Kings of their castles

A tendency to look out for number one has left the ten-member Asean bloc in a shambles

Dr Markus Karbaum
December 6, 2012

A tendency to look out for number one has left the ten-member Asean bloc in a shambles

By Dr Markus Karbaum
With Cambodia’s Asean Chairmanship drawing to a close this month, the clear message from the 2012 experience is that regional cooperation in Southeast Asia does not run like clockwork. At times it does not run at all, as the historic July summit exemplified.

Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP. A united front: outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh
Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP.
A united front: outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh

For the first time since its formation in 1967, Asean failed to agree on a common communiqué following its ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh. The deliberations revealed a serious rift among its member states, with the Philippines standing on one side and Cambodia on the other. The archipelagic state, along with Vietnam, lobbied for Asean’s official attention – though not direct political support – for its security interests in light of an increasingly aggressive China in the South China Sea. Its efforts were swiftly rebuffed by chair Cambodia – a devoted vassal of China – which seemingly holds its loyalty to Beijing in higher regard than solidarity with its closest neighbours.
With Cambodia and China signing off on hundreds of millions of dollars in trade agreements in the lead up to Phnom Penh’s summits in November, it is clear that the superpower is still paying for Cambodia to secure its strategic interests in Southeast Asia – a relationship that is testing trust and community spirit within the Asean bloc.
Other factors are also preventing the smooth integration of the region. The intergovernmental bloc hinges on the principle of unanimity, allowing for progress to only follow consensus. Asean also lacks significant, competent supranational institutions backed by adequate budgets, and the region is awash with different ethnicities, languages, religions, belief systems, political systems and economic performances. Some countries are ranked among the world’s poorest, while others are considered among the world’s richest. This development gap is perhaps the biggest hurdle for regional cooperation.
Above all, there isn’t any shared history that welds the member states of Asean together. It is hard to imagine the formation of the European Union without Europe’s shared experience of two world wars. Southeast Asian nations are nationalistic, emphasise sovereignty and display reluctance to transfer capacity to regional or international organisations. Sometimes it seems that certain states draw foreign policy inspiration from pre-colonial perceptions: my neighbour is my enemy, and the neighbour of my enemy is my friend. As with most things in Asean, agreements are difficult births and often achieve little. In this context, any effective regional decision-making that may arise should be considered an art form.
With the exception of the 2011 confrontation between Cambodia and Thailand, no two Asean nations have been at war since the bloc’s formation. For this reason, the failure of July’s summit to form a joint statement shook the association to its foundations – a jolt that regional governments have not yet forgotten, as the setback has complicated other areas too. In particular, such disunity can diminish the economic appeal of the region and deter foreign investors who question the region’s stability, a worrying development as the Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA) – which supports local manufacturing – requires inward investment.
The creation of a single market through the Asean Economic Community (AEC) will generate considerable benefits for each member state; however, the efforts of economic ministers across the board to achieve the AEC have been insufficient, as highlighted by Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan when he called on member states to “redouble efforts and take active steps to realise the AEC”, which has already been postponed by a year to the end of 2015.
Once again the block failed to answer some key questions during 2012: Can and should individual member states independently implement the obligations according to AFTA accords? Who will oversee the daily execution of AFTA’s rules? What are the alternatives to the establishment of an Asean jurisdiction for an effective management of legal disputes among state and private sectors?
During the East Asia Summit in November, Asean opened the door to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega free trade area with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea that represents more than 3.3 billion people. The pact aims to replace complicated bilateral trade agreements – known as having the ‘spaghetti bowl’ effect – and streamline trade.
However, Asean is not all about promoting trade and economic growth. In November, Asean signed a human rights declaration, despite individual governments perceiving equality and judicial processes as internal affairs. Disappointingly, though not surprisingly, the adopted charter appears to function less as a measure to protect its citizens and more as a potential tool to legitimise human rights violations. The declaration fails to include several key basic rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to freedom of association and the right to be free from enforced disappearance. It also acknowledges that human rights are relative depending on national and regional contexts, especially with consideration to “different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds”. By rubber-stamping this document with deeply flawed “general principles” and numerous loopholes, Southeast Asian governments have ensured they can interpret laws to suit their needs and to justify human rights violations in the name of “national security” or safeguarding “public morality”. In a region home to semi-democratic and autocratic regimes, the message coming out of Phnom Penh in November was clear: human rights in Southeast Asia can easily be sidelined.
Other political challenges should not be handled in such a half-hearted manner. Cross-border issues such as maritime security, energy, climate change, education and human resource development – all issues discussed in November – must be tackled effectively and with integrity through decision-making structures at an Asean level, beyond ineffective ministerial meetings.
This year has revealed regional governments do not know whether they should carry on towards further integration, or hit the brakes. The bloc is showing major difficulties in evolving from a loosely-formed association into a rules-based legal entity, which prioritises Asean over national sovereignty.
In 2012, Asean has once again proven to be an ‘all-talk, no-walk’ photo opportunity. Cambodia’s chairmanship has proven that no matter how many decrees are signed, there is no substitute for trust and community spirit.
Dr Markus Karbaum has a PhD in political science and Southeast Asian studies. He is a consultant and lecturer at the Free University Berlin. His research focuses on Cambodia’s government, as well as political, social and economic development in mainland Southeast Asia. 

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