ASEAN: Challenges Ahead and Implications for India

G.V.C Naidu,Research Fellow, IDSA

 

Backdrop

The political atmosphere and conditions in which the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in August 1967 with a minimal agenda of establishment of domestic and regional stability in the wake of armed insurgencies and massive external presence as well as intervention, so that efforts could be concentrated on ameliorating the basic problems that afflicted these nations by undertaking economic development, have since changed radically, leading ASEAN to assume a complex and multi-dimensional role. By embracing the concept of comprehensive security as the bedrock of domestic, and, hence, regional security, ASEAN has embarked on a wide array of activities encompassing the whole gamut of political, strategic, and economic goals aimed at building regional resilience with increased political and economic cooperation from within, on the one hand, and enhancing the Association's bargaining power with outsiders, on the other. ASEAN, to its credit, has successfully managed both the Cold War and the transition after its end, but the process of unravelling began even as ASEAN started charting a new path for itself.

A series of events in the last few years have imposed not only a considerable strain on ASEAN, but have put a big question mark on the future of regional cooperation in South-East Asia. These events could not have come at a worse time. At a time when ASEAN was beginning to launch an ambitious agenda on all major fronts, the debilitating effects of an economic crisis, growing differences on political issues and excruciatingly slow progress on regional security have led most analysts to surmise that the regional organisation today is on a much weaker ground, facing probably its most testing time. Any sign of weakness on the part of ASEAN, which has assumed and played a pivotal role in the regional security, obviously has far-reaching implications not just for South-East Asia, but for the larger Pacific Asian region too. It needs no underscoring that this invariably impinges on India's interests, policies and relations toward this region. This paper looks at the challenges ASEAN is faced with on political, strategic and economic fronts and their implications on regional security. Before attempting an analysis of the kind of challenges ASEAN is likely to encounter and the role it might play, it may be useful to briefly review the Association's genesis and its evolution ever since.

Regionalism in South-East Asia

Against the backdrop of the Cold War hotting up after the end of World War II, one major trend that caught the attention of the world was the establishment of regional cooperative mechanisms. Most of them were externally inspired with active participation by the superpowers and other major actors closely associated with the Cold War, and invariably most of them were security-related. In the context of the Asia Pacific, prominent among these initiatives were: ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand and the US) Treaty, September 1951; Collective Defence Treaty for South-East Asia (also called the Manila Pact), September 1954; SEATO (South-East Asian Treaty Organisation), February 1955; and the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement, August 1957 (which was joined by Australia and New Zealand in 1959, later expanded to include Singapore, and renamed as FPDA (Five Power Defence Arrangement), November 1959). A major drawback of all these organisations was that their objective was limited in nature and they did not encompass the whole of the Asia Pacific, or the sub-regions of North-East Asia or South-East Asia.

In the developing world, a parallel trend started appearing that provided a fresh look at regionalism. These efforts were qualitatively different from the above mainly because these were at the behest of local initiatives and did not include powers external to the region. While it is difficult to deduce the common factors that promote regionalism for simple classification, certain minimum conditions may be a pre-requisite for the promotion of regionalism, especially in the Third World (based on the example of ASEAN), such as geographical proximity, common historical and cultural background, compatible political and ideological outlooks, compatible economic policies, common economic imperatives, common security concerns, etc.1

Specifically with regard to South-East Asia, the interplay of three levels of linkages and interactions in the late Fifties and early Sixties which contributed to the growth of regionalism need to be appreciated. At the first level, the political and economic factors in relation to the domestic situation; at the second level, the regional factors with all the attributes relating to nationhood (prominently territorial and ethnic conflicts); and finally, the external environment, in terms of both economic and political factors.

In addition to purely domestic aspects, two factors that dominated South-East Asia were, firstly, the intra-regional conflicts, and secondly, the involvement of external powers in regional affairs. Once again the linkages between internal and external factors become crucial in order to comprehend the origin and growth of ASEAN.2 The single most important and immediate reason that transformed the earlier differences and conflicts and enabled the member-states to forge a common identity and understanding was the change in leadership in Indonesia from Sukarno to Suharto and the simultaneous change in domestic and foreign policies. Suharto linked Indonesia's security and development to the regionalism by advocating national and regional resilience.

