AUGUST 9 — When the Association for South-east Asian Nations (Asean) was established in 1967 amid tensions and mutual suspicions, its viability was met with some doubt as two earlier attempts at regionalism had failed. This was because the Association of South-east Asia in 1961, and the Greater Malayan Confederation in 1963, both could not enforce common regional interests over bilateral tensions and territorial disputes.
But the founding members of Asean got it right the third time. They realised that rather than competitive exclusion, the grouping’s viability depended on the recognition that individual states need to work with one another in a coordinated manner to resolve larger regional issues. This anchors Asean’s raison d’etre.
Its founding principle is thus premised on the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It finds expression in its emblem, which shows 10 padi stalks representing the South-east Asian states “bound together in friendship and solidarity”. Detractors notwithstanding, Asean’s aim of working for the common good has shown some results.
Asean now stands as the primary platform for regional cooperation, but the collaborative bond is being tested by rising nationalistic sentiments. In recent years, its members have seen an imbalance between national and regional interests exposing the region to external influences and tensions.
Some members have made their national interests prevail at the regional table. The organisation’s inability to speak with one voice over developments in the South China Sea is a case in point. Asean today faces the reality that regional consensus is impossible if national interests and their implications are not considered.
Uncertainties over bread-and-butter issues such as employment and immigration can feed into a cycle of scepticism, eroding popular support for regional cooperation and viewing these ventures as a loss of national control.
Because policy changes negotiated by Asean senior officials are not immediately visible on the ground, Asean integration efforts are criticised by those frustrated with the incremental nature of regional cooperation. But there have been key instances where regional actions have resonated nationally, as well as compelling governments to step up their efforts.
When the Asian financial crisis swept through the region in 1997-98, throwing Asean’s then much-admired economic track record into disarray, the Asean finance ministers stepped up to the challenge. With their North-east Asian counterparts, they established a new form of regional financial governance to guard against future crises.
The Chiang Mai Initiative, established in 2000, provides a multilateral framework for pooling funds that participating countries can access in times of need, as well as regional surveillance and early warning systems. The United States has since joined the process, enlarging the pooled funds to US$120 billion (RM514.2 billion) in 2010.
Opening the Chiang Mai Initiative as a multilateral process highlights the realisation that individual Asean economies are too “small” to rely on their reserves to stem a run on the national currencies. But collectively, through the currency swap mechanism, and also harnessing the financial clout of the North-east Asian partners, Asean can stand stronger and better placed to face future challenges that undermine the region’s financial health.
Asean’s collective response to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic in 2003 is also cited as a success story of coordinated participation against a common threat. The epidemic laid bare the reality that Asean countries — despite several policy and working-level processes for health cooperation — did not really have procedures in place to tackle and control fast-spreading diseases across borders. The response to Sars saw Asean collectively engaging China, the country where the epidemic originated, to step up and work with Asean for regional responses.
Asean health ministers, and later the heads of state/government involved their Chinese counterpart in all emergency meetings on containing the spread of Sars. Lessons learnt from the Sars experience were applied later to the H1N1 avian flu epidemic in 2004, and are now entrenched in Asean’s health cooperation mechanisms as well as at national levels.
The grouping also tackles challenges to regional stability when internal weaknesses in one member country threaten the rest of the region. Asean’s experience in dealing with transboundary haze pollution emanating from Indonesia, and in confronting Myanmar’s military leadership over the humanitarian disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, are examples.
While the regional rationale was given emphasis over national interests, Asean also took the lead in coordinating assistance to shore up capacity and other gaps in the countries concerned.
This nuanced application of the non-interference principle allows the 10 members to assist a fellow member while still providing sufficient cover to protect its members against external interference. At the same time, this approach provides a window of opportunity for the grouping to engage one of their own who have acted in a manner not in keeping with the regional interest.
Asean’s hard experiences show that cross-sectoral cooperation and coordination are necessary to overcome transboundary challenges and achieve results for its regional integration exercise.
Coordinated participation can heal political divides and bridge economic and institutional differences. To this end, Asean’s decisions and regional positions are an agreed combination and compromise of national interests from the 10 member states.
Even as each government strives to help its peoples meet the challenges of the future, regional cooperation continues to be a relevant answer to deglobalisation sentiments.
The Asean story is not just about the obvious narrative of collective strength stemming from a unity of purpose, but also the hard-nosed reality of “hanging together, not be hanged separately”. It is in every Asean member’s interest to maintain the region’s collective survival and well-being. — TODAY
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.