries of Southeast Asia. For the present, he warned that the member states must realise that they “cannot survive and unless we prove by deeds that we belong to a family of Southeast Asian nations bound together by ties of friendship and goodwill and imbued with our own ideals and aspirations and determined to shape our own destiny.”

For his part, Rajaratnam did not pull any punches, declaring that the expectations of the people of Southeast Asia for better living standards had not been fulfilled. Rajaratnam, whose short stories were published in The Spectator, and who was recruited by the novelist George Orwell to contribute scripts for the BBC, urged them to not only think of their national interests but also of regional interests. A regional existence meant that the members must make painful and difficult adjustments. “If we are not going to do that, then regionalism remains a utopia,” he warned.

Rajaratnam worried that Asean would be misunderstood, and he hastened to clarify that the group was not against any nation. He also feared that outside powers had a vested interest in the balkanisation, or the fragmentation of the region or a state into smaller regions or states. Rajaratnam explained: “We want to ensure a stable Southeast Asia, not a balkanised Southeast Asia,” and that outside powers that were genuinely interested in the stability and prosperity of the region would welcome a union of small countries to pool their collective resources and their collective wisdom to contribute to world peace.

Thailand’s Thanat sent a signal of reassurance to the other neighbouring countries that the goal of Asean was to create, not to destroy. When it was his turn to speak, Thanat voiced concern over the long-running war in Vietnam. He had foreseen the eventual departure of American military forces from Indochina, and he knew that Thai foreign policy would have to be suitably recalibrated. The adjustment could only mean one thing: that the countries of Southeast Asia had no option but to cooperate and even integrate. Asean, he said, would build a new society that would “erase the old and obsolete concept of domination and subjection of the past and replace it with the new spirit of give and take, of equality and partnership,” adding that the region’s countries wanted to be the “master of their own house and to enjoy the inherent right to decide their own destiny ….” Thanat agonised that the major impediments were region-wide ignorance, disease and hunger, and that the region’s small states could not erase them alone, but would do so collectively.

Within three weeks Indonesia restored diplomatic relations with Malaysia, and soon afterwards with Singapore. A major dispute that had divided the region had been resolved. But smaller disputes continued to simmer. Soon the Philippines and Malaysia clashed over the issue of sovereignty over Sabah, an issue that has remained unresolved.[3] Other disputes between Asean countries are still not settled as well, but their differences have been contained by an understanding that a resolution must be reached through peaceful means and that disputes should not be allowed to disrupt regional harmony. Under a shared perspective, the region began creating a loose union.

After having negotiated the formation of Asean at the Thai beach resort city, the five foreign ministers met again just a few days later, on August 8, at the main hall of the Department of Foreign Affairs building in Bangkok, where they signed a document creating Asean. The five—Malik, Ramos, Razak, Rajaratnam, and Thanat—set into motion arguably the most successful inter-governmental organisation in the developing world by signing the Asean Declaration. It was a brief document, shorn of diplomatic verbiage, of just five articles whose goal was to cooperate in the economic, social, cultural, technical, and educational spheres, and to safeguard regional peace and stability through respect for justice and the rule of law in conformity with the principles of the United Nations Charter. It left the door open for the other Southeast Asian countries to join as members, provided that they subscribed to its aims, principles and purposes. It proclaimed Asean as representing “the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation, and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity.”

The Asean Declaration of August 8, 1967. Document by the courtesy of Asean.

But first, some criticisms need to be addressed. Asean has been compared to the European Union (EU), most often unfavourably.[4] Several scholars have suggested that Asean as an institution was influenced by the EU, and that it has used the EU as a “model power.” The comparison springs from the belief that Asean can learn something from Europe’s longer history of cooperation, though only sixteen years longer, as Europe began cooperating as late as 1951. Reuben Wong has argued that the EU exerts some power over Asean—but merely as a “reference point.” The EU’s influence, however, is not active. It serves as a passive reference point for Asean, as the Southeast Asian group does not consciously emulate it.

It has also been faulted for taking forty years to create a charter in 2007, in whose absence it had lacked coherence. The Asean Charter has set out the parameters, principles and purposes of Southeast Asian diplomacy at a time when it is transitioning from being state-centric towards a more people-centred entity. Under such logic, the majority of the stated purposes in the charter concentrate on the livelihood and well-being of the region’s people.[5]

To its credit, it has performed better than the EU in several organisational areas. The charter adopts English as its working language, instead of a mélange of regional tongues. Asean has produced a better system than the EU where every official EU document must be written in at least three languages. Asean has also improved on the EU in creating a unique regional identity. It has adopted the Asean Motto, “One Vision, One Identity, One Community,” and an Asean anthem (“There Shall Be One”). Asean identity-building has acquired a greater momentum with an Asean flag, an Asean emblem, and an Asean Day (August 8).

