THE FUTURE OF ASIA IN THE 21st CENTURY AND THE ROLE OF ASEAN[1]

 

By. Prof.Dr.Dewi Fortuna Anwar

Director for Program and Research, The HabibieCenter, Jakarta

I. Introduction

Given the fact that Asia is such a vast and diverse area, covering dozens of countries and a multitude of  societies, different political systems and varying stages of development, stretching from the Pacific to the Middle East, it is clearly quite foolhardy to attempt to talk about the future of Asia as the title of this paper demands.  In addition, the twenty first century is quite a long time and  a lot of things can happen in one hundred years, many of which will probably be unforeseen.  For the sake of manageability this paper will only refer to the Asia Pacific region and the possible role of ASEAN within this region in the next few years.

Till the outbreak of the economic crisis beginning in July last 1998, it was the accepted wisdom that the twenty first century would be the Pacific century.  This prediction was based on the fact that over the last thirty years, the Asian economies bordering on the Pacific have achieved the single greatest spurt of economic growth in history.  As the result, trans-Pacific economic transactions in the forms of trades and investment flows are expected to tower over every other regions, eclipsing the trans-Atlantic transactions which have dominated most of the twentieth century. 

Led by Japan, the emergence of several newly industrialiased economies (Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore) and rapidly growing economies such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and China has been hailed as a miracle.  These flourishing economies, whose success depend on the preservation of regional stability and the unhampered flows of trades and investment, are expected to lead to greater regional interdependence and the development of strong regional institutions, both in the economic and security fields.  The dynamism of the East Asian economies, including of a number of the ASEAN countries, has given ASEAN a considerable degree of self-assurance as well as international recognition and respect.  It was generally agreed that the countries which during the Cold War had been regarded as dominoes have in the past three decades become economic dynamoes. At the same time, ASEAN has emerged as the world’s second most successful regional organisation, able to deal as an equal with the world’s great powers and groupings.

Despite the current economic crises which have devastated the economies of several South East Asian countries, notably Indonesia and Thailand, as well as South Korea and Japan in North East Asia, no one really doubts that in the long term the East Asian economies will thrive again and that the twenty first century will indeed be the asia Pacific century.  It can also be expected that ASEAN, which will be much more integrated economically and probably politically than it is now, will become an important regional power that has to be reckoned with, one of the polar in the increasingly multi-polar Asia Pacific region.

Nevertheless, while remaining optimistic of Asia’s long term future in general, in the short term the economic crises have very serious consequences, not least on ASEAN as a regional association.  ASEAN’s general helplessness in the face of the various crises that have hit the region in the past years, starting with the Indonesian forest fire that blanketed the country and most of the neighbouring countries in smog for several months and followed by the sharp depreciation of the Thai baht which triggered the worst economic crises this region has seen since the war, has shown ASEAN in a very unflattering right.  While support for ASEAN was beginning to be taken for granted in the time of peace and prosperity, now many voices begin to question ASEAN’s relevancy and doubt whether the association will really have a future as it is now constituted.  In fact, at a recent seminar organised by the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta one of the speakers called for ASEAN to be dissolved as it has failed to play any significant role in dealing with the current crises faced by its members.        Therefore, before one can talk about the possible role that ASEAN will play in the future, it is important to ensure first that ASEAN will have a future.  While recognising the present fundamental weaknesses of ASEAN which may lead the more impatient people to simply dismiss the association, one nevertheless should not forget its many achievements.  It is widely recognised, however, that to survive in the coming century and retain its relevancy ASEAN must re-invent itself, to discard old ways which stand on the path of further progress, and to create a new focus or a new orientation for cooperation more in line with the aspirations of the new generation as well as with the new global imperatives.

II. ASEAN’s Achievements

Briefly, there have been four main achievements of ASEAN which, notwithstanding its many shortcomings, should be important reasons for nurturing the association for the foreseeable future.

        Regional Peace and Stability.  The most remarkable achievement of ASEAN since its establishment has been its direct contribution to harmonious relations among the member countries.  One fundamental tenets governing intra-ASEAN relations is non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.  Observance of this rule has in fact been the key to the relatively peaceful relations among the ASEAN members. The most important legal framework for maintaining peace and stability in the region is the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South East Asia.  The inclusion of all of the South East Asian countries in ASEAN further strengthen regional peace and stability.  Many analysts have in fact talked about the development of a security community in South  East Asia, where wars between the regional members would no longer be conceivable.

