Asean, Sovereignty And Intervention In Southeast Asia

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

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Sovereignty is a highly valued and prized concept. International relations. Politicians and opposition leaders alike vouch for its sanctity; only to invoke the importance of breaking it, as and when, certain international issues impinge on the interest of their own constituencies. Thus, a double paradox. On one level, sovereignty is considered an absolute; notwithstanding an international order that is, actually, shaped by systemic anarchy, as realists described/proscribed. On another level, sovereignty is a relative concept: respected only in its breach.

Lee Jones, one of the most astute Southeast Asian scholars to have emerged on the scene in the recent decade, who is now based in Queen Mary College, in University of London, argues that it is not enough to adopt the concept of “organized hypocrisy” deployed by Stephen Krasner to explain the many breaches that have since been observed and recorded in ASEAN.

To begin with, Stephen Krasner’s concept, while exciting and elegant, is somewhat beyond falsification. Nation-states lie as and when they have to lie; and, invariably, break the (non intervention) norm as and when they find it advantageous to do so.

Thus, such an analysis only procures a depiction of an unstable, potentially deviant, intent, but has next to nothing to say on the organizational capacity of the state to wage war, or war on terrorism, as and when their interest collide with another.

The neglect of this malevolent intent is all the more puzzling when realist scholars, time and again, have been urging academics and policymakers alike to put equal focus on capacity and intent; of which the latter is subject to easy manipulation and change.

Thus, if Stephen Krasner’s optic is given any more currency, one cannot truly understand when, why, and how a Southeast Asian state may well behave in future, either alone or together with other powers. One member state would intervene in the affairs of another member state, simply because it was advantageous to do so.

This amounts to Herbert Simon’s “politics of satisficing”, potentially even “muddling through”. But it is silent on why, indeed at precisely what point, this very norm is broken; especially given the rhetorical weight placed on ASEAN Security community and the works even when neither are truly happening.

Lee Jones, inspired by scholars at Murdoch University in Perth, averred that non-intervention is but a facade to create and maintain the kind of social order that the elites themselves do desire. As and when the elites felt impelled to side with President Suharto, for example, as marked by Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1974, they did so not merely with a nod and a wink, but with full endorsement granted to Indonesia at the United Nations too.

Indeed, it wasn’t just ASEAN that was the culprit in giving Indonesia the blanket of legitimacy to invade East Timor but the US and Australia too. All had a stake in preserving, and creating, a social capitalist order, that privileged the views and materialist values of the powers-that-be. In turn, when the time came to oppose Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979, again, the same logic prevailed or, in Robert Cox’s term was “reproduced”. ASEAN, the United States and Australia opposed Vietnam’s behavior.

Invariably, when Indonesian and Malaysian politicians are in need of more Muslim votes at home, the vehement protests against Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims are resurrected, even though the awful disregard of their rights had prevailed in the region across several generations. Even Aung San Suu Kyi herself, acting as the Foreign Minister of Myanmar, is not beyond sheer capitulation, hence, reproduction, of this logic of (elite) self interest, this despite the claim to being a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Lee Jones argues that non-intervention is not merely a false front and a straw man, but a fake argument deployed by those in power to delimit what is prohibited and unappealing, only that the exercise and invocation of such taboo, is timed according to their own interest and survival per the extemporaneous circumstances of the day.

In other words, non- intervention is not a sustainable political fact but a promiscuous political act often, if not repeatedly, conducted behind the screen, indeed away from the public scrutiny of the world since the very heydays of ASEAN.

The fact that that scholars like Amitav Acharya first espoused the importance of security community, then realist-institutionalism, then analytical eclecticism, then constructivism, only lately, the consociational regional order, is a self-indictment of the mishandling of all the historical materials of ASEAN too.

By relying on official speeches and public rhetoric that seem to put enormous purchase on non- intervention, even when these policymakers and politicians are lying through their teeth, Amitav Archarya and those who believed in the ASEAN Way of non-intervention have completely lost the plot.

That students of international relations continue to read his works widely can only suggest the lacunae of authentic Marxist methodology and leftist scholarship. But then again, wasn’t Southeast Asia the region where capitalist war machines waged its war against the Marxists? So, why should anyone be surprised by the sheer silence coming from the left? Lee Jones’s work is a major contribution to ASEAN studies.

Founder of Strategic Indo-Pacific Arena (

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Phar Kim Beng, PhD

Phar Kim Beng, PhD

Founder of Strategic Indo-Pacific Arena (

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