Katherine Ellena is a Research Associate with the US Naval Postgraduate School and a former New Zealand diplomat. The views expressed here are hers alone.
One of my early experiences as a diplomat was in a solitary perch behind my country's flag at an ASEAN security meeting. All delegations made their obligatory statements, adjusted the final Chairman's statement (drafted in advance), smiled for the obligatory group photo and went on their way. All rather pointless stuff, right?
Well, not really. ASEAN too often takes a beating in diplomatic and media circles, and we fail to give ASEAN credit for waging the small battles of day-to-day diplomacy. It takes time to see beyond the pro-forma routines of the ASEAN grouping and its offshoots (ASEAN+3, ASEAN+6, East Asia Summit, ADMM+, ASEAN Regional Forum). And it's not sexy stuff to report on or to be a part of, particularly given the mantra of one of ASEAN's founding fathers, Adam Malik, of 'making haste slowly'. It takes getting up close with ASEAN to realise that important developments are going on.
ASEAN has been unable to shake the reputation that it is ineffective, despite the fact that this perception is becoming something of a hangover, representative of awkward growing pains that have since been usurped by achievements in adulthood. Take the recent news that Malaysia and Thailand are seeking to cooperate in ending insurgent violence in southern Thailand, or the agreement to allow ASEAN observers to be stationed on the Thai-Cambodian border, or Myanmar's gradual thaw toward democratic reforms.
Take also the establishment and rapid development of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+). Hailed by academics in the know and officials involved in the process, the world media barely sneezed at the establishment of this grouping, despite its achievement of pulling the top military leaders from the US, China and Russia into one tent. Barely a whisper has been heard about the fact that all eighteen countries involved will conduct joint military exercises in the region this year, beginning with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in Brunei in June, followed by a counterterrorism exercise in Indonesia in September.
And let's not forget the rapid organisational developments within ASEAN over the last few years: agreeing a Charter, establishing a group of (now personally close) permanent representatives, accrediting foreign diplomats, making strides toward the establishment of an ASEAN Community in 2015, and negotiating a myriad of free trade agreements. All in a day's work, if anyone were paying attention.
Milton Osborne provided an interesting shortlist of ASEAN's problems in July 2012, and while I don't deny their existence, things could be worse. Granted, Osborne does not deny the significance of ASEAN as a 'collective identity', but he suggests that ASEAN membership 'has done nothing to eliminate...conflicting interests' and may risk being 'a talking shop' (a common complaint about ASEAN). But where else do we find countries with conflicting interests who continue to 'talk it out', not just when things come to the brink, but literally day by day? And don't all countries have conflicting interests? It sounds something like a marriage, though given the level of communication, probably not one that ends in divorce.
And it's an open marriage, if I can stretch the metaphor. ASEAN has been building relationships (and confidence) with great powers and regional neighbors (so-called 'dialogue partners') for the last forty years. Hugh White argued in July 2012 that ASEAN is becoming 'caught in the crossfire' of great power rivalry in the region – particularly over the South China Sea – and may not withstand the pressure. But that is exactly where ASEAN has always intended itself to be, as 'piggy in the middle' that helps prevent the proverbial ball (Chinese power) from dropping on the region.
I don't wish to seem naive about the seriousness of the situation in the South China Sea, nor am I arguing that ASEAN is a panacea for any clash of great powers in the region. But disputes in the South China Sea have been playing out since the end of the Pacific War in 1945. It is no accident that these disputes have simmered rather than boiled, and in the meantime ASEAN has shuttled itself through coups, massacres, financial crises, natural disasters, terrorism and border disputes.
ASEAN has also made great strides in economic development and integration, which is its own form of security. While China sought to divide ASEAN over the 'internationalisation' of South China Sea disputes, ASEAN was announcing the launch of negotiations toward a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which aims to be the largest free trade bloc in the world.
We do ourselves a disservice if we don't allow ASEAN to be successful in its own way, even if it appears inefficient or passive to Western observers. Washington seems to have got this message in recent years, joining the East Asia Summit, accrediting its first Ambassador to ASEAN, establishing the first Permanent Mission to ASEAN and sending both the president and secretary of state to visit. Are these moves indicative of wider strategic interests and considerations? Absolutely. But that doesn't diminish their face value.
If we dismiss ASEAN unduly, we erode its credibility and undermine the role we need it to play in the region, both in balancing the great powers and in keeping the regional house in order. History rarely documents the conflicts that might have been (or might have been worse). But big fires smoke first, and if you can smother the embers you can prevent a blaze.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.