Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Challenges Facing the ASEAN Alliance

  By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a flurry of international meetings across four countries this month. It started on Nov. 12 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a leaders’ meeting at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

Canada is in trade negotiations with the 10-country bloc, which makes up Canada’s sixth largest trading partner, and Trudeau announced $333 million in new funding for various programs.

ASEAN membership has proven stable and mutually beneficial despite the diversity of its members. They are large (Indonesia, Malaysia) and small (Singapore); rich (Brunei) and poor (Laos); closely affiliated with the United States (Thailand, the Philippines) or much more aligned with China or Russia (Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam). They span a wide range of religious, cultural, and economic characteristics.

ASEAN has finally agreed to grant accession to Timor-Leste, or East Timor, the nation occupying half the island of Timor, which applied for membership after gaining independence from Indonesia in 2002.

When ASEAN was formed in 1967, the nations of Southeast Asia had been riven by disputes. Indonesia and Malaysia had fought a low-grade border war on the island of Borneo, and Malaysia and the Philippines were also at loggerheads over conflicting territorial claims. War still raged in nearby Indochina, threatening the stability of the entire region.

At the initiative of Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman of Thailand, he and his counterparts from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore convened to explore the creation of an organization that would enable these neighbors to strengthen their regional relationships, bring peace and prosperity to their citizens, and avoid open conflict when disagreements arose.

At the conclusion of the summit, the ministers signed what became known as the Bangkok Declaration, announcing the formation of ASEAN. Then, starting in 1976, ASEAN heads of state began attending summits, and they also created a secretariat whose leadership also passes among its members.

In 1992, the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) was signed, leading to the phased elimination of tariffs and customs duties on trade between the countries and in 2009, an ASEAN human rights body was established. ASEAN began to engage other nations and regional groups as a bloc, signing free trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand, China, India, and South Korea.

But ASEAN now struggles to remain effective in an increasingly polarized world. It has fashioned itself as a zone of peace and neutrality, where its member states seek consensus and avoid criticizing each other. Its lack of any process for enforcing decisions on members reflects this mindset.

However, in the last decade, China’s occupation and military development of reef islands in the South China Sea has brought Beijing into direct conflict with ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines. Attempts to get China to agree to a “code of conduct” by ASEAN in the disputed areas have gone nowhere.

Beijing has simply stalled negotiations for 20 years. It also dismissed a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016 that its claims are invalid.

It has been just as evasive on problems caused by its large-scale damming of the Mekong River, whose source is in Tibet and which flows through or borders five ASEAN countries. The river is a major trade route between western China and Southeast Asia.

China has effectively destroyed ASEAN unity by picking off smaller states, such as Laos and Cambodia, which are now so dependent on Beijing’s largesse that they are more or less client states.

Even the host of next year’s summit, Indonesia, the largest ASEAN state and the one with the region’s most China-wary foreign policy, has under President Joko Widodo eagerly sought Chinese investment, loans and technology.

Meanwhile, violence in Myanmar continues to cast a shadow over ASEAN. There was no consensus over how to pressure Myanmar to comply with a five-step proposal for peace in the country. Since seizing power in a military coup in February 2021, its ruling junta has been banned from participating in ASEAN events.

In 2017 the military of the predominantly Buddhist country also began a sweeping campaign against its Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, while about 600,000 remain under oppressive rule in Myanmar.

In an effort to end the violence, the bloc’s plan, which Myanmar initially agreed to but has shown no willingness to implement, includes calls for the immediate cessation of fighting, mediation by a special ASEAN envoy, provision of humanitarian aid, and a visit to the country by the envoy to meet all sides for dialogue.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, whose country is the world largest Muslim state, takes the bloc’s rotating chair next year. He has proposed broadening the ban on Myanmar leaders beyond summits, something urged by human rights groups.

“Indonesia is deeply disappointed the situation in Myanmar is worsening,” he stated. “We must not allow the situation in Myanmar to define ASEAN.”

Singapore and Malaysia, and at times Brunei, all with large Muslim populations, backed Indonesia’s calls for strengthening the measures against Myanmar. However, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, all Buddhist nations, have been pushing back against the Indonesian proposal. It won’t be easy.


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