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In-depth A Changing East Asia
ASEAN’s Positive Record and Ambitious Plans

Yamakage Susumu [Profile]


The July 2012 meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers became deadlocked over the South China Sea issue, and for the first time ever a joint communiqué was not issued. Yamakage Susumu, a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, considers the issues this Southeast Asian group faces and the role Japan should play in the region.

At the July 2012 meeting of the foreign ministers of Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the participants agreed to make 2013 a year of ASEAN-Japan exchange, partly to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of ASEAN-Japan dialogue relations. Forty years ago, the “overpresence” of Japanese products and companies in Southeast Asia had developed into a problem, and storm winds of anti-Japanese feeling were blowing. A particular sticking point was in Malaysia, where producers of natural rubber were suffering from the impact of Japan’s synthetic rubber exports. The Malaysian government requested self-restraint from Japan, but the Japanese government paid no heed. So criticism of Japan came to the fore at the 1973 ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM), the gathering of ASEAN foreign ministers, which was the top decision-making organ of the association at the time. In the wake of this, the Japanese government agreed to the establishment of a Japan-ASEAN forum on synthetic rubber. This 1973 development marked the start of Japan-ASEAN relations.

A Rift Emerges Within ASEAN

Since then Japan and ASEAN, while at times disagreeing over economic issues, have strengthened their cooperative ties. In addition, these ties have served as a catalyst for the building of broader institutions centering on ASEAN. For example, the foreign ministers’ meetings between Japan and ASEAN served as the basis for the creation of the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences (PMC) in the late 1970s. Early in the 1990s a proposal from Japan to have the PMC take up political and security issues led to the formation of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Late in the same decade, a Japanese suggestion for regular Japan-ASEAN summits became the direct impetus for the start of the ASEAN Plus Three meetings (the “three” being China, Japan, and South Korea). In 2008 Japan and ASEAN put into effect the ASEAN-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, and the two sides are now aiming to extend the economic partnership framework across a wider region.

Meanwhile, ASEAN itself has changed considerably since the start of the current century. In the past it operated just through the accumulation of agreements reached at summits and various ministerial-level gatherings, but after weathering the Asian currency and economic crisis in the late 1990s, the association implemented an ASEAN Charter in 2008, thereby renewing itself in both institutional and functional terms. It is now working toward the establishment of an ASEAN Community with three pillars: political-security community, economic community, and socio-cultural community.

But now a rift has emerged within ASEAN. How serious is this fissure, and what sort of negative impact is it likely to have on Japan?

Ministerial Meeting Failure Due to Chair-Country Cambodia

The July 2012 AMM ended in an unprecedented failure: For the first time in the 45-year history of ASEAN, the foreign ministers were unable to adopt a joint communiqué as an expression of the united face that they have up to now always presented to the rest of the world. This failure led to talk of a fissure within the association. The ministers at the July meeting disagreed sharply over the issue of wording with respect to China’s activities relating to its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. Some suggest that the disagreement was the result of maneuvering by Beijing aimed at dividing ASEAN. Is it true that a Chinese ploy has revealed the fragility of the association’s solidarity?

In fact, the disagreement at the July AMM was not particularly more serious than conflicts or differences of opinion that have previously occurred among ASEAN members. One can accurately say that ASEAN’s history has constantly involved conflicts of various sorts within the region. Members have closed their embassies in each other’s capitals over territorial disputes, and there have even been military clashes in border districts. But up to now, whatever discord there may have been within the group, the AMM participants always managed to preserve the appearance of consensus by coming out with a joint communiqué at the end of the meeting. This is the basis for the view that the failure at the July meeting cannot simply be explained as reflecting a division within ASEAN.

According to this view, responsibility for the failure rests with Cambodia, the country that hosted and chaired the meeting. The Philippines and Vietnam pushed for the inclusion of language in the communiqué expressing a firm stance toward China, but Cambodia flatly refused. The real problem is that Cambodia’s foreign minister failed to fulfill his delicate but crucial role in coming up with a consensus as the meeting chair. Other foreign ministers offered various suggestions, but he refused to modify the draft prepared by his own government. This may have been because Phnom Penh had agreed in advance with Beijing on the wording of the communiqué, or it may have reflected reluctance to fiddle with the wording at the last minute. In any case, the failure to agree on a communiqué should be attributed mainly to the clumsy chairing of the meeting by Cambodia rather than to maneuvering by China.

