ASEAN: Rhetoric v Reality

By Ryan Thomson

Ryan is a Strategic Policy Officer at the Department of Defence. He attended the NATO Young Leaders Summit and Manama Dialogue as a Global Voices delegate.


There is a consistent theme in academic literature that suggests that as a region, Southeast Asia is characterised by increasing complexity and rising volatility (Ul-Hassan, 2014). This theme is often followed with challenges to the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as being insufficient for the security architecture of the region in dealing with this increasingly complex environment. The escalating tensions between claimants and China over disputed territories in the South China Sea, the resurgence of great power rivalry from China, Japan and India and a lack of political will within ASEAN to lead on these issues has resulted in a view that not only is the centrality of ASEAN an illusion (Shekhar, 2015), but that it also has limited utility for the region (Singh & Wesley, 2009).  Indeed many commentators have suggested even if ASEAN is examined strictly as a trading bloc compared to the European Union (EU) or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the economic benefits are far from being realised.

This paper will therefore explore the challenges to ASEAN and will contend that that there are three key themes which should inform policy planners in furthering Australia’s engagement within the region: (i) The rhetorical aspirations of ASEAN have not always aligned with practical outcomes and therefore further consideration is required on understanding the limitations of ASEAN, (ii) the net benefit of ASEAN in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the region will come from stronger external support which in turn supports the existing rules based global order and (iii) that high expectations upon ASEAN to resolve significant strategic challenges of the region can undermine its effectiveness and value to the region. These key concerns should be incorporated in policy planning to further engagement in line with the Australian Government’s approach to Southeast Asia.

South China Sea and ASEAN

The recent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favour of the Philippines, found that China had no basis for its expansive claims to territorial waters in the South China Sea[1]. The ruling may prove to be a critical juncture for the region, not least, according to Milner & Schafer (2016) because the ruling will most likely result in a further escalation of tensions between China and other claimant states, several of which are members of ASEAN[2]. The ruling importantly demonstrates the strategic challenges for ASEAN, which has failed to reach a consensus on the South China Sea ruling despite several rounds of talks (Rapp-Hopper & Krejsa, 2016).

Beside the potential threat to regional stability and the challenge to  international law (Rapp-Hooper, 2015), Indonesia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Rizal Sukma (2016) contends that the implications for the ongoing territorial disputes for ASEAN are serious and that failure of ASEAN to stem the conflict would damage the regional institution’s credibility. Nordquist (2006) asserts that China’s growing military and economic power and capabilities in the region make its actions more consequential, however Bader (2014) contends that any policy response to the South China Sea should consider the goals of “diminishing tensions, preventing the use of military force by all parties, protecting the lawful rights of the international community, encouraging steps to reconcile the various claimants, and maintaining good relations and credibility with all the parties”.

In order to understand ASEAN’s role in the context of these significant security challenges, it is important to also briefly consider the history of ASEAN.

Rhetoric, Aspirations & Actuality

When ASEAN was formed in Bangkok on 8 August 1967 between Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, Southeast Asia was characterised by inter-state conflicts fuelled by post-colonial tensions (Frost, 2013). ASEAN’s expansion since 1995 has seen the acceptance of four new members (Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei and Cambodia) which has both strengthened ASEANs claim to represent Southeast Asia while increasing the diversity within the Association and in turn making areas of cooperation harder to pursue.

Security Architecture & Foreign Policy

In respect to ASEAN’s role in the security architecture of the region, one of ASEAN’s foundational purposes was to ‘promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region’[3]. Hayton (2016) notes that ASEAN was founded with two implicit intra-regional security roles: to contain and resist communist inspired subversion through the promotion of economic prosperity, and to manage tensions through dialogue and confidence building. This principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member countries (from outside or within the region) was enshrined in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (The Treaty), which was signed in Bali in 1976. The Treaty has been a key ASEAN ‘norm-setting’ document and central to ‘the ASEAN Way’, which emphasizes informality and loose arrangements amongst member states rather than ambitious institution building[4].

While the rhetoric of ASEAN’s founding role has been to manage regional tensions through dialogue and confidence building, Hayton (2016) suggests it is ASEAN membership that has kept intra-state disputes within limits, with ASEAN members maintaining a preference for resolving disputes bilaterally without ASEAN having to play a role in resolving them. Indeed the ASEAN High Council, which was given the task of resolving conflicts by the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, has never been assembled (Jones, 2010). While it is remarkable to note the limited historical use of ASEAN to manage the numerous ongoing boundary disputes of its members[5], it is also important to consider what role ASEAN has played in managing external disputes in the region.

