The 49th ASEAN: Who Does What and How?


Dedi Dinarto – Research Assistant at ASEAN Studies Center, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada

Indonesian scholar Shofwan Al Banna Choiruzzad through his prominent book titled ‘ASEAN at the Crossroads of History’ criticizes the history of ASEAN which never escape upheaval. As an institution that is designed close to the important historical events in the region, ASEAN has flexibility properties serving both opportunities and downsides.

ASEAN has now entered the age of nearly half a century indicate a lengthy process of institutionalization aspects. The question would be to what extent has ASEAN been running?

To answer these questions, then there are two main layers that can be considered. First, ASEAN as an institution. Second, ASEAN as a community.

Establishment of ASEAN in 1967 is intended to fulfill both internal and external factors.

The former means to rediscover the structure of national economic growth and development, a peaceful atmosphere at that time provides an important precondition for Southeast Asia countries. Driven by the national interest, the five founding countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) to immediately establish a functional institution.

On the other hand, the Cold War constellation led by bipolar power structure becomes a threat to the creation of the peaceful and neutral region. Under ASEAN framework, ASEAN member countries could eliminate as well as keep of the threat of communism.

These two main factors then pushed ASEAN member countries to create ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality) treaty.

From the neoliberal institutionalist perspective, the step undertaken by the ASEAN founding members is an attempt to minimize transaction costs in order to meet national interests. In other words, common interests are first defined off the international context, and then institutions are established by state actors to facilitate the achievement of their joint interests (see Keohane, 1989; Jupille and Caporaso, 1999).

However, current developments indicate ASEAN declination of the institutional aspects. This is partly reflected in the failure of ASEAN in dealing with the South China Sea case. As an institution, ASEAN failed to agree on unified voice in the face of a credible threat to the region yet neglecting the security of sea as a vital element of regional stability.

Even, it is also implicitly indicates that the ASEAN member countries are not willing to commit towards something that is not an issue for a particular country. In the context of South China Sea, the non-disputants such as Cambodia, Lao PDR, Singapore, Thailand, and Myanmar would not take a credible stance because it would undermine the logic of the transactional cost efficiency which is expected to come from ASEAN.

In the end, ASEAN will only be used as a ‘stepping stone’ by member states. As long as it can freshly prepared and maximize the potential gains to the member countries, ASEAN would still be relevant.

On the other hand, ASEAN can also be seen from the aspect of community. This has to do with the view that ASEAN is a group of countries that are bound on the role of ideology, rules, and norms. Relations between countries are prepared on social expectations rather than utility maximization calculations.

In other words, institutional routines are followed even when there is no obvious self-interest involved (see March and Olsen, 1989; Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998).

The main purpose of connecting people between countries is to construct something as an act which brings into being a subject or object that otherwise would not exist (see Fierke, 2007). This serves as driving factor encouraging the emergence of a community of discourse among member states are organized into three pillars of the ASEAN Community in 2025 include the issue of political-security, economic, and socio-cultural.

Nevertheless, ASEAN is still experiencing a significant issue in encouraging regionalism at the community level. Acharya (2004) was doubting the possibility of ‘participatory regionalism’. Even though several wider NGO-based regional institutions, such as ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) and Asian People’s Advocacy have fought for people’s voice, the case of human rights abuse and trafficking remains appeared on newspaper’s headlines.

Thus, these multi-layer view provides us a reflective insight. To date, ASEAN serves as a political product working simultaneously on both institution and community. It remains a great competition between ‘the logic of consequences’ deemed by States and ‘the logic of appropriateness’ conceived by NGOs as the representative of community. This signifies the multi-interpretive of ASEAN as both an institution and community. Therefore, the development of ASEAN in the future would be depending on who does what and how. It defines the possibility of all agents to shape ASEAN either to remain state-centric or community based.