Manila – The great medieval historian Ibn Khaldun once observed that even the greatest of empires would collapse once they lose their internal cohesion (assabiyah). The process of decline, he argued in “The Muqaddimah,” can take place after only a few generations, especially when the ruling elite suffers from “psychological defeat.”
Once the paragon of successful regionalism in the postcolonial world, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is suffering from a similar process of decline and psychological defeat. Whereas once the region body was co-led by luminaries such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, the regional body is today dominated by a coterie of petulant despots and hapless diplomats.
Far from serving as the “engine” of pan-regional integration, ASEAN is nowadays a hotbed of indecision and internal divisions. To be fair, there are exceptions, most notably Indonesia, whose progressive leadership has tirelessly sought to steer ASEAN toward greater centrality in regional affairs.
But in the “consensus-based” club, there is just so much that a proactive member or two can do. It shouldn’t come as surprise, then, that ASEAN has failed to play any meaningfully constructive role on a whole host of regional crises, from the postcoup fallout in Myanmar to the festering disputes in the South China Sea.
If there is one thing that history teaches us, however, is that ASEAN is not a monolithic body. Time and again, the regional group has shown its ability to rise to the occasion and overcome the inherent dysfunctions of Asian-style multilateralism. And ASEAN is often at its best when it adopts “minilateralism,” namely flexible, ad hoc yet decisive intervention by core members on sensitive geopolitical issues.
The myth of noninterference
Today’s ASEAN leaders suffer from either collective amnesia or deliberate deception, if not a combination of both. Southeast Asian leaders repeatedly advance the myth that the principle of noninterference is sacrosanct — namely, no nation, whether it be part of ASEAN or not, should openly criticize or intervene in the domestic affairs of regional states.
Considering the fact that most ASEAN leaders are autocrats with dubious human rights record, this sounds suspiciously self-serving. Crucially, it’s also patently false, given the regional body’s deep history of direct intervention in regional crises. The list is long, but there are two major events that are worth mentioning, underscoring a long tradition of pragmatic activism among key regional states, which acted “minilaterally” with maximum flexibility rather than based on perfect unanimity.
The first one took place during the height of the Cold War, namely the Third Indo-China War, which drove a wedge between nations aligned with China and the West and those aligned with the Soviet Union nations in Southeast Asia. Perturbed by the rise of Communist Vietnam in the 1970s, ASEAN leaders decided to directly interfere in the affairs of Cambodia, which, quite astonishingly, back then wasn’t even a member state.
Following Soviet-backed Vietnam’s invasion of Beijing-aligned Cambodia in 1978, ASEAN leaders went so far as backing the just-ousted Khmer Rouge. For years, the regional body ensured that the remnants of the brutal regime, which was responsible for millions of death in Cambodia, retained their seat at the United Nations. In 1981, ASEAN nations expended considerable diplomatic capital, with Western and Chinese backing, to corral 79 countries in New York to condemn and isolate the Hanoi-installed regime in Cambodia.
Following the end of Cold War, ASEAN shifted gears and played a direct role in shaping Cambodia’s political future. Southeast Asian countries were actively involved in the operations and overall direction of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. With Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand becoming top investors in the country, ASEAN leveraged its economic influence to nudge warring Cambodia factions to engage in multiparty elections.
Following an alleged coup in 1997, ASEAN leaders directly stepped in and warned the Cambodia elite that their eventual membership in the regional body would largely depend on their willingness to come to terms with their bloody past and, accordingly, strike a democratic future for the country.
The gamble paid off, as Cambodia’s postwar elite, increasingly led by Hun Sen, was forced to welcome liberal opposition as well as royalist participation in national politics. This is why Cambodia’s exiled opposition and leading liberal statesman, Sam Rainsy, has openly thanked ASEAN, especially Indonesia, for its active role in spurring democratic reforms in the past.
The second major intervention, also minilaterally organized, was in East Timor. For decades, ASEAN states largely kept mum on Indonesia’s brutal occupation of the former Portuguese colony in order to avoid internal division and direct confrontation with the largest Southeast Asian state.
Following the collapse of the Suharto regime in the late-1990s and the end of Indonesian occupation shortly after, key ASEAN members decided to play a direct role in ensuring peaceful democratic transition East Timor.
Southeast Asian states of Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines were major contributors to and played leadership roles in both the International Force for East Timor and the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor peacekeeping operations. The upshot was the relatively successful transition of a former occupied territory, racked by civil strife, into a democratic East Timor.
The only game in town
In both cases, key ASEAN countries didn’t insist on consensus, which is often understood as unanimity by today’s Southeast Asian leaders. In the case of Cambodia, major ASEAN members of Indonesia and Thailand pursued parallel yet ultimately complementary diplomatic efforts, with each Southeast Asian power reaching out to different sides of the conflict and, eventually, collectively contributing to a more inclusive political outcome.
In the case of East Timor, it was even more consciously minilateralist. As former Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, then rotational chairman of ASEAN, bluntly put it, “Those… member states which are prepared and willing can join the International Force for East Timor,” they are free to go ahead on their own.
What these minilateralist interventions clearly show is there is more to ASEAN than dysfunctional multilateralism. If anything, the regional body has proven even more effective when it doesn’t insist on artificial unanimity or snail’s paced consensus-building. This especially the case when the issue at hand is so sensitive that achieving consensus is close to impossible.
In many ways, ASEAN should pursue a similar minilateralist approach to high-stakes geopolitical challenges in its immediate neighborhood. The reality is that more than a few Southeast Asian countries are too economically and strategically dependent on China to take a robust stance on the South China Sea disputes in favor of ASEAN claimant states.
Postcoup Myanmar also presents a similar dilemma, since even key ASEAN members such as Thailand, which happens to also be led by coup-plotting generals, is too cozy with the Myanmar junta. This largely explains why Indonesia’s heroic efforts to organize collective pressure on the junta has largely failed, since the bulk of ASEAN members, almost all led by despotism are more willing to embrace the brutal generals in Myanmar than openly back the democratic opposition.
But all is not lost. In absence of major institutional reforms within ASEAN, a more sensible way forward is for core members to explore more flexible, ad hoc yet decisive approaches to thorny issues.
From Myanmar to the South China Sea, like-minded ASEAN members such as Indonesia and Singapore can and should work not only together but also with like-minded external powers, including the United States, Japan, India, Australia and the European Union.
In fact, previous ASEAN interventions in Cambodia and East Timor were also conducted in conjunction with like-minded major powers. The reality is that ASEAN’s consensus-based approach is a recipe for indecision and divisiveness. As Albert Einstein is said to have put it, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Richard Javad Heydarian is a professorial chairholder in geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and author of, among others, “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.”
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