ASEAN must reinvent itself to stay relevant in region

On the question of humanitarian assistance too, ASEAN envoys have been attacked to prevent the delivery of assistance.
Picture credits: Google Earth
Picture credits: Google Earth

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened its forty-third summit last month. The theme this year was ‘ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth’, indicating the relevance of the group in terms of the economic potential the region holds, and how the ASEAN intends to stay within the pivot of the fast-changing geopolitical scenario in the wider Indo-Pacific. The recent Jakarta Declaration, also called the ASEAN Concord IV, reiterates the group’s existing efforts in supporting the earlier declarations and in identifying the core areas where challenges lie. While the summit itself remains a core part of ASEAN processes, when one looks at the ASEAN documents that have emerged from these meetings, some of the statements seem almost predictable in terms of the contents and issues.

This time, there were a number of statements and declarations packed into thirty-three such documents. While the first set of documents pertains to the ASEAN Leaders Summit, the subsequent documents relate to the meetings with its dialogue partners and comprise a substantial number of declarations and joint statements. But it falls short in terms of actionable issues, where the need to move ahead on several matters seems to be in limbo. While most of the documents endorse the oft-stated positions of the ASEAN and its dialogue partners, three core challenges need to be highlighted.

First, the focus on ‘ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth’ tends to reiterate existing ASEAN approaches such as endorsing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) without any effort to act when the TAC is violated. In the run up to the formation of the East Asia Summit (EAS), acceding to the TAC became the basis for entry into the EAS. In November 2022, Ukraine acceded to the TAC, making it the fiftieth member. However, while it remains heavy on symbolism, in terms of real leverage there is not much that it can hope to achieve.

Second, among the resolutions adopted by the Jakarta Declaration, the most critical one falls under the subheading ‘ASEAN matters’, with the foremost reference to its commitment to human rights. This needs to be looked at in the context of the violence in Myanmar where fighting between the military, the People’s Defence Force and Ethnic Armed Groups has continued unabated since February 2021. This is critical as the ASEAN Summit’s review of the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) on Myanmar needs to factor in the challenges the group faces in dealing with the junta.

ASEAN itself remains a divided house as far as Myanmar is concerned. While the UN support for the 5PC has been clearly articulated, it is also imperative to recognise that earlier this year, the report of the UN Special Rapporteur clearly identified the divisions within the ASEAN—countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have chosen to engage with the junta-led State Administrative Council while other members of the ASEAN have been more supportive of the National Unity Government. However, the view that the ASEAN may eventually accept a junta-led electoral process to end the crisis has been referred to, and this will eventually undermine the 5PC.

On the question of humanitarian assistance too, ASEAN envoys have been attacked to prevent the delivery of assistance. Two factors are critical in this context: first, the excessive delay in delivery rendered the assistance efforts futile because the initial period of Covid’s second wave was the worst phase when very little assistance reached the people on the ground. Second, this delay was due to shortcomings within the ASEAN itself because its coordinating centre for humanitarian assistance was more equipped to address issues related to natural calamities and disasters rather than humanitarian assistance in times of a political crisis.

The third core challenge is that the Jakarta Declaration re-emphasises the ASEAN’s Achilles’ heel—its ability to perform as a diplomatic group remains somewhat limited to the procedural aspects of confidence building. Where it clearly falls short are in areas of preventive diplomacy over which it has little clout. Diplomatic manoeuvrings alone do not account for relevance in a region that will be difficult to manage, given the nature of geopolitical challenges that have emerged.

While the ASEAN has always been at the centre of major power rivalry, its ability to manoeuvre was not as limited in the past. The deep economic integration it has with China has also resulted in some degree of constraint in terms of its ability to take a more independent stand on matters of geopolitical concerns, particularly in the South China Sea.

The divisions among ASEAN members when it comes to this are amply visible when the ASEAN keeps reiterating the relevance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but is not able to endorse the veracity of the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration which clearly nullified Chinese claims over the contested maritime regions of the South China Sea.

The lack of an ASEAN response has led to China’s persistent erosion of the UNCLOS and, more recently, the reiteration of the demand for a ten-dash line—lines that mark the contested regions between China and the other claimant states—that thoroughly undermines any efforts by the ASEAN to move towards a binding code of conduct for the region. The shift from the nine-dash line to the ten-dash line also underscores a more belligerent Chinese posture that does not keep with its claims of respect for international law and the UNCLOS. If the ASEAN has to remain relevant, it needs to reinvent itself to suit the changing regional environment.

Shankari Sundararaman

Professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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