Less than 10 days after the AMM, however, ASEAN reconfirmed its stance toward China with respect to the South China Sea. The members of the association agreed to seek the prompt adoption of an ASEAN-China code of conduct for this sea. Reportedly the Indonesian foreign minister was instrumental in putting this agreement together. This development alone will of course not immediately increase ASEAN’s influence over China. But we should not place too much weight on the split that became visible at the July AMM. The ASEAN Economic Ministers’ Meeting (AEM) and other related ministerial meetings that Cambodia chaired at the end of August were productive sessions, showing no negative impact from the AMM split. We should probably consider ASEAN’s prospects from a somewhat longer-term perspective.

The Birth and Growth of ASEAN

In the years following World War II, countries in Southeast Asia achieved their independence one after another, but because of disputes within the region and intervention from outside, they continued to experience warfare and political instability. ASEAN was formed in 1967 by five Southeast Asian countries seeking to overcome mutual distrust and achieve regional stability. As of the late 1970s Southeast Asia was still split between these ASEAN members and the three communist countries of Indochina. The peace and stability of this region was important not just for the region itself but also for other countries, including Japan, and in 1977, the Japanese government set forth its policy toward the region in the “Fukuda Doctrine” (named after then Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo), pledging its support for ASEAN and at the same time calling for peaceful coexistence between ASEAN and its Indochinese neighbors.

Peace did not come to Southeast Asia until the conclusion of the Cold War, but by the end of the 1990s all the countries of the region had joined ASEAN, and under this framework the region achieved peace and prosperity. (Subsequently Timor-Leste [East Timor] became independent from Indonesia, but as of late 2012 it had still not joined ASEAN.) As early as 1976 the countries that then belonged to ASEAN entered into a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, under which they committed themselves to the peaceful resolution of disputes with each other. This treaty not only became the basis for mutual relations among all the members of ASEAN but also served as the foundation for moves to institutionalize close ties between ASEAN and other countries.

Strategic Focus on Balance with Major External Powers

ASEAN has adopted a strategy that views balance in the involvement of major external powers to be crucial to peace and stability in Southeast Asia. One expression of this is the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), in which Asia-Pacific political and security issues are discussed. Shortly after the end of the Cold War, the foreign ministers of countries including Japan, the United States, China, and Russia started participating in this forum, which became a regular annual event; the number of participating countries has now risen to more than 20. However, not much progress has been made toward the ASEAN objective of building up a security framework in the Asia-Pacific region with the ARF as its foundation. Meanwhile, ASEAN itself is now moving toward establishment of an ASEAN Political-Security Community as a component of the planned ASEAN Community structure, and in addition to its existing AMM gatherings of foreign ministers, it has started to hold regular ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meetings (ADMM). And in 2009 the association invited defense ministers from eight key countries outside the region—Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, and India—to an “ADMM Plus” gathering. In addition, last year the United States and Russia joined in East Asia Summit (launched in 2005); as a result the list of countries participating in this forum became the same as that of the ADMM Plus, that is to say, ASEAN+8.

Even as this ASEAN-centered network of broad regional arrangements has been taking shape, however, we have seen the emergence of increasingly serious conflicts over jurisdiction and sovereignty in the South China Sea. In the face of China’s interest in this sea, ASEAN showed heightened concern from the early 1990s on and called for the adoption of a binding code of conduct to serve as the basis for peaceful resolution of conflicts between China and ASEAN members there. But while ASEAN and China have reached a number of other agreements, no progress has been achieved toward establishing this proposed code. China’s maritime presence has grown more prominent, and this development has led to a renewed recognition of the geostrategic importance of Southeast Asia. Needless to say, this importance arises from the fact that this region encompasses the South China Sea and the Australasian Mediterranean Sea, waters linking the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. If the members of ASEAN cannot achieve progress in defusing the South Sea China issues through an ASEAN+1 approach (ASEAN-China talks), then they will probably seek to handle these issues through a more multilateral approach, for example, the ASEAN+8 frameworks of the EAS and ADMM Plus.

Addressing the Disparities Within the Region

As I noted above, ASEAN is aiming to establish an ASEAN Community structure in 2015. Of particular interest in this connection is the progress toward creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). ASEAN has long been at the forefront of economic integration in East Asia, and today it exerts major impact on all facets of economic integration in the region as a whole. So the future of the AEC is bound to be a matter of great interest. ASEAN agreed on the establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992, and it achieved this initial objective in 2003. The plan to create the AEC represents the next step toward the region’s economic integration.