At the same time, it may be mentioned here that the convergence of a shared perception of common internal and external threats was one of the major factors that brought the ASEAN member nations together. Considerations of security at the national as well as regional level in conjunction with regime legitimacy, domestic political stability, and concern for economic development were central to the birth of regionalism in South-East Asia. Once again, one could see the interplay of internal and external factors, both political and economic, in the origin and successful evolution of ASEAN.3 Thus, ASEAN started off as a device4 to diffuse tensions, take unified political stands on certain regional and international issues, and make attempts to resolve disputes among member states.

Notwithstanding the pronounced objectives of economic and cultural cooperation at the time it was set up, ASEAN's immediate utility as a security framework for political consultation and to address disputes within the group was discovered. The konfrontasi between Indonesia and Malaysia, the Malaysian Federation problem between Malaysia and Singapore, the dispute over Sabah between the Philippines and Malaysia, etc., were either amicably resolved or were not allowed to result in open conflict. Because the Communist-inspired insurgencies and secessionist movements were most pressing, anti-Communism was the prime rallying point.5 The additional advantage of regional cooperation in the form of strong solidarity was discovered after the emergence of Vietnam as a victorious Communist power. It is widely believed that it was ASEAN's political unity that restrained Vietnam from taking retaliatory steps against Thailand for its participation in the Indochina war, or in actively supporting Communist movements in the ASEAN countries, which could have potentially destabilised the region once again.

The new found importance of ASEAN by the member states manifested in two successive summit meetings in 1976 and 1977 to address the immediate problem of the emergence of Communist Indochina. It was felt that the best way to tackle the Vietnamese threat was to incorporate it by extending the ASEAN membership to the Indochina countries. Although Vietnam was not formally invited to join ASEAN, it was made clear that the membeship of the regional grouping could be expanded to the other countries of South-East Asia. Thus, ASEAN, instead of hiding itself under the ideological straitjacket, clearly exhibited a considerable amount of flexibility.

The emergence of the Cambodian issue after the Vietnamese military intervention in December 1979, not only further helped ASEAN to consolidate its unity and political solidarity, but it also became a perfect diplomatic stick to beat Vietnam with. At the same time, it should be remembered that Indonesia, the most prominent member of ASEAN, kept the diplomatic channels open with Hanoi. The Chinese attempt to teach Vietnam a lesson (for its action in Cambodia) in February 1979 further brought Jakarta and Hanoi together in what was called "common strategic objectives".

Despite the Vietnamese consolidation of their grip over Indochina, ASEAN increasingly felt more secure with the polarisation of forces in South-East Asia and the emergence of a new balance of power in the region. Once again the element of external linkages vis-a-vis regional security came into picture. The Sino-American friendship (explicitly aimed at the former Soviet Union), the presence of American troops in the Philippines, and ASEAN's well known political proclivities left Vietnam with no choice but to firmly align itself with Moscow. And the Vietnamese offer to host the Soviet bases at Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay complicated ASEAN's efforts. The ASEAN countries did enjoy a kind of informal American protective umbrella, but what they did not want was superpower rivalry converting South-East Asia a battle zone once again. However, ASEAN stopped worrying once it became clear that the Soviet presence in Vietnam was primarily aimed at the China-US alliance.

To further underscore the significance of external linkages and to bolster its own standing, ASEAN initiated a parallel process called the "dialogue partnership". A selected list of countries was identified which could contribute to either the economic development or regional security of the ASEAN countries and made Dialogue Partners of ASEAN. Though this has its origins in the mid-Seventies, it was only in the early eighties that it began to acquire prominence.

At the organisational level, in order to maintain ASEAN's role and relevance, relentless efforts were continued by way of official networking, personal rapport among political leaders, and informal understanding in evolving a common line on political issues within and outside South-East Asia. At the same time, notably, given the sensitive domestic political atmosphere, a broad agreement was evolved whereby member states would refrain from commenting on each other's internal affairs.

After having coming to grips with the dynamics of complex domestic, regional and extra-regional linkages that operated in the management of regional security, on the one side, and assiduously building the mechanics of organisational structure and functioning of the Association as a forerunner of regional peace and stability on the other, ASEAN found itself facing a future riddled with a number of uncertainties after the end of the Cold War. It was, however, the security front that needed urgent attention. With signing in August 1991 of the Paris Accord which resolved the Cambodian issue, there was the danger of ASEAN getting diplomatically marginalised. In order to make itself relevant and enhance its role, ASEAN needed to take fresh initiatives.

