Does ASEAN Matter?

An Asia Society Policy Institute Conversation

ASEAN heads of state.


(L-R) Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Indonesian President Joko Widodo gather for a group photograph at the 32nd ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit in Singapore on April 28, 2018.

In his new book Does ASEAN Matter?, esteemed Indonesian diplomat Marty Natalegawa provides a view from within the corridors of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. As Indonesia’s representative to ASEAN, and later his country’s Foreign Minister, from 2009-2014, Dr. Natalegawa was present for many of ASEAN’s best and worst moments over the past two decades.

Dr. Natalegawa takes on the central questions many are now asking about the Indo-Pacific region’s longest-standing regional organization: Is an organization created in 1967 still relevant in a region that fundamentally has been transformed over the past 50-plus years? Can ASEAN member states overcome the internal fractures and division being exposed by increasingly tense regional power dynamics? And perhaps most importantly, in an era of rapid change, can ASEAN still deliver on its promises for the people of Southeast Asia? Does ASEAN still matter?

We asked a series of policy experts to weigh in on these questions in an online conversation led by Dr. Natalegawa. Joining him are Rory Medcalf, Elina NoorDhruva Jaishankar, Evan Laksmana, and Walter Lohman


Dr. Marty Natalegawa

Marty Natelegawa

For some five decades ASEAN has demonstrated its relevance; it has mattered.

ASEAN transformed the relationship among Southeast Asian countries from a “trust deficit” to one of “strategic trust.”

It has been immensely important in transforming the position of Southeast Asian countries in the wider region—from proxies and objects of major power rivalry to a position of “centrality” in the evolving dynamics of Southeast Asia and its immediate environs.

And not least, ASEAN enabled a more people-centered region: ushering in dramatic transformations of the region’s economies. Beyond material benefits, good governance, promotion and protection of human rights, and democratic principles are declared goals for many countries.  Needless to say, the latter are still very much at their infancy and remain fragile.

However, in a world of tectonic geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts; complex linkages between the internal and external milieu; widespread transnational threats that defy national solutions alone; and challenges to the principle of resolving disputes through diplomacy, how is ASEAN to maintain its relevance?

ASEAN cannot afford complacency.“More of the same” will not suffice for the next five decades. Its members must constantly and purposefully deliver on their commitment to the ASEAN project. There is no room for a la carte regionalism. Now that the wherewithal, institutions, and frameworks exist for intensified intra-Southeast Asian cooperation, they must not remain dormant. ASEAN members must “empower” ASEAN on issues within the region and among them. It cannot be silent on issues that manifestly affect the region as a whole.

ASEAN must also exercise more than “convening power” in its broader Indo-Pacific role. It must project thought leadership; deftly and relentlessly pursuing initiatives to manifest its often-proclaimed centrality.

The recent discourse on the Indo-Pacific is a case in point. Ever since the inception of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2005 – with membership that included India, New Zealand, and Australia – ASEAN has inherently embraced a broader Indo-Pacific outlook.  The subsequent EAS Bali Principles of 2011 – including the renunciation of the use of force against another state – injected positive dynamics into this fledging Indo-Pacific concept.  Indeed, as early as 2013, ASEAN began to explicitly and formally refer to the Indo-Pacific in its statements.  However, despite having taken the lead in recognizing these broader strategic shifts in the region, from 2014 onwards, ASEAN chose to take a “pause”. It was only jolted back into action once U.S. President Trump began to employ such a framework in 2017. A timely reminder, indeed, for ASEAN to be proactive, to maintain a transformative outlook and to deliver on its oft-proclaimed centrality.

I remained convinced of two actionable initiatives ASEAN could promote within the EAS to deliver on its Indo-Pacific outlook: first, an EAS Peace and Security Council to develop the region’s crisis management capacity; and second, an EAS Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation – an instrument similar to the Treaty on Amity and Cooperation, for EAS members and, subsequently, beyond – to help address the deep trust deficit in the region.

Further, as a people-centered community, ASEAN must deliver sustainable and equitable economic developments to its populace and actively ensure that the promotion and protection of their fundamental human rights do not remain mere proclaimed intentions.

ASEAN is at critical juncture.  It must find a synergy in the nexus between internal and external domains.  It must skillfully strike a dynamic equilibrium in managing the complex geopolitical shifts that abound.  And it must ensure that its rich and multifaceted diversity is a source of strength and not weakness.

As in similar critical junctions past, I have optimism that ASEAN will not be found wanting.  However, much work remains.

— Dr. Marty Natalegawa served as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Second United Indonesia Cabinet from 2009-2014. He began his career with the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1986 and hed several diplomatic positions, including Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, Director General for ASEAN Cooperation, and Permanent Representative to the United Nations.