According to Goh (2007) a key goal of ASEAN since its inception has been to engage major external powers that maintain an interest in Southeast Asia through regular dialogue on security and economic matters. Goh (2007) contends that this strategy has been a way of helping to mediate and manage the interests of the major powers in Southeast Asia, while seeking to avoid outright competition. More broadly the prevailing view among some commentators is that ASEAN’s ‘natural’ role is to be that of a security community uniting all Southeast Asian countries as a bloc against rising great power rivalries (Hayton, 2016).

The ADMM Plus, which involves the ten ASEAN members plus Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, India and Russia has contributed to the understanding of ASEAN as a security community. ADMM Plus has been widely considered a success since its introduction in 2010, through increases in regular communication among senior Defence leaders and providing a dialogue for senior Defence officials on key security challenges. While noting the strategic value of ADMM Plus, Huisken (2010) asserts that it’s achievements in the region are likely to proceed at a gradual pace since the agenda needs to be approved by all members and highly sensitive security issues are unlikely to be explicitly addressed.

However the view of ASEAN acting collectively against outside powers conflicts with an historical assessment of ASEAN’s role over the past 50 years. Halston (2016) notes that there have only been three instances where ASEAN has presented a united front on regional conflicts and disputes: East Timor in the 1970s, resistance to the occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam in the 1980s and ASEAN’s response to the South China Sea in 1992 resulting in the Manila Declaration. Furthermore Acharya (2011) argues that this is as much a continuation of ASEAN member states’ half century-old resistance to forming foreign policy collectively and a strident persistence on preserving nation state sovereignty.

A further concern for ASEAN member states on taking a strident approach to external dispute settlement is the understanding that heterogeneity also comes at a cost for decision-making in ASEAN. While ASEAN as a whole does not support any of the individual territorial claims of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, it continues to maintain its referee role by engaging China (also a claimant) as a regional grouping under the framework of the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea towards a Code of Conduct (Thayer, 2013).

Consequently, despite ASEAN being highly regarded as a regional grouping in bringing peace and prosperity to Southeast Asia since its inception[6], the challenges of consensus-based decision making and ASEAN’s adherence to the principle of non-interference in member states has resulted in ASEAN faced with questions over its relevance as a major security player in a fast changing environment[7] (Simon, 2008). In order to examine the utility of ASEAN in shaping the security architecture of the region, it is therefore important to consider the role of external powers in defining ASEAN and the region.

External relations with ASEAN

Following the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asia has undergone significant geo-strategic changes. Coupled with the rise of China and the revitalisation of US interest in the region, ASEAN is viewed among South East Asian states as central to enabling broad cooperation across the region and ensuring a balance of power. Moreover Emmers (2003) contends that the concept of balance of power has been central to the inner development of ASEAN and is also the underlying force for driving security cooperation and manages security relations between great powers. Therefore in order to recognise what challenges ASEAN faces in realising its aim of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in East Asia it is imperative to reflect on the relationship of major external powers including the United States and China with ASEAN and its member states individually.

For most of the post-Second World War period the United States and its allies have underwritten security in the region with the United States being the predominate economic actor in Southeast Asia. While the United States predominance within Asia has been towards North Asia, the complexity of the challenges faced within Southeast Asia and the absence of political leadership in the region necessitates United States cooperation with ASEAN members.

While United States military hegemony remains unchallenged, China’s economic rise presents the region with the potential resurgence of major power dynamics. Adding to this complexity, Frost (2016) contends that China has become both the trading partner of choice amongst most ASEAN states while challenging the security interests of ASEAN members through the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Kawai (2016) asserts that the South China Sea territorial disputes highlight a divergence between ASEAN member states. Specifically ASEAN is divided between ASEAN member states seeking to preserve their sovereignty in the territorial disputes of the South China Sea against those member states where China is a greater trading partner than the United States. As Van Jackson (2015) contends the dependency of some ASEAN states, such as Cambodia and Laos on Chinese economic beneficence beyond just trade relations, have complicated ASEAN consensus-building by siding with Chinese preferences against other ASEAN states. Underscoring the prevailing view that ASEAN’s consensus approach is a structural impediment to realising its potential Rustandi (2016) argues that ASEAN’s inability to resolve issues has resulted in China’s perception that the South China Sea dispute is not a matter between China and ASEAN but a matter which China intends to discuss bilaterally with the individual disputants.

Economic Prosperity & Regional Integration

Looking beyond the security architecture of ASEAN it is important to examine the utility of ASEAN beyond the diplomatic and political capital it has generated in order to understand whether ASEAN, as seen purely as an economic trading bloc, can promote peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

In 2003 ASEAN committed to develop an ‘ASEAN Community’ among its own members, which involves a strategy of ‘three pillars’: the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC); the ASEAN Political-Security Community; and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. The ASEAN Charter launched in 2008 has sought to widen its cooperation, including in the area of human rights standards. As Hill and Menon (2010) notes, ASEAN's regional economic integration efforts are geared toward creating an ASEAN Economic Community, which envisions ASEAN as a competitive economic region with a single market and production base.