This essay disagrees with scholars who criticise Asean as an imitation of the EU’s organisational form without the substance. Asean has, in fact, constantly made innovations through its charter. It has managed to consolidate itself by its informality, preferring “sports shirt” diplomacy over business suit diplomacy, to use the phrase of Tun Abdul Razak. A manifestation of such an approach is the “Asean Way,” a loose union animated by consensus and widening links with the United States, the EU, Australia, India, China, and Russia. In 1994, its external links were strengthened by the creation of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) to serve as a stage for dialogue on security and politics between Asean and its partners. A consensus-driven diplomacy, however, has a downside as Asean has been too soft on Myanmar for its treatment of its democratic leaders and Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, as well as its failure to confront Cambodia about its support for China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Embedded within the idea of consensus is the policy of non-interference which has clearly reached its limits, and should be abandoned in favour of a more activist approach.

Cold War diplomacy had split Asian countries into two blocs. When the communist and nationalist forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, under the leadership of President Ho Chi Minh, defeated the French military at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, a panicked United States responded by creating the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in September that year.[6] The United States conceived it as a mini-Southeast Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It bandwagoned countries located outside the region such as the United States, Australia, France, New Zealand—all of which opposed the rise of Asian communism—along with Pakistan (including East Pakistan, now Bangladesh), but with the participation of only two Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines and  Thailand. It was the first attempt at unifying the region against the perceived threat of Vietnamese communism.

It was, nonetheless, based on a misreading of the nature of Vietnamese communism, a fact acknowledged by many scholars and senior U.S. officials. Vietnamese communism was not textbook Stalinism because it combined nationalism, anti-colonialism, and internationalism.[7] Ho Chi Minh personally made efforts to forge cooperation with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), marking a period of accord and harmony in U.S.-North Vietnam relations. It was, of course, a brief prelude to three decades of hostility and conflict between the United States and revolutionary forces in Vietnam. Some OSS operatives believed that the tragic consequences of the U.S. intervention might have been avoided if Washington had abided by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desire to prevent the French colonial leaders from returning to Indochina after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and if the United States had recognised Ho’s Viet Minh as a legitimate nationalist force. There clearly were lost chances and roads not taken.[8]

Ho Chi Minh (standing third from left) and Defence Minister Vo Nguyen Giap (fifth, in suit and tie) with OSS officers during training in Tan Trao, North Vietnam in 1945. This photo, by the courtesy of Wikicommons, is in the public domain.

U.S. Senator William Fulbright, a prominent critic of American intervention, saw Ho Chi Minh as an independent nationalist fighting for a just cause, in a remarkable comment in 1966:[9]

Ho Chi Minh is not a mere agent of Communist China… He is a bona fide nationalist revolutionary, the leader of his country’s rebellion against French colonialism. He is also…a dedicated communist but always a Vietnamese communist…For our purposes, the significance of Ho Chi Minh’s nationalism is that it is associated with what Bernard Fall has called “the 2,000-year-old distrust in Vietnam of everything Chinese.” Vietnamese communism is therefore a potential bulwark—perhaps the only potential bulwark—against Chinese domination of Vietnam.

The following year the African-American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., protested the U.S. intervention that was subverting the efforts of the North Vietnamese to seek self-determination. King explained to the U.S. authorities that the North Vietnamese government had been established not by China, but it was an indigenous entity that included communists and nationalists that were carrying out land reforms to improve their lives.[10] 

Asean, however, fell in line with the West. Not only did the United States err in intervening in Vietnam, but many of its Southeast Asian allies supported an unnecessary war in Vietnam that was based on several misconceptions. The principal architect of the war, the U.S. secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, performed an unexpected volte-face, arguing in his memoir that the United States “could and should have withdrawn from South Vietnam” in late 1963 after the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem or a year or so later.[11] McNamara was obviously owning up to his mistake not only in the context of the growing numbers of American deaths—in November 1963, 78 Americans had died in the war in Vietnam; in late 1964, the total stood at 225, and by the war’s end in 1975, it had passed 58,000—but also because of an American misreading of Ho Chi Minh’s war policies. As secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968, he pushed so hard for deeper American military involvement in 1964 and 1965 that the conflict in Southeast Asia became known as “McNamara’s War.” Later, he had serious differences with President Lyndon B. Johnson over his suggestion that a diplomatic solution should be sought as he was convinced that the war was unwinnable. He quit the Pentagon in 1968 to head the World Bank. He blamed himself and his U.S. government colleagues, as well as Johnson, for mistakes that led to tragedy, declaring: “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

