The past few weeks have brought “the ASEAN way” of non-interference in ASEAN members’ domestic affairs into conflict with the more interventionist approach frequently found in Western countries. We also have seen ASEAN voice its concern over China’s activities in the South China Sea, supported by many in those same Western countries. What is not apparent to the casual observer is how “the ASEAN way” is necessary to firm up ASEAN solidarity, which in turn augments ASEAN’s resolve in dealing with the South China Sea issue as well as other regional issues.
This week, of course, the Thai military took over the Thai government in a coup d’etat. While ASEAN and its members limited their comments to a support for a return to a normal government and for stability, they refrained from expressing opinion on how this should occur. That is “the ASEAN way.”
(This might change if the Thai situation deteriorates into separatism. If that spectre were to arise, ASEAN should consider making a definitive statement that a region that leaves an ASEAN member is not automatically a party to the various ASEAN agreements, particularly the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Economic Community agreements. This is akin to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barosso’s recent statement regarding an independent Scotland).
Notably, Cambodia, whose prime minister Hun Sen is close to the Shinawatras and thus is one ASEAN member who might be inclined to voice opposition to the military coup, has remained relatively quiet on the issue. This probably reflects Hun Sen’s own domestic political difficulties and a wish not to draw too much attention to them.
Western countries took a more vocal approach and openly called for a return to a democratic government. As required by its statutes, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Thailand, but attempted to limit them so as to maintain some diplomatic flexibility. Other governments will similarly attempt a nuanced approach.
However, in dealing with another ASEAN member, Brunei, there is not as much nuance. Many in the United States and elsewhere are calling for boycotts of Brunei and Brunei-owned institutions in protest of Brunei’s imposing sharia law. ASEAN, on the other hand, has remained relatively quiet on the issue, again following “the ASEAN way.”
Those seeking a more vocal regional opinion on such issues are often critical of “the ASEAN way”. Yet it is important to recognize that ASEAN encompasses a wide variety of governments, ranging from democracies of varying openness to communist one-party states to an absolute monarchy to, for now, a military junta. Expecting such countries to adopt a liberal Western democratic system (or its values) overnight is not realistic, and given examples elsewhere and even within ASEAN itself, forcing such a result is not advisable.
Rather, “the ASEAN way” may be a plodding and inconsistent approach, much as it is with the ASEAN Economic Community, but it can lead to positive results if properly understood and supported. Years of economic sanctions against the Myanmar regime alone did not lead to political reform, but combined with the constant, steady influence of ASEAN, they did convince the country to implement political and economic reform (hopefully fully).
Furthermore, “the ASEAN way” promotes confidence in regionalism, as ASEAN members become more comfortable in ASEAN and the ASEAN institutions without fearing that they will intervene in their political affairs. In contrast, Mercosur temporarily suspended Paraguay due to its domestic political situation; that regional body is much less successful and even has competing regional organizations in South America.
Without having confidence in its institutions, ASEAN will be less willing to work on a regional basis on economic development, environmental issues, and yes, security issues like the South China Sea dispute with China. This is why informed observers in the West are less vocal on the Brunei sharia issue and call for more flexibility in dealing with the Thai military junta. That does not mean those calling for changes in ASEAN countries are wrong; rather, they need to understand the larger historical and cultural picture involved, and temper both their expectations and their objectives.