On the one hand, the American military disengagement, especially from South-East Asia, was becoming inevitable (Soviet withdrawal from Vietnam and resurgent nationalist feelings in the Philippines were catalysts); on the other, the regional powers, which had had to operate under the shadow of the superpower so far, started asserting themselves. Japan began to voice its intention to play a greater political role in the Asian affairs, and China, buoyed by its economic success, started flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea. Not to be left behind, India, which mostly remained outside the domain of the regional security calculus during the entire Cold War, was eager to find a new political opening in South-East Asia.6 While the strategic debated centred around the theme of "power vacuum" and the consequent likely competition among these powers to fill that void, ASEAN took political initiatives by reinvigorating the PMC (Post-Ministerial Conferences). These developments also coincided with the debate across the Asia Pacific to create a regional multilateral forum to deal with security issues on the lines of Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

By the time new ideas about multilateralism in security affairs started floating, ASEAN's stature and standing had grown so much that its active involvement was indispensable for any idea to work. The Australian Conference on Security and Cooperation in Asia (CSCA) proposal could not materialise because of ASEAN's reluctance to replicate the European example arguing that politically and strategically the conditions that existed in Asia were unique. Also, because aspects of military had been the cynosure of European security, the approach that was suitable was based on what is called the common security, whereas in Asia, ASEAN, based on its experience, felt that a combination of cooperation and comprehensive approach would be more appropriate. It became imperative to undertake its own initiative which would involve all those powers which have security interests in the region, but ASEAN would remain in the driver's seat. Thus, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was borne out of ASEAN's quest to manage regional security according to its own pace and agenda.7

This was also the time of fears about new wars, called "trade wars", breaking out even as moves were beginning to be made to create a "Fortress Europe" and as a response a North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA). ASEAN economies thrived because of the liberal multilateral trading arrangements that existed and any attempt to restrict access to the most lucrative markets in Europe and North America would have serious ramifications. Although Mahathir Mohamad in his usual inimitable style came up with the East Asian Economic Grouping idea (later Grouping was changed as Caucus to make it less controversial), which expressly precluded membership to any Caucasian nation (the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand more specifically), it did not go very far because of Japanese indecision, South Korean reluctance and reservations by some of ASEAN's own members. The Australian proposal (though the idea has its origins in Japan) to create the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum was ultimately endorsed after allaying some of ASEAN's fears. To be sure, ASEAN's economic clout was rather limited, nonetheless in order to ensure a prominent role for ASEAN, it was decided that the Secretariat of APEC would be set up in Singapore and every alternate annual APEC summit meeting would be held in one of the ASEAN's member states.

Thus, after overcoming the initial apprehensions and uncertainties, ASEAN managed to create a definitive niche and a central role for itself in the political, strategic and economic affairs of the Asia-Pacific. ASEAN was touted as the shining example of regional cooperation in the developing world. It was tried to be emulated by similar attempts elsewhere. In its long struggle, ASEAN has over the years gradually, but consciously, evolved a distinct style of going about its business, called the "ASEAN way", to govern both inter-state relations among the members as well as ASEAN's relations with external powers. Because establishment of domestic stability was the top priority, toward that end members would refrain from interfering in others' internal affairs, cooperate where necessary to create politically stable conditions, and all pending disputes would either be resolved peacefully or would not be allowed to become open conflicts.8

The avalanche of financial crisis and the political developments that followed have begun to seriously undermine ASEAN. What becomes crucial is to identify those challenges that face the Association and to analyse their implications for South-East Asia, the Asia Pacific, and India.

ASEAN at a Crossroads

The following part of the paper deals with the kind of challenges ASEAN is faced with, encompassing political, strategic and economic arenas.

Political

One, the problems associated with the expansion of ASEAN. As it becomes clear from the above discussion, when the idea of a regional organisation was conceived in 1967, politico-security issues were high on the agenda and the composition of ASEAN was a carefully considered plan based on commonly shared threat perceptions and shared political values. It was a compact group of just five nations which were ready to subscribe to the common agenda. Although Brunei joined in 1984 after it became independent, it did not materially alter either ASEAN or its objectives. ASEAN could not have continued with the same political agenda and with the same constituents even after the end of the Cold War if it wanted to capitalise on its new found global adulation. ASEAN could not ignore Vietnam any longer once it withdrew its troops from Cambodia and washed its hands off the problem9 and initiated a market-friendly economic reform programme. The strategic significance of Vietnam as a nation that has the rare distinction of defeating some of world's mightiest powers, the French, the Americans and the Chinese, and as a bulwark against an ambitious China was not lost on ASEAN. Vietnam too was keen to break out its diplomatic isolation and throw in its lot with neighbouring prosperous ASEAN. Thus, Vietnam was admitted into ASEAN in 1995 without much fuss although it continued to be a Communist country.