During the course of the Vietnam War, Southeast Asian leaders completely misinterpreted the North Vietnamese desire for independence and their victorious war against the United States. They mistakenly conflated Vietnamese nationalism as a form of aggression that would eventually threaten other Southeast Asian countries. The U.S. policy was shaped by the Domino Theory, proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954, to explain the strategic value of Indochina to the United States. Under the “falling domino” principle, he declared: “You have a row of dominos set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have the beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”[12]

The theory held sway on the basis of misinformed U.S. and allied foreign policy, and has been thoroughly discredited. McNamara has admitted that he belatedly concluded that the theory, subscribed to by his three successors, was wrong: The loss of South Vietnam, he stated, never threatened to undermine the entire American sphere of influence in Asia, or to hurt U.S. credibility in other parts of the world. “On the contrary, it is possible we would have improved our credibility by withdrawing from Vietnam and saving our strength for more defensible stands elsewhere,” he has explained. Others in the U.S. government shared the same belief. McNamara has disclosed that Richard Helms, at that time the director of Central Intelligence, sent President Johnson a memo in September 1967 that the president showed no one. The Helms memo argued that the effects of “an unfavorable outcome in Vietnam would not be permanently damaging to this country’s capacity to play its part as a world power working for order and security in many areas.”

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, some Asean countries, belatedly, began publicly questioning the assumptions behind the Domino Theory. On May 6 that year, the Malaysian foreign minister, Tan Sri Mohammad Ghazali Shafie, critically dismissed the Domino Theory as “patently suspect in terms of both theory and empirical validity,” and that “in practical empirical terms” it had no relevance to Southeast Asian countries.[13] Even though the Vietnam War, formally known as the Second Indochina War, ended in 1975, the region remained mired in Indochina politics until the late 1980s.

The politics of the glue now emerged. Asean officials often remarked through the 1990s that the group lacked cohesion. In the Cambodian Civil War (1979-1991), Asean found an adhesive that would bind it. But the glue gradually came unstuck. In the early stages of Asean diplomacy, the group stayed united as Singapore and Asean diplomatically challenged the Vietnamese ‘invasion’ of Cambodia in 1979 which overthrew the Khmer Rouge (Democratic Kampuchea regime) and installed in power the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) regime led by Heng Samrin. Many nonaligned nations, however, viewed it not as an invasion but as an act of liberation of the Cambodian people from a genocidal regime. At this stage, Singapore could not stay neutral. The historian Ang Cheng Guan explains that the rationale for the new relationship between Singapore and Democratic Kampuchea was to encourage Cambodia’s independence from Vietnamese influence.[14] 

The Cambodian crisis was not an ordinary issue to Singapore, it was an existential question. In the words of the permanent secretary of the ministry of foreign affairs (MFA), S.R. Nathan (who later became the president of Singapore), “the principle involved was that no foreign military intervention should be allowed to overthrow a legally constituted regime,” and that “if this principle was violated, it would create a dangerous precedent” with foreign forces entering Thailand and setting up a regime under a local Thai communist party.[15] Nathan was warning of a possible domino effect.

Asean contradictorily denounced the genocidal Khmer Rouge, yet it cynically chose to support it because it was the only Cambodian entity capable of fighting the Vietnamese army in Cambodia. Singapore and Asean continued recognising Democratic Kampuchea diplomatically, but it did not wish to see the return of the Pol Pot regime because of its genocidal record.[16] This meant that Asean would support Democratic Kampuchea as the holder of Cambodia’s seat at the UN because if the Pol Pot regime was denied diplomatic backing, there was the danger of losing the seat to the PRK.

Acutely aware of China’s unstinting support for Pol Pot, the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, on a visit to Beijing in November 1980, told Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping that in order for Asean diplomacy at the UN to be credible, Asean must not be seen to be restoring Pol Pot to Cambodia.[17] Deng responded that China was unwilling to withdraw support to the Khmer Rouge because it was the only military force capable of fighting the Vietnamese. Deng was, however, willing to promote an alliance of anti-Vietnamese forces, including Cambodia’s non-communist groups.

Within Asean an enervating rift opened up. Initially, while Thailand accommodated the Chinese position, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines did not want Asean to succumb to Chinese pressure. In July 1981, the acting Chinese foreign minister told the foreign minister of Singapore, S. Dhanabalan “in a very stern accusatory tone” that “he knew what Singapore was up to” [at the International Conference on Kampuchea, the ICK, in New York in July that year]. Dhanabalan recollects: “He implied that we were engaged in a secret conspiracy to shape the sentiment at the conference against the return of the overthrown regime.”[18]

The United States, however, wanted Asean to lend support to China’s plan to restore the Khmer Rouge to power. U.S. officials vented their anger on Singapore. According to Singapore officials the “infamous” behaviour of the United States became “etched in the minds of MFA officers who were involved in the Cambodian issue.”[19] The U.S. secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, John Holdridge, warned Dhanabalan that Singapore should not do anything which might upset the Chinese. Holdridge “threatened” Dhanabalan that he would “go over my head and take the matter up with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.” Veteran MFA diplomat Kishore Mahbubani declared that he was “really astounded” by the battle with the United States. Other MFA officials recalled Holdridge telling Dhanabalan that if Singapore did not compromise, there would be “blood on the floor.” Singapore ambassador Tommy Koh explained that China was of greater strategic importance to the United States than Asean during the Cold War.