However over four decades, ASEAN member states still maintain their separate, and still quite variable, trade regimes. Halston (2016) contends that deeper integration including a common macroeconomic policy regime, which is a defining feature of the European Union, is even further off the horizon. Moreover the complexity of consolidating ASEAN’s trade relationship is illustrated in its current trade regime; while ASEAN has collectively agreed to five free-trade agreements with non-ASEAN states (China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand and India) its 10 member states have also agreed to more than 160 bilateral Free Trade Agreements.

In light of the structural economic challenges, which have limited the rhetorical aspirations of ASEAN, it is the demographic changes emerging between North and Southeast Asia which have driven much of the interest and optimism in the ASEAN Economic Community. Indeed, when viewed as a single economy, ASEAN is the world’s seventh-largest and Asia’s third-largest, behind China and Japan[8]. Additionally, while China and Japan are ageing rapidly, ASEAN remains young, with more than half its population under 30. In spite of this optimism, a study conducted in 2014 by the Asian Development Bank and the Institute of South-East Asian Studies concluded that ASEAN “has no prospect of coming close to a single market by the ASEAN Economic Communities 2015 deadline—or even by 2020 or 2025.” Hill and Menon (2010) contend that the most likely outcome for the ASEAN Economic Community is that the ASEAN member states’ policy regimes will converge over time, to the point where preferential trade arrangements become redundant.

In terms of cross border trade, ASEAN member nations are 73.5% more intertwined than those in the European Union according to intra-regional trade intensity index (TII) data[9]. As Das (2015) notes, strong intra-trade is encouraging however ASEAN members must consider what policy approaches will help continue to drive the intensity of trade within the region. While the ASEAN Economic Community may also suffer from similar rhetorical aspirations, the interests generated by the ASEAN Economic Community presents an opportunity to realign the economic benefits of ASEAN to the strategic security challenges of the region.


A key theme identified by commentators and discussed within this paper is the deficiency of unity within ASEAN, arguably preventing it from providing the balance of engagement with both China and the US in the region many assert it should. As Huang argues, “for ASEAN to be an effective player, it requires ASEAN to be able to act as a unitary entity itself, with definable common interests as well as the capacity to shape interests and relations”. While it is acknowledged that a lack of cohesion among its members and a slow ASEAN decision-making mechanism, as illustrated by the lack of an official position on the South China Sea dispute, are limitations to ASEAN’s success, it is important to consider the prevailing views and recommendations for ASEAN proposed by several commentators.

As a result of the limitations and disunity with some ASEAN member states, various commentators (Tan, 2016 and Rustandi 2016) suggest greater security architecture is required to develop ASEAN into unitary entity in order to shape interests and relations in the region in the face of strategic challenges[10]. However, Jones[11] (2007) contends such a response will not achieve the desired effect, as greater architecture may no longer be as applicable in post-Cold War South East Asia and may misunderstand the history and limitations of ASEAN without achieving its intended ends. As Gareth Evans notes in reference to ASEAN, “improved regional architecture is not an end in itself – all the effort will only be worthwhile if it enhances stability, prosperity, state security and human security.”

The internal recommendations to ASEAN offered by Rustandi’s (2016) include redefining the terms ‘consultation’ and ‘consensus’; and to empower the ASEAN High Council. As Acharya (2015) observes addressing challenges to ASEAN’s external environment requires addressing the strains in ASEAN’s internal cohesion and capacity, especially owing to its expanded membership and agenda.

While it is acknowledged recommendations emphasising regional-institution building are fundamental to the regions evolving economic and security landscape, there remains debate as to whether ASEAN ‘is about making process, not progress’. Therefore, looking beyond the proposed measures outlined above by Rustandi (2016) and Whelan (2012), the net benefit of ASEAN in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the region will come from stronger external power support. Specifically, it is recommended that Australia and the United States have far greater complimentary roles to play in improving ASEAN’s intra-regional trade (including production and investment), underwriting the long-term peace and security both countries have sought to guarantee post-Second World War.

In this regard, support for intra-regional trade should not focus solely on trade-liberalization. As Tan (1996) notes, ASEAN must focus on investment and production by continuing to develop efficient industries with enterprises in ASEAN economies, benefiting the ASEAN region as whole. Such trade policy, will create sustainable economic growth and help continue to drive the intensity of trade within ASEAN to facilitate unity and cohesion[12].

With external support for intra-regional trade, ASEAN will need to adequately address and remain mindful of regional disparities as it integrates its economies within the ASEAN Economic Community[13]. Appreciably, ASEAN appears aware of such problems[14], recently warning of the dangers of “unequal and unsustainable economic growth” which may lead to the negative externalities of “worsening poverty, inequalities of wealth, resources, power and opportunities between countries”.