What was trickier was the question of admission of the remaining South-East Asian countries into ASEAN. While Laos was extremely backward and Cambodia was embroiled in instability, it was Myanmar that proved to be a tough decision. ASEAN's quandary was that, it had its avowed policy of not interfering in others' internal affairs, which logically would allow Yangon to join the Association, but there was intense pressure both from Europe and the US not to admit Myanmar for its human rights violations and oppressive policies perpetrated by the military junta. Several ASEAN countries were keen to include Myanmar in the organisational fold, firstly, to wean away a terribly isolated regime from becoming too close to Beijing for the comfort of its ASEAN neighbours,10 and secondly, to make use of economic opportunities that the country offered. Thus, despite strong reservations from the West, Myanmar (and Laos) was brought into ASEAN 1997.11

After almost realising its dream of making ASEAN a truly South-East Asian association, the problems that are involved with the expansion started showing up. The initial expectation of bringing about domestic changes in Myanmar by constructively engaging it did not materialise. In fact, Myanmar has become ASEAN's albatross in its dealing with the West.12 The logistical and other ideological problems that are associated with the expansion of ASEAN have already begun to strain ASEAN. Some of the new members are either not conversant with the official language of ASEAN, i.e., English, or are simply not in a position financially to take part in hundreds of meetings at both Track I and Track II levels. Or they simply lack sufficient skilled manpower to handle the large number of ASEAN affairs, which are supposed to be crucial in the development of ASEAN's political unity.

Two, limitations posed by ASEAN's current strategy of consensual, informal way of doing things in the absence of strong institutional foundations. ASEAN has a Secretariat based in Jakarta, but its role has been rather highly limited. There is no institutional structure to guide ASEAN and the Secretariat does not offer any policy directions to the member states. Most of the decisions so far have been arrived at by consensus, based mostly on informal understanding. This is supposed to be ASEAN's strongest point. Today ASEAN's topography and the political atmosphere are radically different from the Cold War era consisting of nine disparate countries at the extreme levels of development, subscribing to various shades of political ideologies and convictions. Most of them are still guided by their respective national interests and not necessarily ready to throw in their lot behind ASEAN unless they see ostensible political and economic gains. That the consensual policy of ASEAN is under severe threat became obvious during the 1998 Manila ASEAN annual meetings which witnessed the first rumbling about its "way" of conducting business. The Thai foreign minister, strongly supported by his Filipino counterpart, came up with the idea of "flexible engageent"—a euphemism to comment on, and discuss, domestic issues or developments in the member states if in any way they impinged on the interests of any other member or members.13 The Thais may have had Myanmar in mind, but the others were skittish. The Indonesian foreign minister said: "We will return to the situation before ASEAN was born, with a lot of suspicion, a lot of tension."14 While ultimately there was agreement on an "enhanced interaction" (whatever that means), it does not look like the issue is settled; on the contrary, it may become a recurring theme in the coming years. The policy of consensus has its limitations, but any change in that policy would open a can of worms. If it is not changed, the new leadership in some countries may be disillusioned with ASEAN. If it is changed, many might find themselves in an uncomfortable or even embarrassing position if supposedly friendly ASEAN neighbours start passing critical comments on internal issues. Many a time it becomes difficult to draw a line between a domestic issue and a domestic issue with external ramifications.

Three, the pivotal role that Indonesia has played so far in the progress of ASEAN. As noted, but for Indonesia's active involvement and total commitment, ASEAN probably would not have been such a spectacular success. Indonesia's sheer size—a population of more than 200 million (the largest in South-East Asia and the fourth largest in the world) and nearly 16,000 islands—is overwhelming when compared to most of the other members who are small in size and population. Exemplary behavior by Jakarta made sure that smaller neighbours did not feel intimidated. That Indonesia has been the lynchpin of ASEAN is unquestioned, but Indonesia's unrelenting support to ASEAN was possible as long as it remained stable and progressed economically at a reasonable pace. In view of the current turmoil that Indonesia is beset with, a number of new questions have arisen: what is ASEAN's future if Indonesia adopted an indifferent attitude toward the organisation; what if the domestic turbulence in Indonesia starts spreading to the rest of South-East Asia; and what is the overall impact on regional security if Indonesia continues to be dogged by political instability and ethnic turmoil?