Asean policy had begun to unravel. Its insistence on the CGDK (Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, a government in exile composed of Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Funcinpec, the Khmer Rouge, and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front) not holding direct talks with the PRK regime had begun to irritate Sihanouk, who had agreed to meet the prime minister of the PRK, Hun Sen, in France in November-December 1987. Sihanouk was displeased with Singapore’s efforts to thwart his attempts to seek a political solution.[20] He believed that Asean was “too hardline” with the bottom line determined by the Thais. So when Sihanouk and Hun Sen met that year, Asean had no choice but to accept the new reality as well. In effect, Asean policy was failing because the PRK had established its legitimacy, Vietnam was let off the hook, and the CGDK was sidelined.

The split widened when Thailand and Indonesia competed to dominate policymaking, and both forged closer links with Vietnam—which Hanoi used to its advantage—while Singapore and Malaysia stayed firm in their opposition to Hanoi and the PRK (renamed State of Cambodia in 1989). At early peace talks, Vietnam tried to exploit the differences between Indonesia and Thailand. Indonesia bent over backwards to please Hanoi as Jakarta regarded the talks as an opportunity to raise its global profile.[21]

Prince Norodom Sihanouk (right) with Prime Minister Hun Sen during early peace talks in 1987. Photo by the courtesy of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sihanouk censured Asean for the contradictions in its foreign policy: he thought the Indonesians were too accommodative of Vietnam, and the Thais too close to the Khmer Rouge.[22] Asean unity was hurt by rivalry for control of Indochina policy between the prime minister of Thailand, Chatichai Choonhavan (who wanted closer economic ties with the Hun Sen regime), on the one hand, and the Indonesian foreign ministry, on the other hand. In January 1989, Chatichai invited Hun Sen to visit Bangkok, representing a major departure from established Asean policy to isolate his regime. Indonesia and Singapore symbolised the two extremes of Asean policy: Indonesia worked towards an internal settlement that would leave Hun Sen in power, while Singapore promoted a four-party government among the Cambodian factions. Not only did Indonesia believe that Hun Sen was the most credible candidate for leadership and that he was essential to prevent the return of the Khmer Rouge, but Jakarta also wanted real power to reside with Hun Sen under the titular leadership of Sihanouk.

Asean’s control of the Cambodian conflict loosened when the issue was taken over by the International Conference on Cambodia (ICC) hosted by France in 1989. The president of France, François Mitterrand, now clearly supported Hun Sen, signalling that Asean’s policy had reached its limits.[23] Sihanouk had, however, temporarily accepted Hun Sen’s control of the country within a four-party government, till he could appoint his own officials, but Singapore opposed this proposal. At this time Australia demonstrated sympathy for Vietnam, and declared that it could not disregard the Hun Sen regime beyond 1990.

Step by step, Asean policy came apart. A Singapore MFA report on the 44th UN General Assembly debate in 1989 cautioned Asean that its confrontation with Vietnam at the UN was out of sync with the times, and that “the Asean resolution on Cambodia is in danger of being perceived as an anachronism.”[24] The MFA now concluded that if Singapore maintained “a hardline position, Singapore risks being isolated,” and if Singapore did not modify its strategy “an unpalatable agreement could be forced on us at a reconvened ICC.” It warned: “Singapore would then be perceived as having suffered a diplomatic defeat.”[25] When the UN Permanent Five took over the Cambodian issue in 1990, Asean and Singapore decisively lost control of it.

At the time, neither did Asean push for greater regional integration or trade liberalisation as it was embroiled in the Cambodian Civil War, nor did the grouping show much interest in China. Beijing lacked formal relations with many Southeast Asian states and was a minor trading partner for most of them in the late 1980s, even though China had opened up to the world in the late 1970s. China did not seem attractive at the time as most Asean countries were building export-oriented economies based on low wages, Japanese investments, and open Western markets. Their export-driven strategy proved successful until the 1980s and early 1990s when Thailand and Singapore posted spectacularly high rates of economic growth.

As the Indochina wars had ended, the grouping admitted Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, as well as Myanmar, in the 1990s, ending the Yangon regime’s long self-imposed isolation. At this time, China began conducting a new diplomatic “charm offensive” in Southeast Asia by offering investment and training for Southeast Asian officials and demonstrating a desire to avoid confrontation in the South China Sea.