Rory Medcalf

Rory Medcalf

It is easy to be frustrated with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Much talk with seemingly little to show. Hobbled by a consensus rule at a time when rapid strategic change demands agility and action. Infiltrated by Beijing’s use of certain member states – notably Cambodia - as proxies to veto any real solidarity in the face of Chinese encroachments. A terrain for influence by other powerful states. Largely passive before ethnically-targeted human rights abuses – or sometimes even just natural disasters – in Myanmar.

Yet, of course, ASEAN matters – more because of what it is than what it does.

In recent years, ASEAN has found a new purpose, if as much by accident as by design. The determination of its member states that ASEAN remains at the heart of Asian diplomatic architecture contributes to the management of great-power tensions and China’s ambition for hegemony.

I became acutely aware of this dynamic as far back as 2004-05 when the contest to shape regional security institutions first flared over the establishment of the East Asia Summit (EAS). Back this, this was a boutique area of study – many governments were fixated on the so-called war on terror. But for those of us who anticipated China’s rising power as a growing source of instability, the scope and membership of the new summit mattered greatly.

The creation of the EAS became a laboratory for the 21st-century power politics of the Indo-Pacific. This was to be a Southeast Asia-centric forum, with ASEAN in the driver’s seat – quite literally, (the chair rotates among the ten ASEAN states). Yet it was to include other states with deep stakes in the region’s future. Few now realize that China lobbied the ASEAN member states hard for the forum to exclude Australia, New Zealand, and India – to ensure the organization would not be Indo-Pacific in character and would be easier to dominate. China also wanted to see the United States shut out, but ended up accepting U.S. membership on the condition that Russia was allowed in too.

In the end, the key ASEAN states (along with Japan and South Korea) won the day, and Indo-Pacific partners were let in. Former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has rightly noted the advantages of the deliberately inclusive and Indo-Pacific character of this forum. And so, in 2018, as regional rivalries and risks accumulate, we at least have a meeting place where coercion can be held to account. As Chinese diplomacy crudely has noted, there are big states and there are small states. But there are also institutions with the potential to dilute or moderate a ‘might is right’ approach to security. Today’s assertive People’s Republic of China (PRC) prefers institutions where it can choose who is in the room – witness the strange strange Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures, an ‘Asia for Asians’ forum that includes, say, Egypt, but not Indonesia or Japan.

But the legitimacy of ASEAN is such that China must at least honor the theatre. No great power has yet rejected institutions, such as the EAS, that are of ASEAN born. This provides a context for ASEAN to develop its own version of the Indo-Pacific idea as an alternative to a China-centric regional order.

— Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. As a diplomat and intelligence analyst, he was closely involved in Australia’s approach to regional security institutions between 1996 and 2007.


Dr. Elina Noor

Elina Noor

It bears reminding that ASEAN’s relevance mattered most in the initial years of its inception. This is when the risk of failure was at its greatest — when (un)neighborly tensions, communist insurgencies, and protracted war threatened to unravel the fabric and borders of Southeast Asia. 

ASEAN has suffered a thousand unkind cuts since — some warranted, others, arguably less so.  Counterfactuals are difficult, if not impossible, to prove, but the fact that ten countries of various ideologies, forms of government, capacities, and interests have managed to commit to long-term community-building should count for something. After over 50 years of incremental rules-based institutionalization, it would be difficult to imagine the region without ASEAN.

However, just because ASEAN mattered in past decades does not mean it maintains the same relevance today or will continue to in the future. How relevant ASEAN continues to be depends on to whom it matters. It is one thing for ASEAN to matter to the major powers; quite another for ASEAN to matter to its own people. 

As long as there is major-power competition in the region, ASEAN will continue to provide a platform for multilateral engagement and walk a tightrope, balancing between individual national interests and the collective regional interest. It will do so not necessarily because it wants to but because as a collection of predominantly small countries, it simply will have to. This tightrope act will only become more difficult as developmental and economic plans such as the Masterplan on ASEAN Connectivity that have typically — and happily for ASEAN — been devoid of political-security ramifications become increasingly overlaid by strategic tension and great power pressures.

The more pertinent question is whether ASEAN matters, now and in the long run, to its people. Recent surveys — seen here and here — show a checkered awareness and appreciation of ASEAN among its primary constituency. More damagingly, ASEAN has proved irrelevant to many of the issues that most affect daily life in Southeast Asia. For example, ASEAN has done little to assist the thousands of Indonesians, Malaysians, and Singaporeans afflicted by respiratory and other health problems induced by the almost-annual occurrence of transboundary haze. Never mind that there has been the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution since 1998. ASEAN has meant even less to the thousands of Rohingyas forced to flee Myanmar under threat of genocide. Never mind that the ASEAN Charter pledges a safe and secure environment for the people of ASEAN. Or that the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 document reiterates a “rules-based, people-oriented, people-centered ASEAN.”