        Enhanced sense of regional security vis-a-vis extra-regional threats.  Although ASEAN was not established as a security organisation, and there is no ASEAN-wide multilateral security cooperation, the maintenance of regional peace and security has in fact been the primary objective of ASEAN. Being co-members of ASEAN have given the member countries more self-confident and a greater sense of security when faced with external threats.  ASEAN has been able to create a set of rules of conduct to protect the region from external interferences.  These includes ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace Freedom and Nentrality) in South East and the South East Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. 

        Economic Development.  The presence of ASEAN has contributed directly and indirectly to the rapid economic growth enjoyed by most ASEAN countries till the onset of the economic crisis last year.  ASEAN’s contribution to economic development has been due to a number of reasons, inter alia: freed from concerns about immediate external threats, member countries were able to devote time, energy and scarce resources to internal development; existence of regional stability and ASEAN countries’ market friendly outlooks attracted foreign investment; ASEAN economic relations with dialogue partners help to bring in more financial and technical assistance; ASEAN has helped to boost intra-regional trade and other areas of economic cooperation.

        Greater international recognition and bargaining position. ASEAN has achieved a status as the most successful regional grouping among the developing countries and as the second most successful one, after the European Union, at the global level.  As such, ASEAN’s voice and role in regional and international fora, such as in APEC, ARF, ASEM and the UN has been significant.  The development of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was in fact initiated by ASEAN and the organisation revolves around ASEAN.  Such international recognition would have been difficult to attain by most of the ASEAN members individually.

III. The Challenges Faced by ASEAN

Currently ASEAN faces several challenges which have severely tested the famous ASEAN solidarity and the ASEAN way, leading to concerns about the association’s ability to survive as a regional entity.

1.     The deepening economic crisis.  The ongoing economic crisis is the most serious challenge that ASEAN is currently facing for a number of reasons:

1.1.  The countries hit by the crisis are totally absorbed in their internal problems with little time left to concern themselves with regional affairs. 

1.2.  ASEAN as a whole is not yet in a position to extend substantial economic assistance so that the countries facing the crisis put much higher priorities on their relations with the traditional donor countries (Japan, the US and western Europe).

1.3.  Very high expectation put on better-off ASEAN members such as Singapore to give assistance and resentment when the assistance is slow to materialise.

1.4.  Diminishing  international status  for ASEAN is no longer seen as a grouping of economic dynamos by either developed countries or by other developing countries.  In the past ASEAN members were often held up as capitalist role models for other developing countries to follow.

1.5.  Diminishing regional and international clout not only because of reduction in status, but also because of lack of time and resources to take initiatives or play an active role in greater regional or global fora. 

1.6.  The implementation of AFTA beginning in 2003 is under serious doubt, although the ASEAN economic ministers have recently agreed to accellerate AFTA’s schedule.  Indonesia’s industrial collapse will quite likely lead to demands from local businesses that AFTA’s timetable be postponed until they are ready to compete.

1.7.  Possible disappointment towards ASEAN of new members, whose primary objectives for joining ASEAN was to get economic and technical assistance from the Association and the more developed members.

2.     Bilateral disputes and friction. There have always been a number of unresolved bilateral problems among ASEAN countries.  So far ASEAN has only been successful in defusing intra-regional disputes, but the association has never been called upon to try and resolve the disputes.  At times of crisis the famous ASEAN solidarity is severely tested as national sensitivities become heightened and tempers flare easily.  The recent dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over the location of the immigration point for trains coming from Malaysia into Singapore is a case in point.   Malaysia has also denied the Singaporean airforce  the right to use its airspace as a reaction against Lee Kuan Yew’s memoir which blamed Malaysia for fanning racial riots in Singapore in 1965.

3.     Diverging values in ASEAN and its policy implication.  Of potentially greater cause for intra-ASEAN disagreements is the increasingly divergent values held by the members, particularly regarding democracy and human rights.  ASEAN is in danger of being split between countries that regard democracy and human rights as universal values whose promotion becomes a common responsibility and those that are still the proponents of “Asian values”.  This is clearly demonstrated by the unprecedented reaction of several ASEAN countries and leaders towards the arrest and imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Malaysia and the brutal treatment that he received while in prison.  The debate about the importance of maintaining the principle of non-interference versus the proposal to carry out flexible engagement and enhanced interaction has already been launched and will likely continue to engage ASEAN in the years to come.  While the newly democratising government in Indonesia may hesitate to abandon the non-interference principle, the increasingly free and vocal press and NGOs will undoubtedly air their opinions regarding happenings in neighbouring countries without much regard to regional solidarity  or the government’s foreign policy concerns. 