The U.S. president, George W. Bush, neglected Southeast Asia yet remained focused on counter-terrorism and non-proliferation measures from 9/11 till 2006. The Bush administration avoided engagement with international crime, disaster management and emergency response, and ignored economic and social conditions of the local people.[26] As a result, China’s influence began growing rapidly in the region. Some Southeast Asian leaders such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and the Philippines’ Fidel Ramos understood that if Asean dealt with China as a group it might succeed in negotiating more favourable terms on trade and investments than if each country negotiated bilaterally.

Many Asean countries were alarmed by China’s occupation of disputed islands in the South China Sea. Under its historic claim to eighty percent of the South China Sea, China occupied and militarised several disputed islands. China claims most of the South China Sea as its legitimate domain, whereas Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys and a significant part of the sea. The Philippines asserts its ownership of eight islands in the Spratlys as its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), while both Vietnam and Taiwan claim considerable portions of the sea, as well as the Spratly and Paracel group of islands.

Asean, however, undermined its own collective strength not only by failing to present a united front to China, but also by intra-Asean squabbles. Asean solidarity was sapped by boundary clashes between Cambodia and Thailand, and territorial disputes which were eventually resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) such as the Sipadan Ligitan island issue between Malaysia and Indonesia in 2002, and the Pedro Branca issue between Singapore and Malaysia in 2008. The Declaration of a Code of Conduct proposed for the South China Sea could not progress into a binding code. China would not act on the proposed code, and it eventually delivered a shock to Asean in 2009 by announcing the ‘nine-dash line,’ a move that was seen as an infringement upon international law. Beijing used the ‘nine-dash line’ to demarcate its maritime and territorial claims, and to reaffirm its right to access traditional fishing grounds at the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Some Asean countries adopted a conciliatory position towards the maritime disputes with China as Beijing poured investment funds into selected Asean countries, and reached an understanding with them on the disputes. In April 2016, the former Asean secretary-general, Ong Keng Yong, rebuked Cambodia and Laos for making a pact with China on how to settle the South China Sea issue, arguing that it amounted to them interfering in the domestic affairs of Asean. Speaking at an Asean community forum in Jakarta, Ong stated that the pact was surprising because Cambodia and Laos were non-claimant states in the dispute.

The Philippines, in turn, took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled against Beijing in July 2016. The court declared that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources. The tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line.’ It found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its EEZ by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone. The tribunal also condemned China’s land reclamation projects and its construction of artificial islands at seven features in the Spratly Islands, concluding that it had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte prior to their bilateral meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 20, 2016. This photo, by the courtesy of the Philippine government and Wikicommons, is in the public domain.

The euphoria of the verdict dissipated quickly as Rodrigo Duterte, who had become the president of the Philippines mere weeks before the judgment, immediately extended an olive branch to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, offering to shelve the ruling in return for co-operation on fishing and trade. In typically florid language, Duterte insulted the U.S. president, Barack Obama, and openly threatened to abrogate the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. China snatched geopolitical victory from the jaws of legal defeat. Asean was again in turmoil over one of its members breaking ranks.

As in the past, serious rifts again caused intense turmoil within Asean, this time due to China turning Cambodia and the Philippines into its sphere of influence by pouring in massive investment funds. Cambodia destabilised Asean by acting on behalf of China. In July 2016, at an Asean meeting in Vientiane, Cambodia blocked any mention of the international court ruling against Beijing in Asean’s final communiqué. The Philippines and Vietnam had both wanted the communiqué, issued by Asean foreign ministers after their meeting, to refer to the ruling and the need to respect international law. But before the meeting, China’s closest Asean ally, Cambodia, opposed the desired wording, throwing the group into chaos. Phnom Penh not only supports Beijing’s opposition to any Asean stand on the maritime disputes, but it also backs China’s preference for dealing with the disputed claims on a bilateral basis. It was only the second time in its forty-nine year existence that Asean was prevented from issuing a statement. The first time, in 2012, was also due to Cambodia’s resistance to language about the South China Sea, in a clear signal that Cambodia did not respect or show allegiance to Asean.

Asean needs to manage its unruly members that are making a mockery of its cohesion on matters of grave importance. There are several ideas making the rounds on what Asean needs to do to stay united, and how it should deal with dissenting members.

At the core of the lack of cohesiveness are key questions: Was regional integration too rushed, or too ambitious? On December 31, 2015, Asean announced the establishment of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which aimed to produce region-wide economic integration. Yet, member states continue to have much less than full regional economic integration.[27] Some observers argue that the AEC has imposed an extremely ambitious timeline and a slew of badly conceived initiatives, underpinned by Asean’s historic dislike for legally binding agreements. Some progress has indeed been made in reducing or eliminating intra-Asean trade tariffs, but substantial non-tariff barriers to trade persist.

