A divided ASEAN: Will disunity derail the regional organisation?

Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS Joanne Lin examines the challenges to ASEAN’s unity ahead of the 56th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ and related meetings, and highlights why ASEAN needs to move towards a more flexible modus operandi.
(Left-right) Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, East Timor’s Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai gather prior to a retreat session during the 42nd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Labuan Bajo on 11 May 2023. (Mast Irham/AFP)
(Left-right) Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, East Timor’s Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai gather prior to a retreat session during the 42nd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Labuan Bajo on 11 May 2023. (Mast Irham/AFP)

As ASEAN prepares for another important series of foreign ministers’ meetings next week, it must battle divisions within the organisation that are threatening to derail its unity.

The 56th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and related ministerial meetings with dialogue partners will take place in Jakarta from 11-14 July 2023. ASEAN foreign ministers will meet their counterparts from key countries, including the US, China, India, Japan and the EU. It will be important for ASEAN to present a united front on key issues and challenges.

However, as much as ASEAN’s unity is crucial to the success of the organisation (as mentioned in almost all of ASEAN’s statements), presenting this united front in action is harder than making rhetorical speeches.

ASEAN may have its share of success in instituting mechanisms to prevent inter-state conflicts within the region and facilitating economic growth. However, addressing issues within the domestic jurisdictions of its member states or going beyond inter-regional cooperation to play a more strategic role in the regional architecture proves to be challenging, if not impossible.

Managing expectations of ASEAN's role

The State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey Report noted that Southeast Asians are disappointed with the effectiveness of ASEAN. A significant 82.6% of respondents indicated that the regional organisation was slow and ineffective and thus could not cope with fluid political and economic developments, becoming irrelevant in the new world order. A growing number (60.7% in 2023 compared to 48.2% in 2022) felt that ASEAN was becoming increasingly disunited.

The Myanmar crisis, for example, points to the fact that ASEAN is limited by its own rules such as the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.

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A traffic intersection in Bangkok on 20 June 2023. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

Such disappointments are not unexpected, as ASEAN was never designed to solve domestic issues nor intervene in conflicts outside the region. Understanding ASEAN’s intended role and limitations is important to manage expectations of what ASEAN can or cannot do.

At least for its first 50 years in existence, ASEAN’s success has resulted in a slightly overstated sense that ASEAN should and can be the driving force in the wider region. However, going beyond purposes that it was not intended to fulfill has created cracks and fissures that expose the shortcomings of the organisation.

What the Myanmar crisis reveals

The Myanmar crisis, for example, points to the fact that ASEAN is limited by its own rules such as the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. It highlights that ASEAN was not set up to resolve domestic issues (but that does not mean that ASEAN should condone unacceptable state behaviours).

As Myanmar’s crisis continues unresolved, the diverse perspectives among ASEAN countries become even more salient. 13.7% of regional respondents in the State of Southeast Asia Survey report were of the view that ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus (5PC) on Myanmar exposes ASEAN’s disunity.

Following ASEAN leaders' reaffirmation in November 2022 that the 5PC remains ASEAN’s valid reference point and should be implemented in its entirety, Thailand has organised two Track 1.5 meetings in March and June 2023, involving Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Than Shwe (a military representative) and countries neighbouring Myanmar, including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. This was despite ASEAN’s firm decision to maintain Myanmar’s non-political representation at its summits and foreign ministers’ meetings. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore pointedly avoided the meetings. 

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Protesters hold up a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi and raise three-finger salutes, during a demonstration to mark the second anniversary of Myanmar's 2021 military coup, outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok, Thailand, 1 February 2023. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

While Thailand may have justified the need to address border issues with Myanmar and viewed its initiative as complementary to ASEAN’s efforts, other members were cautious about lending legitimacy to the Myanmar junta and bypassing ASEAN’s efforts. Such division will likely prevent the organisation from achieving any breakthrough on the crisis.

