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.

Read More