For most Asean member states the Asean market holds no great attraction as it is relatively small while external markets, especially China, are growing rapidly. The AEC will, therefore, continue to be a minor market in comparison to the larger external ones. The lack of large investment inflows between Asean states helps explain why Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia have invited China to invest in their countries.

Asean integration will not progress as rapidly and as substantially as many of its leaders claim unless there is a significant increase in intra-Asean trade and investment. Progress will remain slow unless regional businesses exert stronger pressure for deeper integration.[28] Asean cannot conceivably follow the EU model of creating a powerful and independent supranational Asean government to oversee the complex issues of economic integration because of the vastly differing political structures of each member state, ranging from democracies and partially open societies to one-party systems and de facto military rule. Scholars have demonstrated that while free trade agreements do help boost intra-regional trade, they may be less effective in bringing in investments. Southeast Asia, therefore, should better publicise its commitment to open market regionalism.[29]

The scholar Muthiah Alagapa argues that Asean suffers from a number of institutional weaknesses that must be addressed if cooperation is not to be impaired.[30] Although Asean’s consensus-driven style works well at the top level where political decisions are made, it works less well at the intra-Asean bureaucratic level as it hampers effectiveness on issues where agreement has already been reached at the policy level. The group may have cooperated on many more issues had it not been for the need to reach consensus at each level of bureaucratic implementation. The mechanism of rotation of leadership among member states has, moreover, resulted in cumbersome and inefficient machinery that lacks continuity. A rotating leadership works through its national secretariats, making the Asean Secretariat ineffective and placing it outside the loop. The national secretariats emphasise the national interest and not the interest of the Asean community. Some of Asean’s flaws appear to be self-imposed. It operates with a very small staff at the Asean Secretariat compared to other regional bodies around the world, when it need not.

Some Asean leaders have urged the organisation to discard decision-making by consensus.[31] Yet, the habit will be difficult to break because of the disparate political structures of member states, some of whom are not exactly models of openness. Some Asean leaders have, nonetheless, proposed that important decisions should be taken by vote in order to hasten decision-making. But it has remained just an idea that did not find mention in the new charter in 2007. Yet the group has remained wedded to the ideals of consensus and non-intervention of the original Asean Declaration.

As a result, Asean has not empowered itself to intervene in members countries where human rights abuses are occurring, such as the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, as the group still lacks a mechanism to collectively intercede. It is still at a great distance from its charter goal to establish a “just, democratic, and harmonious environment in the region.” [32]

It became necessary for Asean to create an institution on human rights in response to civil society gaining influence in Southeast Asia. On October 23, 2009, the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights was formed at the 15th Asean Summit in Cha-am Hua Hin, Thailand. The commission has held several rounds of discussions among member states on trafficking in persons, achieving gender equality and empowering women, sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, rights of the child, rights of migrant workers, business and human rights, and rights of persons with disabilities.

The Asean human rights commission has remained silent on the massacre of the Rohnigyas of Myanmar. Asean’s absence from the crisis contrasted with the UN denouncing Myanmar for “ethnic cleansing,” and the EU condemning it as “a human rights crisis with serious humanitarian consequences.” Titipol Phakdeewanich, Dean of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University in Thailand, argues that Asean does not share these concerns. The Asean declaration of human rights has been slammed by the UN Human Rights Council for its failure to embrace and synchronise with the language of global human rights, Dr. Titipol explains. Asean has not changed its language as it adheres to its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. Dr. Titipol explains: “Effectively this means that beliefs in cultural supremacy have been maintained at the expense of common humanity,” adding: “Despite Asean’s commitment to ‘strengthen democracy’ and to ‘promote and protect human rights,’ the institution and its member states continue to deny the universality of democracy and human rights,” thus further alienating their citizens from universal norms.[33] The Asean human rights body is demonstrably weak and unable or unwilling to stand up to the group’s most oppressive members.

Barring a couple of laggard states, Asean’s chief success has been its ability to deliver economic prosperity for large numbers of its people, though poverty still exists even in its richer member countries. An important contribution has been Asean’s effort to help prevent interstate conflicts in the region through dialogue, against the backdrop of several territorial disputes. So far, however, it has failed to manage the South China Sea disputes, and the group is looking to the major external powers to step in as providers of security.

Of grave concern to Asean are its three new members—Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos—all of whom are precariously balanced on different rungs of the poverty ladder, a legacy of their long years of global isolation. Upon joining the group, the trio was confronted with the challenge of participating in Asean events as their foreign service was woefully short of trained diplomats. Over the years, all three have worked hard at grooming a new generation of foreign service officers. Still, the laggards have tended to slow progress as the group operates by consensus. The inclusion of East Timor as a member in the future, and of Papua New Guinea later on, would obviously burden the group and would further complicate decision making under the ever more unwieldy consensus system.