The AEC will pursue liberalization on various fronts with the aim of establishing a single market and production base. The principle frameworks for this purpose will be the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA), the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS), and the ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement (ACIA). The association has produced a blueprint and is seeking to mobilize peer pressure by publishing AEC “scorecards,” but the plan has not been progressing smoothly so far. At the ASEAN Summit hosted by Cambodia in April 2012, the assembled leaders agreed on a Phnom Penh Agenda, and the ASEAN Economic Ministers’ Meeting (AEM) set priorities for efforts to be undertaken toward achievement of the 2015 goal; with these moves the association is seeking to make its activities in this connection more concrete.

As ASEAN moves toward greater integration, the disparities within the region have emerged as a serious issue. Particularly following the enlargement of association’s membership in the late 1990s, a major gap appeared within ASEAN between earlier members and the four additional ones, namely, the three countries of Indochina and Myanmar (Burma), whose economies had been stagnating because of warfare and other problems. The gap has sometimes been called the “ASEAN divide.” At their 2000 summit, the association’s leaders displayed their intention of tackling this issue with the adoption of a set of Initiatives for ASEAN Integration (IAI), but it is evident that ASEAN alone cannot achieve satisfactory results; assistance from outside the region is also required. One form this has taken is the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) initiative, which involves the improvement of north-south and east-west infrastructure links within an area encompassing Thailand, Indochina, Myanmar, and part of China. Japan has also been actively involved in extending assistance in various forms since the early 1990s, directed toward the four new members of ASEAN and the Mekong region (these four plus Thailand). And in recent years Japan has been backing up ASEAN’s efforts to address the disparities within the region through the holding of Japan-Mekong summits and foreign ministers’ meetings.

The Importance of ASEAN to Japan

A month after the problematic AMM this July, the ASEAN economic ministers gathered in Phnom Penh for a series of meetings. Ministers from countries outside the region that have been deepening their ties with ASEAN also participated in some of the sessions. At a meeting between ASEAN and its free trade agreement partners (Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and India), it was agreed to give concrete form to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) concept. Far from being split, ASEAN is pursuing the idea of bundling its existing ASEAN+1 FTAs into a single ASEAN+6 package. ASEAN occupies an extremely important position in terms of the pursuit of prosperity in East Asia, including Japan.

At the Japan-ASEAN summit in November 2011, the assembled leaders came out with a Bali Declaration setting forth five strategies for cooperation: (1) strengthening political-security cooperation in the region; (2) intensifying cooperation toward ASEAN community building; (3) enhancing ASEAN-Japan connectivity for consolidating ties between ASEAN and Japan; (4) creating together a more disaster-resilient society; and (5) addressing together common regional and global challenges. The second strategy is especially important, because ASEAN’s strengthening and the deepening of its integration is essential for the sake of achieving positive results from the other four strategies.

Supporting Greater Democracy

One prerequisite for the formation of a solid ASEAN Community is the correction of the disparities within the region. Even more important, however, is the achievement of greater democracy within the association’s member countries. For many years Myanmar’s oppression of human rights acted as a barrier to cooperation with Western countries, but since the adoption of a new constitution in 2008, that country has been progressing toward democratic government. This year has brought clear indications of improvement in these countries’ relations with Myanmar, including moves to ease economic sanctions and a sharp rise in private-sector investment. As a result it has become easier to strengthen ASEAN’s ties with countries outside the region—and also to address disparities within the region and promote development of less advanced areas. In addition, it has become easier for Japan to extend support to Myanmar and to promote development of the Mekong region as a whole.

ASEAN’s structure is susceptible to rifts of various sorts. In order to encourage the shaping of Southeast Asia and of East Asia in forms that are in keeping with Japan’s interests, rather than getting alarmed each time such a rift emerges, Japan should focus on the transformation of ASEAN’s structure into one that can better resist such rifts.

 (Originally written in Japanese on October 5, 2012.)

  • [2012.11.27]

Professor of International Politics, Aoyama Gakuin University, since April 2012. Received his master’s degree from the University of Tokyo and his doctorate in political science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Previously a professor at the University of Tokyo’s College of Arts and Sciences and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Published works include Atarashii ASEAN: Chiiki kyōdōtai to Ajia no chūshinsei o mezashite (The New ASEAN: Aiming for a Regional Community and Centrality in Asia) and Higashi Ajia chiiki shugi to Nihon gaikō (East Asian Regionalism and Japanese Diplomacy).

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