Four, connected to the above are the political changes that have occurred in several ASEAN nations, leading to a new generation of leaders. A close examination of ASEAN's formation and successful evolution ever since clearly indicates the critical role the founding fathers played in the promotion of the Association in its formative years. Indonesia's readiness to reverse Sukarno's confrontationist policy toward Malaysia; willingness by Malaysia and Singapore to put behind all the bitterness that rose out of the formation of the Malaysian Federation and later, the expulsion of Singapore in 1965 and the willingness to start a new chapter in the bilateral relationship; and exceptional restraint on the part of the Philippines not to press the issue of Sabah with Malaysia are notable examples that highlight the crucial role played by the then leaders. With the exit of Suharto, ASEAN saw its last founding father going out of the regional scene. Aided by democracy movements all across, a new leadership is emerging whose expediency to extend the same degree of support and commitment like their predecessors might not be same unless they perceive ASEAN's utility and effectivity.15

Five, for nearly two decades since its inception, ASEAN was accused of being an elitist organisation with little or no relevance to the ordinary people of the member nations. Thanks to the incessant efforts and perseverance of the political leaders, a vast network of contacts have been established, stretching across the spectrum of top politicians, officials at various levels, academics and intellectuals, non-governmental organisations, chambers of business and commerce, artists, environmentalists, and so on. The consciousness of ASEAN among the common people has witnessed a tremendous upsurge in the last few years. Expectations are high and are growing. Correspondingly, because of ASEAN's success, expectations have gone up from outside the South-East Asian region as well. ASEAN has assumed a central role in the political, strategic and economic affairs of not just South-East Asia, but the entire Pacific Asian region. To what extent ASEAN will be able to match these expectations is a moot question in the present circumstances.

Strategic

One, despite more than three decades of bonhomie and public solidarity, history keeps resurfacing in the form of continued suspicions in several instances about one another—between Malaysia and Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, Thailand and Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, etc. A close look at the pattern of recent military modernisation in ASEAN has a remarkable similarity to the "action-reaction syndrome" of the arms race. It becomes difficult to understand why Thailand has acquired an aircraft carrier, or why Singapore is buying submarines or LSTs, or why Malaysia always trying to match Singapore in getting new hardware. The fact that Singapore put its forces on alert when Indonesia and Malaysia undertook joint military exercises in Johore Baru, close to Singapore, in 1997, is a good example of lingering suspicions. Because of this, the ASEAN countries have not been able to synchronise threat perceptions, defence policies and military doctrines and attempt to the extent possible some sort of standardisation of military equipment. Unless ASEAN addresses these issues, its effectivity as a united front against any external attempt at destabilisation of the region can never be realised. This is a major challenge ASEAN will have to address sooner than later in view of the developments in the South China Sea.

Secondly, ASEAN members have not able to resolve their differences or evolve a broad common understanding over the questions of the role of major powers, regional balance of power, bilateral security arrangements, etc. There are some, mostly represented by the smaller countries of South-East Asia, which continue to believe that great power presence in one form or the other would be the best guarantor of their security, while others feel that the biggest destabilising factor had been interference by external powers and hence it is best to minimise the role of major powers as much as possible. In the absence of a common understanding, these differences will impinge on the future of multilateral initiatives, such as the ARF.

Thirdly, because of the above reasons, ASEAN's progress toward creation of some sort of "security community" has not materialised. No doubt, there are a number of bilateral and multilateral defence arrangements involving most of the ASEAN countries,16 but they need to be taken forward if ASEAN is to enhance its tempo, credibility and importance.

Fourthly, perhaps the most important development in the recent past is the creation of a multilateral framework, the ARF, to discuss the security issues of Pacific Asia. While opinions are vertically divided over the question of the ARF's progress so far, to a great extent it appears that the ARF too is beset with the same problems as ASEAN—lack of institutionalisation, too much reliance on consensus, vague but ambitious agenda, etc. There is considerable confusion regarding the ARF's purview, especially in view of the fact that South Korea and Japan have talked in terms of creation of a similar forum for North-East Asia implying that the ARF's role is confined to South-East Asia. In fact, a North-East Asian regional dialogue has already begun. If ASEAN has been weakened because of the current economic crisis, it has begun to reflect on the ARF already.

