UNLIKE its short-lived predecessors — the Maphilindo (Malaya-Philippines –Indonesia) and ASA (Association of Southeast Asia) — Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has a long life.
It lasted twice longer than LON (League of Nations).
Asean’s longevity can be attributed to leaders with strong regional credentials and commitment. Their willingness to put aside differences for a common good, especially in critical times, has been a contributing factor.
Asean faced many challenges during its early inception. For example, it failed to hold a summit for a decade, following disagreements between two member states over a territorial dispute.
It held the Third Summit at Manila in 1987 under very difficult security circumstances.
Then Philippines president Corazon Aquino went all out to ensure the personal safety of heads of state, including allowing limited control of the airspace over Manila International Airport.
Some moored their naval vessels at Manila Bay for contingency purposes.
There were also tensions over the suppression of political rights of minorities in some member states that could have taken a heavy toll on the organisation.
Their common goal overrides, however, internal differences.
In hindsight, what kept Asean together was not so much the policy of non-interference in domestic politics per se, although it formed a significant element of its DNA.
It was also the good chemistry between leaders like Suharto, Tun Abdul Razak, Ferdinand Marcos, Thanom Kittikachorn and Lee Kuan Yew, and the informal Asean way of dealing with difficult issues that helped ease tensions.
By focusing on common security issues and shelving temporarily bilateral problems from the official agenda, the Asean original five were able to muddle through.
The informal Asean style of discussing problems on golf courses, at joget and durian parties helped cement personal ties between the leaders.
However, the credit for creating the cosy environment for leaders to chill out goes to foreign ministers and diplomats.
After all, Asean is an inter-governmental organisation led by diplomats from the respective member states.
During summit meetings, for example, the diplomats would stay late into the night, to make sure papers for the next day’s meeting received the blessings of the respective foreign ministers before they were tabled for the heads of state to be discussed.
In its early days of its inception, Asean benefited from the wisdom of strong–willed, intellectual heavyweight foreign ministers. Mochtar Kusumatadja, Ghazali Shafie, Carlos Ramulo, Thanat Khoman and Sinnathamby Rajaratnam were among them.
While the diplomats and foreign ministers continue to exercise the same influence, Asean has become a bit cumbersome, today. Its size has made it less agile in adapting to changes in the geopolitical environment, for example.
With five members, it was easier to make compromises and forge consensus. Managing the centrifugal pulls tends to be more challenging with 11 countries.
As an organisation today, Asean is ideologically more diverse than 50 years ago. What has kept Asean together today is not its charter and penchant for a rule-based organisation.
A few members find the rules cumbersome. Likewise, the consensus principle in decision-making has been usurped many a time.
Since 2012, for example, there is little consensus in criticising China’s policy in the South China Sea. Some critics view this disagreement as undermining Asean’s centrality and objectivity.
Asean’s centrality or influence on the international stage is being diluted. Size, ideological orientation and geopolitical uncertainty have deepened fissures among the Asean 11 and weakened their ability to influence major events on the world stage.
For example, Asean has little input in the current North Korean conflict.
A number of new organisations in the region with their own political-cum-security agenda have further undermined Asean’s cohesiveness. It is no longer the choice forum to discuss international security issues in the region.
Even the ARF (Asean Regional Forum), which used to be the only high-level Asia Pacific-wide forum dealing with regional security since 1993, has been sidelined by other international security forums and organisations.
The East Asia Security Summit (EAS) mechanism Asean initiated in 2005 has also lost much of its influence.
The Track-One IISS-Shangri- La Security Dialogue forum, which meets annually in Singapore, is currently more popular with world leaders. The IISS is the acronym for the London-based Think Tank — The Institute of International and Strategic Studies.
Asean is also loosely tied together by trade, or investment. For example, intra-Asean trade has been languishing at 26 per cent, negligible by European Union standard. Total intra- Asean investment pales in comparison with the foreign direct investment from China, for example.
Slowly pulling Asean apart is also patronage politics. The emergence of pocket-deep China on the international geo-strategic landscape has forced many Asean members to rethink their political strategy as a hedge against an uncertain Washington-led global security order.
This recalibration of political interests may presage political realignments with long-term consequences on the security architecture of the region.
In an anarchical international system, the challenge to Asean is to remain relevant. It must reclaim the capacity to influence events on the international scene.