ASEAN and East Asian International Relations: Regional Delusion

By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

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ASEAN, or, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is composed of ten member states, is often deemed the second most successful regional organization after the European Union (EU). Although the EU is now torn asunder by tensions emerging from Brexit, the accolade is a testament to the success and longevity of ASEAN itself. Formed in 1967, it has successfully reduced intra-regional tensions.

With the exception of a border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand in 2008, over the exact status of Preah Vihear temple site, which was already demarcated by the United Nations several decades prior, there has been no conflicts between any member states. Even the war between Indonesia and Malaysia, referred to as Konfrontasi, has never flared again, whether on land or at sea.

But David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith, both having previously taught in the National University of Singapore, hence, aware of the draconian measures of the state, argue that much of the institutional unity that provides the moorings in ASEAN are but a chimera of authoritarianism.

Heads of states and government may do their utmost to keep ASEAN united, invariably by not resorting to nationalism, the actual unity between the people and among diplomats is only skin-deep.

In reality, member states of ASEAN are driven more by their national or vested political interest, to keep their respective wealth-nest growing. Each wants the country to receive more development aid and foreign direct investment from the West, Japan, and even China. To the degree they operate together, their goal is to function like a bunch of “stationary bandits”, in the phrase of Mancur Olson.

In other words, they have transformed statecraft into an institution to wield their perpetual influence, with no regard to the rule of law. In this sense, ASEAN functions almost like a Soviet state; hence the author's description of those scholars who support ASEAN as believers in ASEANOLOGY. Well, there are some merits to this argument. But only to the degree that ASEANOLOGY is not another form of constructivism too.

Yet, the formation of ASEAN, invariably, the quest for a single identity, whether fictive or real, falls within the context of constructivism too. If ASEAN constructivism is wrong, then spiteful and demeaning phrases would have to be applied to every single scholar who believes in constructivism, by extension, the appeal and value of the epistemic community. The latter is a group of experts and academics who subscribe to the same causal beliefs within a certain field of specialty. Such as region-building, climate change, environmental protection, arms control and the likes.

Anyway, the authors have done an excellent job of stripping ASEAN of the burdensome political correctness. But the prices they have to pay are immense too. Having done what they did, they would literally be dis-invited to many ASEAN events, conferences, and seminars, all of which are useful to their own professional and academic career. By calling a spade a spade, sometimes too crudely, the authors have found themselves consigned to academic ignominy within the context of ASEANOLOGY!

This is why this book does not receive high mention in many books on ASEAN, even though it is one of the most well-written ones. ASEAN is not as purposeful and helpful as its supporters and surrogates often claimed. But with a bunch of scholars, often led by Amitav Acharya, who gives sweeping and naïve support to the policymakers in ASEAN, the actual processes of the entity are skewed further.



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