ASEAN members had an array of responses toward Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Divided on AUKUS and Russia-Ukraine war

Myanmar aside, ASEAN is not faring much better in having a united voice or view where major power contestations are involved. The region had mixed reactions towards AUKUS (the trilateral security arrangement of Australia, the US, and the UK, which involves providing Australia with nuclear-powered submarines).

Scholars who had assessed regional responses noted that while the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam appeared to have tacitly supported AUKUS, countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and more recently Cambodia were more critical in their concerns about nuclear non-proliferation.

Similarly, ASEAN members had an array of responses toward Russia’s war in Ukraine. These ranged from Singapore’s strong condemnation and imposition of sanctions on Russia to Myanmar’s support for Russia, while Laos and Vietnam abstained from a United Nations General Assembly resolution on Russia.

Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines were willing to condemn the act but not the aggressor. As such, the three ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ statements (issued in February, March and April 2022) were basic calling for restraints without mentioning Russia.

The lack of unity within ASEAN on the SCS issue has even prompted the US to call on ASEAN’s claimants to resolve their differences with each other first, to strengthen their collective voice against China.

Lack of united front on South China Sea 

ASEAN’s diverse preferences are stark where major power rivalry is concerned or for regional flashpoints such as the South China Sea (SCS). In the SCS, claimant states such as the Philippines and Vietnam or those with overlapping territorial claims with China such as Indonesia in the North Natuna Sea are more willing to take a harder stance against China in the disputed waters.

Those more dependent on economic development or aid and investment from China including Cambodia will be cautious about increasing pressure on China or creating tensions. The lack of unity within ASEAN on the SCS issue has even prompted the US to call on ASEAN’s claimants to resolve their differences with each other first, to strengthen their collective voice against China.

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Philippines Navy's BRP Andres Bonifacio (PS-17) participates in the ASEAN Fleet Review as part of the 42nd ASEAN Multilateral Naval Exercises at Subic Bay, Zambales, Philippines, 11 May 2023. (Eloisa Lopez/Reuters)

A case in point is ASEAN joint non-combat exercise proposed by Indonesia scheduled for 18-25 September this year. Although the proposed exercise seeks to strengthen ASEAN resilience by bringing together members in the name of ASEAN centrality, Indonesia had to move the proposed exercise site away from the SCS to a location within Indonesia waters around Batam Island.

The above examples highlighting ASEAN’s diverse views underline ASEAN’s struggle in achieving a united front because its mandate is to achieve inter-government cooperation — not alignment in foreign or security policies.  

By not insisting on the participation of all ten members, cooperation within ASEAN among interest groups can help to advance and raise collaboration beyond a low baseline.

Forming interest groups?

In today’s fragmented global order, decisions and choices are more complex. The diverse political and economic interests of ASEAN countries will be even harder to bridge, and geostrategic alignments within ASEAN will certainly be harder to attain given the current geopolitical situation. As such, observers have noted that across-the-board alignment within ASEAN or even achieving neutrality is unlikely, especially on tough decisions.

Perhaps it is time that ASEAN considers new approaches to overcome its bureaucratic and institutional hurdles to react nimbly to rapid geostrategic developments. This could include flexible cooperation among a smaller group of countries within ASEAN on important issues.

For example, the ASEAN Coast Guard Forum organised by Indonesia in November 2022 and this June were not attended by all ASEAN members. However, it was an important confidence-building platform for information-sharing and enhancing coordination for those who did participate.

By not insisting on the participation of all ten members, cooperation within ASEAN among interest groups can help to advance and raise collaboration beyond a low baseline. ASEAN member states that are not ready to participate in certain initiatives can participate in the future. In other areas, ASEAN’s initiatives may start small and expand into greater regionalism when the time is ripe. This will allow ASEAN to stay relevant and to push itself ahead even when all members are not moving in lockstep now.

This article was first published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute as a ASEANFocus+ article. 

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