4.     Leadership changes.  Much of the ASEAN solidarity has been based on close personal relations among the regional top leaders built over many years.  With leadership changes relations have become much more formal and in certain cases even strained.  Unkind remarks made by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew regarding Prof. B.J. Habibie’s suitability as Vice President have coloured bilateral relations between Indonesia and Singapore since Habibie assumed the Presidency.  The arrest of former Malaysian Deputy P.M. Anwar Ibrahim is also likely to cloud bilateral relations between Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, not only because of growing concerns about human rights protection among the Indonesian people, but also due to the close relations between Anwar and many members of the Indonesian political elite.  It is worth noting that there has been close cooperation between IKD, a think-tank associated with  Anwar Ibrahim, and CIDES, ICMI’s think-tank which has B.J. Habibie as chairman of its advisory board.  The new Philippines’s President Joseph Estrada’s open support for Anwar Ibrahim has already strained relations between Kuala Lumpur and Manila, as can be seen from the cancellation of the regular Joint Border Committee between the two countries.

5.     Lack of leadership from Indonesia.  Although it has been careful not to assert its role, Indonesia is generally perceived as a primus inter pares by other ASEAN members.  Indonesia’s strong commitment towards regional harmony and role as regional mediator have been important in keeping ASEAN together.  Indonesia’s internal preoccupation and severe economic problems may contribute to a lost sense of direction within ASEAN and further diminishes ASEAN’s international standing.

IV. Whither ASEAN?

At an informal summit meeting in Jakarta in 1996, the ASEAN heads of governments outlined  The ASEAN Vision 2020, which is divided into three areas.  These are: The Vision of a Concert of South East Asian Nations, the Vision of a Partnership of Dynamic Development and the Vision of Caring Societies.

The first vision, a Concert of South East Asian Nations, envisions peace and stability in South East Asia, where each ASEAN member country lives in peace and harmony and all the causes of conflicts have been eliminated.  It is hoped that the ASEAN region will be free from the threat of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.  Through the establishment of peace and stability, which ASEAN countries have strived for the past 30 years, a condition conducive to development and economic cooperation in each and between ASEAN countries can be established.

The second vision, Partnership in Dynamic Development underlines closer economic integration focusing on sustainable and equitable economic growth in ASEAN member countries, which strengthens national and regional resilience.  Through partnership in development, the ASEAN countries are expected to narrow the gap in the level of development among member countries, to free the people in South East Asia from poverty.  ASEAN will move forward to reach an equitable level of living standard.  To achieve this objective ASEAN countries need to strengthen its cooperation in economy and human resources development.

The third vision, a Community of Caring Societies, envisions South East Asia to be an ASEAN community conscious of its ties of history, aware of its cultural legacy and bound by a common regional identity.  Through this vision, the people will enjoy equitable access to opportunities for total human development regardless of gender, race, religion, language, or social and cultural background.  It further hopes that hunger, malnutrition, deprivation and poverty are no longer basic problems and where the haves look after the haves not.  Vision 2020 also envisions ASEAN to be forward-looking and plays a more pivotal role in the international fora.  A robust relationship with its Dialogue Partners will be improved based on mutual understanding.

1997 was to be a year of celebration for ASEAN, celebrating its 30th anniversary and the near-completion of the ASEAN-10 ideal.  Till then the Cambodian issue was the most serious problem that ASEAN had to deal with.  ASEAN seemed to be well on the way of realising its vision.

Now the dreams seem to be shattered, exposing ASEAN’s fragility as a regional institution. The once proud region is now suffering a major loss of self-confidence.  Self-doubts and pessimism about the future abound.

To most people ASEAN is not seen as the answer to their problems, casting doubt about the association’s future relevancy.  The countries hit by the crisis have to look elsewhere for assistance as ASEAN is not in a position to provide significant financial help.

The longer the crisis the deeper the malaise towards ASEAN.  Regional solidarity evaporates as countries pursue their respective national interests.  At times relations with neighbours may be sacrificed as domestic conflicts worsen.

While the political will may be lacking, the current crisis in fact necessitates that ASEAN countries work ever more closely together.  The currency crisis clearly shows the interdependency of the ASEAN economies and that collective efforts are needed to overcome the crisis. e.g. Closer cooperation between  regional banks need to be developed, including in developing “an early warning” system against future crises.  Regional disasters like the Indonesian forest fire showed that a national solution was not adequate.  ASEAN’s international standing and ability to negotiate in international fora will be seriously damaged if ASEAN loses its cohesion, making it even more difficult for the members to overcome their respective crises.

The increasingly fractious relations among some members should be viewed with alarm.  Unfortunately, no one in power at the moment is sufficiently senior to take the initiative to smoothen the conflicts behind close doors.  Other means must be found to restore regional harmony and the ASEAN spirit.

It is probably unrealistic at the moment to expect governments to pay more attention to ASEAN.   The ASEAN Secretariat is now in a better position to take a much more pro-active role in drawing attention to the dangers facing ASEAN and in finding means to keep concerns about maintaining regional unity alive. 

