Last week there two major regional conferences on ASEAN were held in the region. The Network ASEAN Forum (NAF) was held in Singapore and focused on business interests in the region, whereas the International Conference on International Relations and Development (ICIRD) was held in Thailand and focused on academic review of ASEAN regionalization. The interesting aspect was that media coverage of both events highlighted the relative weakness of the ASEAN institutions as a deficiency in ASEAN integration.
From the ICIRID:
“Asean as a community has been a failure so far, as the notion of national sovereignty continues to undermine its integration while the identity of the grouping has yet to crystallise, according to Eduardo C Tadem, an associate professor of Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. . . . The Asean Secretariat, too, is weak and understaffed compared with the EU, Tadem said.
This was echoed by Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes at the NAF :
“I would like to see the Asean secretary-general having greater power and influence on the economic direction. This is so that we can channel our regional proposals to one body, which would then disseminate them to the different Asean governments.”
Now I have consistently supported augmenting the ASEAN institutions. The current setup works but in a fitful, inconsistent manner that is clearly frustrating many in the region. Some form of institutional reform will eventually be necessary for the ASEAN institutions if the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is going to flourish.
The question then becomes, what form of institutional reform? The two most successful regional economic entities, the European Union (EU) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) offer two competing models.
The EU has developed strong regional institutions such as the European Commission, European Court of Justice and European Parliament that have assumed much of the responsibility for economic integration in the EU. Exercise of legislative, executive and judicial authority fill in the blanks left by the Treaty of Rome and its successor agreements. This is the model that most pundits think of when they propose reform of the ASEAN institutions. However, this is also the model that ASEAN leaders view warily, with their reluctance to cede (relatively) new-found sovereignty to a regional institution.
NAFTA, on the other hand, was formed on the basis of a very detailed agreement. The NAFTA Secretariat is relatively small but supports the core of NAFTA, a strong, binding system of dispute resolution. The gaps in the NAFTA agreement are filled in by NAFTA arbitration panels and the interpretation of their decisions by the NAFTA governments, business sector and others. Although ASEAN members have never invoked the ASEAN equivalent of a NAFTA dispute resolution panel, the Enhanced Dispute Settlement Mechanism (EDSM), they have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to use international dispute resolution at the World Trade Organization, International Court of Justice and the International Law of the Sea Tribunal, e.g., in forums outside of ASEAN. If ASEAN members can overcome their apparent unwillingness to air internal grievances in ASEAN dispute resolution, the normative approach offered by NAFTA may offer some lessons for ASEAN.
At the end of the day, ASEAN leaders are going to choose a regionalization model that they can accept for the region. Hopefully they can understand that the current model is not enough, and that some aspects of both the EU and NAFTA models can be incorporated into the ASEAN way of regionalization. Either way, something needs to be done for the post-2015 development of the AEC.