Also, despite avowed commitment to the new multilateral process, many ASEAN countries continue to have greater faith in bilateralism than in multilateralism. More ominous is the Cold War trend of alliance system once again dominating the regional security scenario. For instance, the US has in the recent past strengthened its alliance relationship (with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan) and has made clear that multilateralism is supplementary to its alliance-based East Asian strategy.17 These developments can seriously impair the success of the ARF.

Economic

One, failure to predict the looming currency crisis and its total helplessness after the crisis hit the region has exposed serious limitations as far as ASEAN's economic role is concerned.18 The social, political, and economic implications of this crisis, in addition to the individual affected countries, on ASEAN have been enormous. In South-East Asia, security is a comprehensive affair, closely inter-linking various facets political, military, economic, social, environmental, etc. Most important among these is economic security. If ASEAN fails on this front, its future is clouded under uncertainty.

Two, there is also the distinct danger of ASEAN getting overshadowed by other larger organisations for the purpose of regional cooperation that have sprung up recently, such as the APEC and ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting). While ASEM is still at the stage of dialogue, APEC's progress (at least in terms of taking decisions and express commitments) has been phenomenal. What is noteworthy is that APEC is talking in terms of economic integration, not just creation of a free trade area and some economic cooperation. If the pace at which APEC is moving ahead were taken into account, it would completely minimise ASEAN's economic role.

Three, ASEAN also has ambitious plans to create an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and an ASEAN Investment Area (AIA). While the former is to be realised between 2003 and 2008 (based on the level of development of member countries), the latter by 2010 for ASEAN investors and 2020 for others.19 To what extent the member states would comply with these commitments, if they begin to clash with national interests, is a big question? A number of problems have already arisen since the AFTA decision was taken, which the economic crisis might further accentuate.

Implications for India

If history is any indicator, India's relations with South-East Asia improved whenever this region was at peace with itself and as long as external interference was minimal. This surprisingly, is true even today, even though India's policy toward South-East Asia has witnessed several phases. The initial phase of India's foreign policy was almost entirely based on developments in Asia, prominently the anti-colonial freedom struggles. India's active support to these movements and active participation, particularly in the affairs of South-East Asia are well known. The momentum of good relations between India and South-East Asia could not be sustained because of the Cold War and superpower intervention in one form or another.

Security aspects dominated the second phase of India's foreign policy that began after the formation of ASEAN. No major policy initiatives were evident till the American withdrawal from Indochina in the mid-Seventies followed soon after differences arose between Vietnam and China. That the security interests were central to India's policy became evident in the way New Delhi spurned an ASEAN offer to become its Dialogue Partner in 1980 and chose to throw its lot behind Vietnam. Recognition of Vietnam-supported Cambodia was the logical progression of this policy. Despite best efforts, there was nothing much India could do as long as the Cambodian problem lingered on.

Since the end of the Cold War, India's relations with ASEAN improved rapidly and dramatically. Dialogue partnership with ASEAN, membership in the ARF, and a number of defence bilateral agreements are testimony to this India's ASEAN-centred South-East Asian policy has come under severe strain because of a number of developments in the region. Hence, any sign of ASEAN becoming weaker will directly impact on Indian interests in the region.20

Concluding Remarks

That ASEAN is the most successful regional economic cooperative venture in the developing world is well established, but behind this success lies the Cold War atmosphere and extremely turbulent times that South-East Asia had to face. Regionalism in South-East Asia, thus, has a distinct character and obviously cannot be replicated elsewhere, but it offers valuable lessons and direction to other attempts of this kind. Because of the peculiar composition of the nation states and the geographical location (endowed richly with natural resources), this region has attracted the attention of the great powers since ancient times. In the contemporary context, what made regionalism tick was the inter-play of various linkages at domestic, regional and extra-regional levels. Thus, a coordinated approch was indispensable in order to make regionalism work. Certain basic criteria were worked in, whereby the member states subscribed to a common political agenda and, to the extent possible, sacrifice national interests for the sake of regional cooperation. However, it was only in the Seventies that ASEAN assumed a significant role and the member states were forced to exhibit their unity and solidarity in the wake of the Communist victories in Indochina and later during the Cambodian problem. Although ASEAN incrementally tried to extend this political cooperation to other spheres, it met with only limited success.