Through its active role  during this crisis the ASEAN Secretariat will emerge as a much more powerful and important regional institution.  To maintain ASEAN’s relevance the Secretariat may take the lead in convening a forum between ASEAN and the dialogue partners to find ways to help alleviate some of the worst effects of the crises.  Various ASEAN projects, mostly with external funding, can be established to deal with such issues as children’s health, education and re-training of laid-off workers.  No matter how small, it is important to show the ASEAN flag so that this important institution is not merely acting as a bystander when its members are in real need.

People’s awareness of and support for ASEAN need to be increasingly drummed up.  The danger of allowing ASEAN to remain primarily as an inter-governmental association has been shown, for lack of governments’ attention has also led to a general lack of concern for ASEAN.  Here again, the ASEAN Secretariat can take a lead in socialising ASEAN, in cooperation with universities, research institutes and other organisations in the region.  External funding can also be solicited for this purpose.  In the future ASEAN should no longer be regarded as a governmental organisation dominated by the government eleites, but should become much more democratic and actively encourage the participation of the peoples in the regional decion-making process.

As parts of the attempts to increase ASEAN’s relevancy to current problems, continuing discourse regarding the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs versus flexible engagement and enhanced interaction need to be maintained.  While recognising the importance of non-interference in maintaining regional harmony, heightened awareness of human rights as universal values in several member countries make indifference towards abuses politically untenable at home.  A middle way must be found between the  more liberal and conservative poles.  To reject out of hand suggestions about the need to adopt a more flexible approach towards issues of regional concerns may endanger ASEAN’s future viability, particularly among the younger generation who are in general much more international in their outlook than the older generation.

The time is probably right to carry out a thorough review of ASEAN similar to the one undertaken in the mid-1970’s which produced the Kansu Report.  ASEAN needs to find a new focus and sense of direction as well as new modalities for action.  As a suggestion, to mark the changing  global environment and international concerns, ASEAN in the future should not primarily focus on state security, but rather to pay more attention to concerns regarding human security.  

There are two aspects of  human security.  The first relates to the negative perspective, oriented towards such things as freedom from fear, hunger, attack, cruelty, arbitrary imprisonment and freedom from discrimination because of race, religion, gender, etc.  Seen from the positive perspective human security means the freedom to attain one’s capacity and opportunity to enjoy the most out of lives, without disturbing the right of others to obtain the same security.  Combined together, “human security” seeks to enhance the people’s quality of lives.  To achieve this end, issues of good governance, economic systems and environmental policy, to name a few, may be some of the issues that ASEAN include as parts of its cooperation agenda in the future. 

There is also a need to reform the ASEAN mechanism.  With the enlargement of ASEAN it will clearly be much more difficult to reach a consensus than ever before.  There is a need for ASEAN to simpify its decision-making style from consensus to voting, unless on paricularly sensistive issues when consensus may still be necessary.

V. Conclusion

ASEAN’s ability to play a constructive regional and international role clearly depends on the  association’s cohesiveness as well as the collective capability of the members, particularly in the economic fields.  A weak and poor ASEAN is unlikely to earn international respect or to be able to play a meaningful role in greater regional and international fora.

Currently ASEAN is at a crossroads, and if takes a wrong turn its whole future as a viable regional organisation may be in danger.  The economic crises suffered by a number of the original members of ASEAN, which in the past had consistently enjoyed high economic growth, have revealed the limitation and fragility of ASEAN as an institution so that many even begin to question the desirability of maintaining the organisation.  At the same time ASEAN is seen as a conservative and status quo force which has little concerns for human rights and democratic aspirations which are now sweeping many societies in the region.

Despite the cynicism and disenchantment felt by an increasing number of people towards ASEAN, one should never forget the important roles that ASEAN has played and is expected to play in the future.  It will be a real tragedy that the regional association which has been nurtured so painstakingly for the past thirty years should be allowed to disintegrate at the first sign of a crisis.

Yet it is also true that ASEAN cannot survive the challenges of the future if it simply continues to rely on historical agreements and rationale, while refusing to recognise new realities and adjust its ways accordingly.  A certain paradigm shift is needed to revive ASEAN to make it more in line with the rapidly changing regional and global environment.  Just as many members of ASEAN have undergone fundamental reforms, ASEAN is also very much in need of a reform.  ASEAN needs to become much more sensitive about issues that matters most to its own citizens, such as issues of human security, for otherwise the citizens may lose interest in ASEAN.



[1] Paper presented at the International Symposium on “Interaction for Progress: Myanmar in ASEAN”.  Yangon, 23-24 October 1998.