Bilahari Kausikan exposes compounded global and internal crises that could make ASEAN irrelevant should it fail to act pragmatically.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022. Download the full issue here.
In an increasingly complex strategic environment, ASEAN needs to re-establish the clear-eyed realism and steely resolve that characterised its management of the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Although some newer members are uncomfortable talking about the past, there is far too much self-congratulation about its own ‘centrality’ and over-readiness to bask in the diplomatic politesse of its partners. It was ASEAN’s management of the Cambodian issue in the 1980s that solidified its international reputation.
Prior to the Cambodian crisis, ASEAN was generally treated politely, indeed often respectfully, but not necessarily taken seriously. It was the Cambodian issue that demonstrated to ASEAN’s dialogue partners how useful ASEAN could be. The invasion and occupation of Cambodia reflected the Sino-Soviet dispute that was beyond ASEAN’s capability to resolve – as is US-China competition today. But ASEAN nevertheless proved its worth in holding the line for a decade against multiple pressures from major powers, including at times from the US, China, and Europe who were ostensibly on ASEAN’s side. By preventing a fait accompli in Cambodia, ASEAN made possible an UN-endorsed act of self-determination when the global constellation of forces shifted enough to allow the major powers to agree on such a solution.
ASEAN became ‘central’ then because it was useful and relevant. But usefulness and relevance need to be continually earned and re-earned in the context of changing contingencies. This requires a hard-headed appreciation of what is possible in specific circumstances.
Between 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, and 2008 when the global financial crisis led to disillusionment with American-led globalisation, the overwhelming dominance of the US and its allies masked the continuing reality of major power competition. This is inherent in any system of sovereign states, and those 19 years of muted competition were historically anomalous.
ASEAN’s key forums – the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting—were established during that anomalous period and arguably needed to be retooled to deal with renewed strategic competition. Certainly, instincts ASEAN had whetted to razor sharpness to deal with the harsh complexities of living at strategic crossroads where the interests of major powers intersected and collided, have dulled and atrophied. ASEAN indulged in its self-belief of being inherently ‘central’.
The expansion of membership in the 1990s without adequate socialisation of new members aggravated these problems. The ASEAN Charter could not replace the largely informal processes and attitudes by which ASEAN had operated. Only Vietnam shared something of the strategic realism that the original members possessed.
The February 2021 coup in Myanmar is a cautionary tale. Trouble had been brewing for some time and Aung San Suu Kyi herself must share considerable responsibility for the crisis. Still, a coup was a violation of the ASEAN Charter and ASEAN needed to take action. But was it really obvious?
What had ASEAN done eight years earlier when the Thai military seized power from a civilian government? The answer is nothing of any consequence. That the Thai King subsequently endorsed the coup leader after the coup is a very tenuous argument for the legitimacy of the military’s action. Did a constitutional monarch have the authority to wash away political sins retroactively?
Since ASEAN took no effective action against the Thai coup in 2014, why was ASEAN – or at least the handful of foreign ministers who were unusually passionate about the Myanmar coup—pressing for action in 2021? Was it because different personalities were carried away by ego or emotions? Or was it simply a case of Myanmar being less important than Thailand, so a gesture could be made at little cost?
The global geopolitical situation has significantly changed since 2021. The US and EU now had more urgent concerns than Myanmar. If they asked ASEAN to act, it was perhaps more to give themselves an alibi so they could get away with doing the minimum. Letting ASEAN take the lead is not always an expression of ASEAN centrality.
ASEAN did act against Myanmar and did so quite swiftly. After a series of consultations, the Chair, then held by Dato Erywan Yusof, Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister, an experienced ASEAN hand, succeeded in convening a special summit on 24 April 2021 in Jakarta which reached a Five-Point Consensus (5PC) on Myanmar.
Up to this stage, ASEAN did well. It was no mean feat to have achieved consensus. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing had raised no objections. But Myanmar has been under military rule for most of its independent history. The odds of compliance were always very long but nevertheless, important for ASEAN to have established a baseline of acceptable conduct. At least it showed ASEAN doing something and thus preserved the appearance of ASEAN centrality.
But it was a mistake for ASEAN to have gone further to suspend the State Administration Council (SAC) until it complied with the 5PC which were only aspirational. If the Tatmadaw was an organisation willing to exercise restraint, foreswear violence against civilians, engage in political dialogue, or allow external mediation, it would not have staged a coup in the first place.
Suspension was a step too far. ASEAN has neither effective carrots nor sticks to influence a change in the Tatmadaw’s behaviour. It can only try to influence the Tatmadaw by talking to it. By refusing to engage the real power in Myanmar until the SAC fulfils conditions that it never realistically could be expected to fulfil, ASEAN’s ability to influence is now practically non-existent. This was an unforced error that led ASEAN into a dead-end.
From 1988 to the early 2000s, ASEAN criticised the West for adopting an inflexible ideological approach to Myanmar and refusing to engage the military regime. ASEAN has now adopted that same failed policy, striking a grand posture on a high horse with no effective plan for getting off it. This may make ASEAN feel good, but does no real good. ASEAN has ceded the initiative to the Tatmadaw, marginalising itself.
What happens next in Myanmar depends on the Tatmadaw. The National Unity Government and its defence force will not succeed in what ethnic armed organisations tried and failed to do over 70 years – change the Tatmadaw’s behaviour. ASEAN’s mistake was compounded when some members criticised Prime Minister Hun Sen for visiting Myanmar while being the Chair, thereby shutting down a potential way out of the impasse.
Myanmar may lead to a severe split within ASEAN. Thailand and Laos share borders with Myanmar and cannot afford to strike postures indefinitely. Geography gives them concrete concerns that those members who played the most active roles in shaping ASEAN policy on Myanmar – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore – do not share. The concerns of these three countries may be serious, but abstract. Posturing is largely costless for them; but not so for Thailand and Laos.
Sooner or later, Thailand and Laos will go their own way to secure their interests. When they do so, other members may follow. This potential split between the mainland and maritime ASEAN members over Myanmar could catalyse other incipient fault-lines and further degrade ASEAN’s ability to deal with US-China competition.
By contrast, when dealing with Cambodia in the 1980s, ASEAN set practical goals and stuck to them. There were heated debates about what was or was not possible – intra-ASEAN diplomacy was often more complicated than holding the external coalition together – but ASEAN never lost sight of what was core and what was peripheral in its interests. It thus made no unforced errors.
ASEAN’s core purpose is to manage relations between its members and within Southeast Asia. Even with a war fought within Cambodia and along the Thai border, ASEAN continued to engage Vietnam, with Indonesia playing a particularly important role in this regard. Not every ASEAN member always agreed with what Jakarta was trying to achieve with Hanoi, but all approached Vietnam dispassionately. Cambodia was never a bilateral issue with Vietnam for any ASEAN member. Intensifying major power competition, narrow sovereign interests, and misdirected posturing will exacerbate divisions within ASEAN making it impossible to prevent unforced errors.
Bilahari Kausikan is Chairman of the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. He was Ambassador-at-Large in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore from 2013 to 2018.