If successful, Merchant (2016) contends the ASEAN Economic Community could help empower ASEAN, providing the confidence to further strengthen regional cooperation. Crucially, the United States must seek to compliment its maritime security strategy in South East Asia through added support for ASEAN’s intra-regional trade in order to underline United States defence of territorial claims with the attributable economic benefits of a strong ASEAN Economic Community.


Despite the professed ambition to create an ASEAN security community, the reluctance of ASEAN member states to surrender sufficient sovereignty has resulted in a misalignment between reality and rhetorical aspirations. This paper highlights this important distinction, noting further consideration is required on understanding the limitations of ASEAN. It is argued ASEAN’s strength and its weakness is that is operates within the mandate of cooperation, territorial integrity, non-interference, consensus and unity in diversity. Moreover the optimism associated with the ASEAN Economic Community presents policy planners in Australia and the United States with an avenue to compliment efforts in intra-regional trade while ensuring realistic expectations are forged both from a trade and security perspective.



[2] (Parameswaran, 2016) Wu Sichun, head scholar for the National Institute for the South China Sea Studies in China, in a 1 June 2016 speech at the Asia Pacific Roundtable stated ‘China is unlikely to compromise with the ruling, as the Nine-dash line is paramount to the Chinese in terms of sovereignty and historic rights’.

[3]  Contained within ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) Aims & Purposes (paragraph 2) 

[4] Further, Masilamni (2014) contends the ‘ASEAN way’ refers to a working process or style that is informal and personal, whereby Policymakers utilise compromise, consensus, and consultation in the decision-making process. An integral part of the ASEAN way is the non-interference policy, which functions as an arrangement for the prevention of any acts by ASEAN member-states that may undermine the authority of the governing political class and offend domestic governance in any of the member-states (Ruland 2011) and been attributed as a “major factor in sustaining ASEAN solidarity over the years”(Goh, 2003). Goh, 2003 defines the ‘ASEAN way’ slightly differently, arguing that it is “the underlying culturally-based beliefs governing the ASEAN actions which make up the real “ASEAN way.”

[5] Acharya (2001) contends that ASEAN’s tendency to conceal or ignore internal conflicts rather than resolving them, could be cited as further testimony to the limitations of the ASEAN Way. For example ASEAN had been criticised for failing to effectively address human rights issues, or transnational problems such as the forest fires in Indonesia causing pollution among neighbouring states.

[6] Caballero-Anthony (1998) notes ASEAN in the past thirty years has been ‘able to maintain peace in what was once a trouble ridden region’. (Mechanism for dispute resolution: ASEAN Experience). Furthermore, Goh, (2003) argues ASEAN played an important role in resolving the Cambodian conflict in the 1980s as mentioned above. For further discussion on the role ASEAN played in resolving the Cambodian conflict,  See Goh, 2003 The ‘ASEAN Way’ Non-Intervention and ASEAN’s Role in Conflict Management, Stanford Journal East Asian Affiars, Vol.3, Issue 1, pp 113-118.

[7] Sheldon W. Simon, ‘Whither Security Regionalism’, in Richard. J. Ellings and Aaron. L. Freidberg with Michael Wills (eds.), Strategic Asia, 2003-4, Seattle, The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2005, p. 270 ‘Aid Investment Plan: South-East Asia Regional Economic Growth and Human Security Program 2015-16 to 2018-19’

[9] ‘Intra-region trade links in ASEAN closer than in EU’, Business Times article quoting IMF and Asian Development Bank data.

[10] Pattiradjawane has suggested for the ASEAN to have a greater understanding of the Chinese Way of problem solving, given its understanding of valuing balance and cohesion was important to remember when attempting to cooperate with Beijing.

[11] Jones (2007), Process not progress, ASEAN and the evolving East Asian Regional Order,  Vol. 32, No. 1, Pages 148-184.

[12] Brixiova(2015) In a study for the Institute of Study of Labor (IZA) examining African regional economic communities concluded that deeper intra-regional and intra-industry trade ties strengthened the capacity of African countries to absorb global output shocks and contribute to sustainable economic growth. Brixivoca (2015) Discussion Paper 9205, ‘Can Intra-Regional Trade Act as a Global Shock Absorber in Africa?’

[13] For example, Thailand recent political instability has dampened investment with analysts Dan Fineman and Siriporn Sothikul explaining "For the broader market, a rebound is unlikely until investors are comfortable that the situation will not deteriorate further. We do not believe that we are yet at that point.” While ASEAN nations such as Myanmar, the steady growth of Vietnam and the development of Laos and Cambodia, as attractive, low-cost alternatives to China emerge in a region with growing manufacturing hub. As China restructures from manufacturing- to service-based economy, opportunities arise for these smaller ASEAN nations to provide the supply for increased production work.

[14] ASEAN Civil Society Conference and ASEAN people’s Forum


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