ASEAN After 50: Is the ‘ASEAN Way’ still relevant?

Dio Herdiawan Tobing

Unlike other regional or international organizations, ASEAN possesses its own model of diplomatic engagement: the ASEAN Way. For so many years, the ASEAN Way has always been a very heated topic of debate among the academics, government officials, and policy-makers. Now that ASEAN has reached its golden anniversary, the remained question is whether the ASEAN Way is still relevant, or must the organization employ other tools to foster its members’ cooperative behavior in agreed institutional arrangements.

In most academic literature, the ASEAN way is always to blame for any wide-array of cooperation failures, for instance: Indonesia on the haze problem, Myanmar on the Rohingya crisis, and the absence of ASEAN centrality in the South China Sea dispute.

The ASEAN Way is defined a shared of norms, principles, and values governing the interactions of ASEAN member states. It is more of a loosed concept but strictly embedded in the practice of ASEAN diplomacy. The problem is, in many kinds of literature the ASEAN Way has always been incorporated with ASEAN’s strict adherence to the principle of consensus-building, informality, non-interference, and respect to national sovereignty.

Indeed, from a strictly legal perspective, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation serves as the formal foundation of the ASEAN Way, whereby on Art. 2(c) of the agreement, it is emphasized that “In their relations with one another, the High Contracting Parties shall be guided by the following fundamental principles…non-interference in the internal affairs of one another”. However, the ASEAN Way is not defined as narrow as what enshrined in the treaty.

This is what one keeps on forgetting and neglecting in the kind of literature; as the ASEAN Way is not the goal, but rather a means of achieving collective interests. Hence, the process of norm and values sharing is dynamic and never been stagnant.

On the one side story, criticisms are frequently directed at the gameplay of ASEAN, which often pays too much respect for the above-mentioned principles. Nevertheless, the ASEAN Way is the only possible method that could be employed by the regional institution and its members, as it is shared on daily basis beyond the limits of their consciousness. Intriguingly, the ASEAN Way is neither a failure nor a weakness. As many are not aware of, on the other side of the ‘blame’, lies a powerful instrument: the ASEAN Constructive Engagement.

The ASEAN Constructive Engagement

ASEAN utilized the Constructive Engagement (CE) at Myanmar in the 1990s to foster democratization. It was not introduced as an alternative of the ASEAN Way, yet inseparable for they share the same ‘blood’. The CE prefers a bilateral or multilateral method of engagement by favoring dialogue, opposing the policies of compulsion including sanctions and diplomatic isolation employed by the west.

As matter of fact, the CE is not only utilized by ASEAN in Myanmar’s case. In any other issues, CE informally and unconsciously uses as a method of engagement among ASEAN Countries, whether it is facilitated by ASEAN Secretariat, bilateral or multilateral engagement under the greater umbrella of ASEAN cooperation, or in any diplomatic forums.

Furthermore, CE does not offer a sudden policy shift of any ASEAN member states to adhere towards regional goals, but rather emphasizes on the ‘engagement process’. This is why, in the f by any government in ASEAN.

Some may view this as a disadvantage. However, CE is a promising tool in offering gradual changes in dispute settlement mechanism without harassing any conflicting parties in public spaces.

Two concrete examples of the result of CE can be seen from the policy change of Myanmar towards the Rohingya and Indonesia’s accession to the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement as presented below.

Constructive Engagement: A Tale of Two Case Studies

Even though CE was introduced in early 1991 to induce Myanmar’s cooperative behavior to ASEAN, the effort continued even after Myanmar become one of ASEAN members, especially to persuade Myanmar to become more open to the international community and not treating the Rohingya minority group violently.  

The result was not instant. From 1991 to 2008 there was almost no change in Myanmar policy towards the Rohingya. The country insisted the Rohingya massacre has nothing to do with their country for the Rohingya is not part of the Burmese community. Not until in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, which resulted in the first attempt of regional “humanitarian intervention” to assist Myanmar in recovery. It is imperative to note the regional assistance set up by ASEAN and its members to help Myanmar had broken the problematic stigma of ASEAN’s ‘fixed price’ devotion to the principle of non-interference and traditional concept of sovereignty.

The successful attempt of ASEAN to assist Myanmar recovering from the impact of such humanitarian disaster, served as the pathway to improve the government’s openness to the regional community. In fact, as per 2009, Indonesia played a leading role in opening a bilateral talk with the Burmese government, calling for a greater attention to this Muslim minority. Surprisingly, this occasion functioned as the turning point where the Burmese government finally admitted that the Rohingya problem also belongs to Myanmar. Prime Minister Thein Sein, stated that “in principle, the Myanmar is willing to accept the Rohingyas back if they can prove they are indeed the people of Myanmar”.

Another breathtaking result also occurred in late-2016. At the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of ASEAN on September 30, 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi, finally asked “constructive support” from Myanmar’s regional neighbors to resolve the crisis in the country’s troubled western Rakhine state. The step was then followed by the establishment of a special panel of an investigation, headed by the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

In the Southeast Asian haze catastrophe, ASEAN also utilizes similar approach to persuade Indonesia to pay attention towards the issue. Resulted from thorough bilateral and multilateral discussions, there were at least three events which marked Indonesia’s non-defensive behavior to ASEAN. First, Indonesia had never blocked ASEAN from adopting any resolution, since the Singapore Declaration, where the haze issue was first mentioned, to the making of haze agreement. Second, Indonesia signed the agreement in 2002 and third, in late-2014, Indonesia concluded its accession to the agreement.

It certainly is a long process. In the case of Myanmar, it took more or less 25 years for the Burmese government to acknowledged Rohingya as a problem that needs further attention and finally called for regional arrangements to assist Myanmar in solving this humanitarian catastrophe. For Indonesia, it needs 11 years for the government to finally decide to abide the law.


Through a long norm and values-sharing process, though many kinds of literature discredit how the ASEAN Way’s strict adherence to consensus decision-making, non-interference, and sovereignty hinders the organization to pursue progress in some areas of cooperation, one must understand that it is the ASEAN Way that has led ASEAN to reach its 50th anniversary.

Blaming the failure of cooperation in ASEAN on the ASEAN Way will prevent us from seeing how ASEAN has made progress since the organization was formed. Furthermore, what many kinds of literature have forgotten is that the ASEAN Way embraces CE, which emphasizes on a non-confrontational approach of diplomacy but offering gradual changes, even in some areas of cooperation that seen to be very sensitive by ASEAN.  What needs to be understood is the non-incorporation of the ASEAN Way in assessing ASEAN will never be the right case. Therefore, after the 50th anniversary, the ASEAN Way and CE will always be the nature of ASEAN cooperation because it does not matter if the ‘tool’ is still relevant or not, yet there will be no ASEAN without the ASEAN Way.


*) Dio Herdiawan Tobing is the Research Manager of ASEAN Studies Center UGM. He will start his LLM in Public International Law at Leiden University in September.