Yet, Asean has tremendous collective potential that can be unleashed by genuine economic integration, and by devolving much greater powers to its secretariat to enable it to engage the outside powers on issues of trade and security. If Asean can find its lost cohesion, it can better manage the South China Sea disputes. To its credit, Asean has occupied the centre-stage in global trade liberalisation, owing to its proclivity to sign free trade agreements.

The Asean Regional Forum, equally, provides much-needed geostrategic space for the group to secure its collective security and defense by engaging the major world powers. The security of Asean and that of the broader Indo-Pacific region took a bold step forward on November 12, 2017, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dream of a “Security Diamond,” a coalition consisting of the major Asian democracies, began coming true after having been shattered twice before. A quadrilateral alliance, a “diamond” whose four sides are the United States, India, Japan and Australia, has committed to escalate its cooperation through closer military and strategic linkages in order to balance China’s growing military power in the region. But beyond that, one of the Quad partners, the United States, is also aiming to create an alternative model of economic development and financing to counter Chinese financial influence over the smaller countries in Asia and Africa. Almost ten years after the collapse of an initiative to create a quadrilateral coalition, officials of the four countries met in Manila on November 12 on the sidelines of an Asean summit, to create a new quadrilateral alliance they said would keep the Indo-Pacific region “free and open.” Right after the meeting, the four countries issued separate statements, agreeing to expand cooperation to uphold international law in the Indo-Pacific. The United States declared that the partners were looking at ways of “increasing connectivity,” and “coordinating counter-terrorism and maritime security.” It added: “The quadrilateral partners committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

What can be predicted about the next fifty years in the history of Asean? First, the group will certainly expand to include new members. Secondly, it will preserve both its consensus-driven approach and its policy of non-intervention in member states. Thirdly, it will not evolve into a EU-style organisation with a powerful central Asean government. This article has given adequate evidence to support the three arguments.

The security scenario in Southeast Asia, however, is much harder to predict. Yet this author foresees that although a full blown war over the disputed maritime resources is ruled out, there may brief skirmishes between the principal adversaries, namely the United States and China. 

How must Asean react in order to prevent a dangerous escalation? Asean and its dialogue partners, including China, must start on a fresh page by initiating a new multilateral dialogue that should enact confidence building measures aimed at productively addressing each other’s concerns, and narrowing their differences. Neither Asean nor China can expect to gain in an environment of mistrust where the threat of a military clash is always a possibility.

On the basis of the proposed new dialogue, a new opportunity should arise to renew and strengthen old bilateral diplomatic relationships, between the United States and China, between India and China, and between individual Asean countries and China. It is of paramount importance that the great civilisational powers, China, India, Southeast Asia, and South Korea and Japan, each need to work together as partners. There is also a great need to appreciate the Chinese assertion that its rise is peaceful, and to view China as a friend and ally; and equally for Beijing to demonstrate its friendship.   

The security of Asean should not be built on the basis of confrontation with any power. There should be, as in a near-perfect world, a consensus on a commitment to respect the rule of law. Only in such a world, can the resulting peace dividend lead to a shared economic and social prosperity.

Harish C. Mehta is a former Senior Indochina Correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore, and he was based in Singapore and Thailand for seventeen years, covering both Southeast Asia and Asean. He holds a PhD (McMaster University, Canada) in the history of American foreign relations and Southeast Asia. Author of three books on Cambodian politics and media, his articles on Vietnamese diplomacy have appeared in the American journals Diplomatic History, Peace and Change, The Historian, and History Compass, and his review articles have appeared in H-Diplo. He has taught history at McMaster, the University of Toronto, and Trent University. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Calcutta Journal of Global Affairs.


[1] The Founding of Asean,” http://asean.org/asean/about-asean/history/.