Once the member countries realised the strength of ASEAN, they began to consolidate the process of regional cooperation in a big way and enhanced its activities. ASEAN also managed the end of the Cold War and the difficult transitory phase fairly successfully. However, events in the last few years (most prominently the economic crisis) have brought ASEAN into sharper focus. ASEAN today is faced with a number of challenges, politically, strategically and economically, as discussed above. Unlike in the past, this is the most difficult time and to what extent ASEAN will succeed in overcoming these challenges has direct relevance for India, for India's relations with South-East Asia have prospered only when the region is peaceful and politically stable.

 

Notes

1. If the success story of ASEAN is taken as an illustration, perhaps yet another critical factor needs to be added, i.e., the active involvement of at least one major external economic power to invest, to transfer appropriate technology, and provide a market for exports.

2. Efforts were made at regionalism and regional cooperation before ASEAN was launched, such as the Association of South-East Asia (ASA) and Maphilindo (Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia), but they were not very successful for a number of reasons.

3. A distinction may be made regarding ASEAN's creation and its purpose. ASEAN was the upshot of various linkages that were discussed earlier and was conceived to serve certain political, and if possible economic, objectives.

4. ASEAN was certainly not meant to be a conflict resolution mechanism. In the interest of ASEAN, member states were willing to sacrifice certain national interests so that the regional cooperation experimentation did not fail.

5. It has to be appreciated that it was in the first decade of its existence that ASEAN made enormous progress by way of constant dialogue and close regular political contacts which enabled it to build a solid foundation without which its story could not have been as spectacular.

6. India figured prominently in the strategic debate in the Eighties because of the expansion of its navy and its possible role in South-East Asia, either in conjunction with the former Soviet Union or on its own.

7. One crucial factor that contributed to the formation of the ARF was American support to multilateral efforts. By then, the US was ready to bring about suitable changes in its approach and strategy toward the Asia-Pacific from the earlier "hub and spokes" policy backed by bilateral arrangements to extending support to multilateralism. ASEAN also came up with the innovative idea of creating the so called Track II diplomacy by involving academics, officials in their private capacity and the regional institutes of strategic studies.

8. The "ASEAN way" is discussed in G V C Naidu, "The Manila ASEAN Meetings and India," Strategic Analysis, November 1998, pp.1164-1168.

9. It should be remembered that Vietnam by intervention tried to achieve its strategic objectives in Cambodia, i.e., to ensure that its dominant position was not threatened in Indochina and to make sure that Cambodia would not become an outpost of Chinese influence.

10. It is well known that the military regime in Myanmar had signed to arms deal with China worth nearly US $2 billion and Chinese military personnel have been active in developing naval and other port facilities on the western coast of Myanmar.

11. Cambodia was the only country that is left out of ASEAN's ambit because of an alleged coup by Hun Sen in June 1997 and the continued political instability. Nonetheless, during the Sixth ASEAN Summit in Hanoi in December 1998, it ws made clear that sooner than later Cambodia would be offered ASEAN's membership.

12. Condemnation of Myanmar by the US and other Western countries has become a regular feature in both ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences and in the ASEM. Ambitious Asia-EU cooperation has been stalled over the question of Myanmar.

13. The "constructive intervention" idea had been making rounds since Hun Sen staged a coup in Cambodia and some felt that ASEAN should intervene to restore order.

14. Far Eastern Economic Review, July 20, 1998.

15. For instance, both President Estrada and President Habibie openly made critical comments on Mahathir's handling of the Anwar Ibrahim case, which would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier.

16. These arrangements are confined to joint exercises, exchange of defence officers for training purposes, and a limited intelligence sharing.

17. See, US Strategy for the Pacific and East Asia, November 1998, for a number of testimonies for Congress, and statements emanating from the US Pacific Command.

18. ASEAN has since evolved a supervisory mechanism, called ASEAN Surveillance Process, under the aegis of the Asian Development Bank to address such contingencies in the future, but it is futile in the present circumstances.

19. Hanoi Plan of Action issued at the end of Sixth ASEAN Summit, December 15-16, 1998.

20. These aspects are discussed in detail in G.V.C. Naidu, India and ASEAN, Delhi Paper 8 (New Delhi, IDSA, 1998).