These are complex problems, no doubt, but if ASEAN acknowledges that its stakes are tied to its people, then the lives of its people simply cannot be put at stake. Ultimately, this will be how ASEAN can most meaningfully prove its relevance. It should be judged accordingly.

— Elina Noor is Associate Professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and Visiting Fellow, Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. Her views are entirely personal.


Dhruva Jaishankar

Dhruva Jaishankar

For a large and rising power such as India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is critical to its regional engagement. This represents a considerable turnaround from earlier decades. ASEAN initially arose in circumstances brought about by failures of Indian leadership efforts in Asia—specifically, the Non-Aligned Movement and principles of peaceful coexistence that defined the region in the 1950s. At the time, India viewed both ASEAN and its agenda with considerable suspicion, concerned that it would contribute to regional divisiveness. This began to change in the 1990s, when the end of the Cold War realigned both India’s and ASEAN’s priorities, enabling India’s “Look East” policy; its eventual incorporation into the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus); and its involvement in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations.

Today, ASEAN is being tested. And yet it is at this very moment that India has chosen to increase its engagement, establishing a separate diplomatic mission and ambassador in Jakarta, as well as a new ASEAN Multilateral division in its foreign ministry. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a 2018 speech in Singapore, underscored that “ASEAN unity is essential for a stable future for this region … it has laid the foundation of the Indo-Pacific Region.” In January of this year, India invited all ten ASEAN leaders to a summit in New Delhi, wherein a joint declaration they agreed to “ensure an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture.”

While India has stepped up its diplomatic engagement with ASEAN, and bolstered security and – to a lesser degree – economic links with its member states, concerns are mounting about ASEAN’s internal unity and external relevance. Indeed, the various ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategies and policies that are emerging, including those of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, are primarily efforts to reinforce the regional order in the absence of ASEAN’s ability to do so. This includes efforts at deepening security cooperation and interoperability, particularly in the maritime domain; offering new financial instruments that increase regional prosperity and connectivity without compromising national sovereignty; and promoting globally-accepted norms of behavior in contested domains. An over-emphasis on consensus – the much-vaunted “ASEAN Way” – has proved inadequate in meeting many of these demands, particularly in the face of China’s rise and newfound assertiveness.

If ASEAN did not exist today, it would have to be invented. Its achievements to date have been commendable in terms of advancing cooperation in an otherwise contested and diverse environment. The EAS, in particular, will grow in salience as the primary regional political institution. But none of this means that ASEAN is immune to criticism. Nor can it afford to exempt itself from necessary and difficult reforms if it hopes to preserve its centrality in Asia’s 21st century regional architecture. For a country such as India that is committed to ASEAN centrality, this will require redoubling its efforts at cooperation, to help strengthen a central institution at a critical juncture.

— Dhruva Jaishankar is Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia.


Evan Laksmana

Evan Laksmana

ASEAN could be relevant in at least two ways. First, as a ‘seat provider’ to all Indo-Pacific powers — from India to North Korea and Russia — offering an inclusive regional architecture through the various ASEAN-led mechanisms. These forums provide a big tent setting through which to address regional challenges. Notably, they are also becoming ‘functionally differentiated’, creating a better ability to generate multilateral solutions on a range of issues: the East Asia Summit (EAS) to address political and strategic challenges, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus for security challenges, and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) processes for economic challenges.

Second, ASEAN can serve as an ‘ideas generator’, allowing for alternative conceptions of regional order beyond the confines of the U.S.-China strategic rivalry. A large part of the Indo-Pacific strategic flux stems from the fact that most of the region does not want to submit to either Chinese or American hegemony. And yet, if both Beijing and Washington continue their competitive dynamic, regional states could be “forced” to choose sides. In this regard, ASEAN can offer alternative ideas of and paths to regional order that do not exclude one power at the expense of another. An Indo-Pacific order based on either Pax Sinica or Pax Americana alone is not sustainable and will be met with resistance.

ASEAN, however, remains a slow-moving force. Many of its leaders, after all, believe that the process of engagement itself is an important diplomatic outcome. It is therefore unsuited to managing regional challenges that require quick and timely solutions (e.g., maritime crises). Nor is it going to be the best vehicle to address the domestic political challenges of its member states. These shortcomings are not a bug but an inherent feature of ASEAN’s multilateral design.

In the short-run, this means ASEAN will not be the panacea for the strategic flux taking place in the Indo-Pacific region. External partners will, therefore,e need to develop a more calibrated expectation of what roles ASEAN can and cannot fill. The ASEAN-China Code of Conduct (CoC) process, for example, is essentially a tension management mechanism, not a dispute settlement vehicle. Judging ASEAN centrality by its ability to “solve” the South China Sea would therefore be a mistake. ASEAN’s incrementalist approach means that regional partners should take the long-view, investing in strengthening ASEAN over the long-run, rather than forcing it to produce quick wins.