[2] The Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, or Konfrontasi, lasted from 1963 to 1966. The conflict was an intermittent war waged by Indonesia to oppose the formation and existence of the Federation of Malaysia. It was marked by a breakdown in political, economic and social relations that eventually led to armed incursions, bomb attacks, and acts of subversion and destabilisation. A proposal for a Federation of Malaysia, first announced in May 1961, sought to merge Malaya, Singapore and British colonies in Borneo, namely North Borneo (Sabah), Sarawak and Brunei. Indonesia initially did not raise any objections. Its opposition to the proposal came after the outbreak of the 1962 Brunei revolt. Several reasons were put forward for Indonesia’s opposition to the formation of Malaysia. One was that Indonesia regarded the Federation as having a neo-colonial status contrary to that of revolutionary Indonesia, especially in light of the fact that Britain would continue to have military bases in Malaya and Singapore. See, Malaysia, Ministry of Internal Security, Indonesian Intentions Towards Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur: Government Printing Office, 1964), 26; J.A.C. Mackie, Konfrontasi: The Indonesia-Malaysia Dispute, 1963–1966 (Kuala Lumpur and New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 125, 322; “Subandrio’s Speech Direct Attack: Tengku,The Straits Times, January 22, 1963, 1;  “Odd Echo,” The Straits Times, August 18, 1966, 10; R.L. Clutterbuck, Conflict & Violence in Singapore & Malaysia 1945–1983 (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1984), 279–280; Anwar Dewi Fortuna, Indonesia in ASEAN: Foreign Policy and Regionalism (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1994), 23; M.C. Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia Since c.1200 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 329; and “Mighty Malaysia,” The Straits Times, May 29, 1961, 1.  http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1072_2010-03-25.html.

[3] See, Leigh R. Wright, “Historical Notes on the North Borneo Dispute,” The Journal of Asian Studies, 25. 3 (May, 1966): 471-484.

[4] Reuben Wong, “Model Power or Reference Point? The EU and the ASEAN Charter,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 25. 4 (2012): 669-682.

[5] Media Release—ASEAN Leaders Sign ASEAN Charter, Singapore, November 20, 2007. http://asean.org/?static_post=media-release-asean-leaders-sign-asean-charter-singapore-20-november-2007.

[6] Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), 1954, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1953-1960/seato.

[7] Christopher Goscha, Thailand and the Southeast Asian Networks of the Vietnamese Revolution, 1885-1954 (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999), 281.

[8] Dixee Bartholomew-Feis, The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War against Japan (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2006); and E. Bruce Reynolds, “Temporary Allies: The OSS and Ho Chi Minh,” Diplomatic History, 31.4 (September 2007): 775–778.

[9] J. William Fulbright , The Arrogance of Power ( New York:  Random House , 1966 ), 112 ,  114.

[10] Manning Marable et al., eds., Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform and Renewal, An African American Anthology (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 441.

[11] Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1995); and, R.W. Apple, Jr., “McNamara Recalls, and Regrets, Vietnam,” New York Times, April 9, 1995. 

[12] Public Papers of the President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1960), 383.

[13] Ang Cheng Guan and Joseph Chinyong Liow, “The Fall of Saigon: Southeast Asian Perspectives,” April 21, 2015, Southeast Asia View, Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-fall-of-saigon-southeast-asian-perspectives/. Also see, “On the Domino Theory,” RTM Broadcast, May 6, 1975, in M. Ghazali Shafie, Malaysia: International Relations, Selected Speeches (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Creative Enterprise, 1982), 233-240.

[14] Ang Cheng Guan, Singapore, ASEAN and the Cambodian Conflict 1978-1991 (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2013), 9. Also see, Harish C. Mehta, review of Ang Cheng Guan, Singapore, ASEAN and the Cambodian Conflict 1978-1991 (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2013), H-Diplo, Roundtable Review, XV. 39 (June 23, 2014). https://issforum.org/roundtables/PDF/Roundtable-XV-39.pdf/.

[15] Ang, Singapore, ASEAN and the Cambodian Conflict 1978-1991, 5.

[16] Ibid, 24.

[17] Ibid, 36.

[18] Ibid, 38-39.

[19] Ibid, 39.

[20] Ibid, 102.

[21] Ibid, 110.

[22] Ibid, 111.

[23] Ibid, 125.

[24] Ibid, 143.

[25] Ibid, 145.

[26] Michael D. Swaine, America’s Challenge: Engaging a Rising China in the Twenty-First Century (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011), 116.

[27] Jörn Dosch, “The ASEAN Economic Community: Deep Integration or Just Political Window Dressing?” TRaNS: Trans -Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia, 5.1, (2017): 25-47.

[28] Min-hyung Kim, “Theorizing ASEAN Integration,” Asian Perspective, 35. 3 (July-September 2011): 407-435.

[29] Kiki Verico, “The Key Factors of Economic Integration in Southeast Asia: Case of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand,” Journal of ASEAN Studies, 4.2 (2016).

[30] The 2nd Asean Reader, Sharon Siddique and Sree Kumar, compilers (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2003).

[31] Joshua Kurlantzick, “ASEAN’s Future and Asian Integration,” Council on Foreign Relations, 2012. https://www.cfr.org/sites/default/files/pdf/2012/10/IIGG_WorkingPaper10_Kurlantzick.pdf.

[32] “The ASEAN Charter,” Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat, 2008).

[33] Titipol Phakdeewanich, “Asean Way means no respect for human rights of the Rohingya,” The Nation, September 29, 2017, Bangkok.