ASEAN After 50: Why Political and Economic Integration are Not Sufficient

Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar

ASEAN is now 50 years old. Originally established only as a platform for interstate dialogue, ASEAN has progressed through the ‘long and winding road’ to become a region. ASEAN has successfully managed to navigate through the Cold War, underwent a devastating financial crisis, and now

After 50 years, what does ASEAN need to do?

In a series of article, ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada aim to address this issue to see where ASEAN should be directed to after 50 years and what issues that needs to be the focus of ASEAN in the future. I argue that it is important for ASEAN to move from its ‘traditional’ pattern of cooperation, which is concentrated upon economic or political security issues.

It is a common wisdom to perceive ASEAN integration on either ‘political security’ and ‘economic’ perspective. This might be inevitable. Yet, this is also not sufficient. ASEAN should also equally consider social integration, which is arguably neglected in the first 50 years of its existence as the cooperation in the Single Market or free flow of labors stole the spotlight.

Perhaps ASEAN analysts and scholars could argue that ASEAN did not originally provide a space for social and cultural cooperation. I do not intend to challenge this view, given the historical backdrop of ASEAN integration. However, as ASEAN progresses in the last decade, social and cultural problems emerged and ASEAN faces difficulty to deal with such problems.  

Consider, for example, the Rohingya problem. In 2015, a waves of irregular Rohingya migrants reach ASEAN member states as a part of unresolved crisis in Myanmar. This leads to a regional crisis when ASEAN member states were affected by these migrants, which resulted in several new regional initiatives to resolve the refugee issues.

So far, there is so far no permanent solution of such issue from ASEAN perspective.

The Rohingya case is not merely about the violation of human rights and it is actually more complicated than that. How ASEAN handles the situation shows that they are, in fact, not fully ready to implement the social integration, which compel every component in the society to embrace the diversity.

What is at stake? Why is there no proper ‘social integration’ in ASEAN’s 50 years existence? At least three problems needs to be addressed.

Let us begin with the primacy of ‘state-centric’ approach ASEAN Studies. It is also a common wisdom to embrace a state-centric view of ASEAN, particularly for those who regard ASEAN merely as ‘cooperation’. From this viewpoint, ASEAN is understood as a practice of diplomatic cooperation, which was institutionally developed after the Asian Crisis.

This perspective might be relevant in the past one or two decades. Yet, it misses one important point: the growing complexity of regional environment. Whilst state remains the most important actor in the region, the last decade witnesses the rise of various non-state patterns of interactions, either business-to-business, the growing civil society activism, or the most recent ICT integration.

It leads to the second problem in much of ASEAN literatures: the negligence of actors other than state or business. From the national perspective, literatures on ASEAN studies tends to overemphasise the preparedness of central government or market integration.

Less has been said, however, on how local government respond to ASEAN, which is different in each country. Also absent from such debate the role of peasants indigenous group –to name but a few— whose lands have been transformed into extractive industries or government-led development project. They are under-represented in ASEAN. They might not feel that ASEAN belongs to them.

However, in recent decade, there is a growing regional civil society activism or more works on ASEAN’s sectoral issues. Emerging literatures have attempted to cover their activities –which is good for ASEAN.

These problems have been complicated by the division of ASEAN integration into three different pillars –political security, economic, and social cultural. It assumes that each pillars has each own logic and operates differently each other.

What is at stake on our understanding of ASEAN is the absence of what Bob Jessop said as metagovernance: the underlying normative ideas that constitute ASEAN. As Dutch academic cum politician Bastian Van Apeldoorn explained it, every formulation of regional and international institution has a social purpose behind it, whether it is to maintain the hegemonic neoliberal project –as evident in the European Union— or something else.  

So what is the social purpose of ASEAN?

Historically, ASEAN has been served to maintain its founding member’s national interest. The end of Cold War brought another project: to craft a cooperation based on state-led capitalist development project. During its first 25 years, ASEAN has managed to navigate through devastating Cold War effects, which was continued by a series of economic cooperation.

The Asian crisis in 1997-1998 has brought a devastating effect, which makes ASEAN leaders rethinking the fate of ASEAN. It was resulted in a more complex form of integration, with the introductio  of the so-called ‘ASEAN Community’.

This is where regional integration was directed in the last 50 years, and where the faultlines of cooperation was originated. We might be disagree with the whole idea, but this is what history has brought to us in the last 50 years.

But we could also outline an alternative trajectory in the future.

The latest ASEAN Vision, signed in Kuala Lumpur in late 2015, has clearly emphasized the purpose of the cooperation. ASEAN should be people-oriented (oriented toward the people) and people-centered (centralising in the interest of the people).

Yet, the ASEAN Vision did not explain people-oriented and people-centered into details. Who is the ‘people’? What kind of integration design could be proposed to incoroporate people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN?

The blueprint of ASEAN Social and Cultural Community associates the term people-oriented ASEAN into the context of human development that adopted from the UN model. This concept assumed that the development that centralized in the fulfilling human rights, especially economic and social rights.

But with the existing market-based and state-led regional cooperation, the question  of ‘rights’ seems to be neglected. This is where our argument matters. To navigate after 50 years, political and economic integration is not sufficient for ASEAN. We need to do and think something more about our future regional governance. We need a better and fairer ASEAN, which people-centred and people-oriented. It must be proposed as regional agenda in the future.

Because another ASEAN is possible!


*) Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar is the Executive Secretary of
ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada. Parts of this argument appeared at our recent book ASEAN in 2017: Regional Integration in an Age of Uncertainty.