Disunity a major challenge for ‘slow and ineffective’ ASEAN

Disunity a major challenge for ‘slow and ineffective’ ASEAN

Disunity a major challenge for ‘slow and ineffective’ ASEAN
Some ASEAN members, like Vietnam and the Philippines, have territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea. (AFP)
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Southeast Asia faces unprecedented challenges in the rapidly changing global geopolitical and economic environment and the evolving dynamics between significant powers. Political divisions, territorial disputes and spillover effects from conflicts remain uncertainties facing the region. The winds of uncertainty bring unemployment and economic recession to the forefront of regional concerns, alongside the relentless impact of climate change and intensifying economic tensions between major global powers.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was founded in 1967 to promote regional cooperation and stability amid Cold War tensions. The launch of the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1992 marked a significant step toward economic integration, while the ASEAN Regional Forum came into being in 1994 to foster dialogue on political and security issues. However, as the region strides through an era of rapid change, the labyrinth of geopolitical and economic challenges tests its resilience and unity.
According to the “State of Southeast Asia: 2024” survey, the region’s top concerns include unemployment and economic recession (57.7 percent), climate change (53.4 percent) and economic tensions between major powers (47 percent). These uncertainties persist due to political divisions, territorial disputes and conflicts’ spillover effects, sometimes from age-old conflicts. A case in point is the Indonesia-Malaysia “Konfrontasi” (confrontation) of the 1960s, a significant regional conflict marked by political, economic and military tensions. It profoundly impacted Southeast Asian regional dynamics, ultimately contributing to the establishment of ASEAN.
The circumstances necessitate that the region embraces and nourishes diversity, which is one of the unique characteristics of ASEAN and a substantial investment promoting unity. Unfortunately, the survey claims that the region continues to be concerned about a “slow and ineffective” ASEAN that cannot cope with fluid political and economic developments. Pundits surmise that ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making process, which fosters unity and mutual respect among member states, can inadvertently lead to delays. It also often leads to watered-down agreements, especially when member countries have divergent interests or conflicting priorities.
Most people would agree with a consensus-based decision-making approach for any multilateral platform. Such an approach ensures that all member states have a say and that decisions are made collaboratively, which helps maintain regional harmony. However, it can also lead to slow decision-making and compromise solutions that may not be effective in addressing pressing issues.
ASEAN comprises 10 countries with varying political systems, economic development levels and strategic priorities. This diversity can lead to differing perspectives on trade, security and relations with major powers. An ASEAN leaders’ declaration emphasized its “vision to be an epicenter of growth,” conditional upon its openness to cooperation and collaboration with dialogue partners and engagement with external partners. It seeks this objective “while maintaining ASEAN centrality and unity.” As the region grapples with external pressures, nearly half its populace advocates for greater ASEAN unity and resilience, a testament to the enduring spirit of cooperation and solidarity. 

Pundits surmise that ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making process can inadvertently lead to delays.

Ehtesham Shahid

Member states of any multilateral platform are bound to have conflicting strategic interests. Some ASEAN members, like Vietnam and the Philippines, have territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea. On the other hand, countries like Cambodia have closer ties with Beijing, leading to a lack of a unified stance on the issue. Differences in economic policies and development goals can also create friction within ASEAN, affecting the organization’s ability to implement cohesive economic strategies.
ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar crisis following the military coup in 2021 is a case in point. It highlighted the challenges of maintaining unity. The organization’s mediation attempts have been criticized as ineffective, partly due to differing views among member states on handling the situation. Understandably, the region has made efforts to enhance unity and effectiveness, such as establishing a legal and institutional framework for greater integration. Efforts have also been made to create a more integrated political-security, economic and sociocultural community and promote informal, nonconfrontational dialogue, respect for sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs.
China’s shadow looms large over the region, with many Southeast Asians acknowledging its substantial economic and political influence. China’s strategic relevance to ASEAN surpasses that of the US, echoing a shift in regional dynamics. Interestingly, while China is seen as a dominant force, Japan emerges as the most trusted major power, indicating a nuanced perspective on global partnerships. China’s strategic relevance to ASEAN is the highest among its dialogue partners.
While disunity can make ASEAN appear slow and ineffective, the organization’s structure and approach are also geared toward maintaining regional stability and inclusiveness. Balancing these competing demands is a significant challenge and efforts to strengthen unity and effectiveness are ongoing. The path forward for ASEAN involves bolstering its resilience and unity to withstand pressures from major powers, ensuring the bloc remains a stable and prosperous entity amid global uncertainties.
The complex interplay of power dynamics, economic interests and geopolitical tensions in Southeast Asia reminds us of the delicate balance required to navigate these uncertain waters. As the region charts its course through this challenging landscape, the emphasis must remain on fostering unity, resilience and strategic foresight to secure a stable and prosperous future.

Ehtesham Shahid is an Indian editor and researcher in the UAE.
X: @e2sham

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