In the end, however, much of ASEAN’s success in playing a central role in the Indo-Pacific will rest on its ability to better realize its own internal goals (particularly the development of its three ASEAN Community programs—political and security, economic, and social and cultural). Until ASEAN can enhance internal cohesion and development, its ability to play a stronger external role in the region will be limited. The biggest challenge in this regard has been the absence of a consistent leader—a role Indonesia could potentially play, but is unlikely to under President Widodo’s domestically-oriented agenda. Without stronger ASEAN leadership, the group is likely to simply drift within the strategic flux.

— Evan A. Laksmana is a senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta. He is also a political science PhD candidate at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where he has been a Fulbright Presidential Scholar. 


Walter Lohman

Walter Lohman

Pak Marty makes a compelling case that from Southeast Asia’s perspective, ASEAN matters. Furthermore, he clearly lays out the challenges it must meet in order to remain relevant far into the future.  From an American policy maker’s perspective, however, this is an academic question. The question he or she must answer is whether it matters to the United States.

The short answer is, “yes.” The longer answer requires some explanation.

As a general matter, the United States has three goals with its Asia policy. First, it seeks to promote and protect its national security interests. Second, it seeks to maximize economic opportunity. Third, it looks to project universal values, as enshrined in America’s founding documents and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What role does ASEAN play in helping the United States accomplish these objectives?

With regard to national security interests, ASEAN provides convening power. It is a place for the United States to make the case that its interests coincide with those of the region, and to listen when objections are made.

Among the security objectives, the United States is seeking are: freedom of the seas; effective access for its military; the security of its allies; and counterterrorism cooperation. None of these necessitates a strong ASEAN role. The U.S. is going to do the most for freedom of the seas the regular operation of its navy in international waters. Access for the U.S. military and allied initiatives are all matters of bilateral consultation. And counterterrorism cooperation is an area which remains firmly under the jurisdiction of the ASEAN member countries themselves, not ASEAN as an organization.

Yet, in all these areas, paying due respect to ASEAN’s prerogatives furthers American objectives. For example, maintaining the ability of American naval vessels to transverse the waters of the South China Sea is made easier if the United States can secure diplomatic agreement, or at least acquiescence, on its right to do so. Counterterrorism cooperation is made easier if the United States and ASEAN can discuss shared threats in the region and potential areas of collaboration.

Marty’s book also lays out the “transformative impact” that ASEAN has had on Southeast Asia’s economy. It is important for the U.S. to continue to be part of this transformation. U.S. businesses, exports, and consumers all benefit from Southeast Asia’s economic integration and development. U.S. participation in efforts like the U.S.-ASEAN Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA), U.S.-ASEAN Connect, and the Expanded Economic Engagement Initiative (E3), as well as its annual consultations with ASEAN economic and finance officials, help shape an environment that advances U.S. private sector growth.

On the trade front, the United States is out of the business of plurilateral agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership for now, which means a U.S.-ASEAN agreement is not in the cards any time soon. The way ASEAN stays relevant to the United States in this case is, paradoxically, by moving ahead without it—vigorously. The entry into force of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the potential conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will serve as a spur to motivate continued U.S. trade engagement, even if it seeks less “free” outcomes and continues to focus on bilateral agreements.

Finally, ASEAN will continue to matter to the United States on matters of human rights and democracy. The United States is a democracy, and long-term U.S. relationships are not possible without paying due regard to the issue of values. Notably, Marty argues in his book that liberal governance will be an essential part of ASEAN’s transformation from a purely state-centric organization to a people-centered one. In short, ASEAN has an inherent interest in the internal political matters of its member states. Evidence of that interest is in fact scattered through the last couple decades of its history – Burma, Cambodia, East Timor being among the most prominent examples.

To maximize relevance to the United States over the long-term, this trend – and the influence of the region’s democracies – will have to continue. The United States can continue to be engaged with an ASEAN less interested in such issues. But without ASEAN’s own internally driven transformation, human rights issues will be persistent obstacles to a fuller partnership.

ASEAN matters to the United States, today and in the future. That it may take a narrow approach to its effectiveness and engagement should not be dismissed as criticism. The United States is never likely to meaningfully and persistently support the “ASEAN project” as a constructivist dream. It will not sublimate its own interests in the cause of hewing to ASEAN’s leadership or processes. The United States will continue to press its interests directly. That it does so, however, even at the discomfort of ASEAN, is a good thing. It is a testament to ASEAN’s centrality and continued relevance to American policy makers.

— Walter Lohman is Director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, as well as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He previously served as senior vice president and executive director of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.

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