Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Philippines Suggests that Turkey and Mongolia Can Join ASEAN

This week Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that the leaders of Turkey and Mongolia had approached him about joining ASEAN.  Duterte said that they made the request to him, as the Philippines is currently ASEAN Chair, and that he was happy to “sponsor” their membership applications.

The difficulty with this request is that neither country is part of Southeast Asia, which was noted by Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.  President Duterte responded,

They are. I would say that they are. Turkey, it seems to be ambivalent to whether to be a bridge sa (to) Europe and Asia or being an Asian. Wala silang klaro diyan (There is nothing definite there.) There has always been an ambivalent view. Sometimes they say that they are part of Asia, sometimes they say that they are the bridge of Asia to Europe.”

However, a “definite” concept of Southeast Asia underpins the membership criteria for ASEAN.  Article 6.2(a) of the ASEAN Charter states that new members must have a “location in the recognised geographical region of Southeast Asia.”  Neither Turkey nor Mongolia could objectively be considered part of Southeast Asia. 

Blurring the “recognised” area of Southeast Asia, furthermore, would result in difficulties regarding Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya.  

By comparison, Timor-Leste is recognised as geographically part of Southeast Asia, meaning that it easily satisfies Article 6.2(a).

Thus, although the ASEAN Charter can be amended by the ASEAN Summit (which was done, for example, by changing the order of the ASEAN Chair terms), it is difficult to imagine ASEAN leaders agreeing to Turkey and Mongolia joining the grouping.

This is not the first time countries far removed from Southeast Asia have been suggested for membership in ASEAN.  Sri Lanka (at the beginning of ASEAN), Fiji, and most recently Australia have been mooted as potential members.  However, these proposals did not go very far.  The prospects for Turkey and Mongolia look similarly dim, meaning similar outcomes of either politely ignoring the proposal, or clarifying (diverting) them into the ASEAN Regional Forum or free trade agreement talks with ASEAN.

The episode demonstrates, once again, why ASEAN needs the rules and rules-based order established by the ASEAN Charter.  Without the Charter, this discussion of membership would be governed by the politics and diplomacy of the moment, rather than legal and institutional foundations.