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Asean, a fragmented integration in a changing world
This paper looks at the way the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) operates, in terms of the participation of its member states. Since its inception in 1967, Asean has apparently been driven by realism. But other mechanisms have gradually come into play and some group dynamics have emerged over time through the summits and treaties. Several aspects of this process should be highlighted:
the achievement of independence among countries in the area and the consolidation of this independence;
a willingness to resist the rise of communism in the region;
the easing of tension and the stabilising role in the region played by the Association;
the common desire to promote growth and the efforts to create a sense of identity;
the growing role played by the Association and its member states in a multilateral framework and especially in relation to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Table des matières
1After the Japanese surrender in September 1945, the first priority of the victorious powers with interests in Southeast Asia was to restore the authority they held there before the conflict. This was what happened in most countries that put together the framework which several years later would become Asean: the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma and Vietnam. However, after the Allied victory, the situation changed significantly from three viewpoints.
2Firstly, despite having won the war, the Western powers had become considerably weaker during the five years of conflict and the time had come for their own reconstruction. Their prestige had also suffered serious setbacks, since the Empire of Japan had shown that for a few years it was possible to stand up to them and that these powers were therefore no longer invincible.
3Secondly, with the emerging Cold War, global geopolitics was dividing along two lines. Nations would either have to come to terms with these lines or align themselves with them. Admittedly, the communist bloc would also split and a third way would soon emerge in Bandung; but this would only happen later. Yet already it was beginning to dawn on colonial powers that the world they had known was fast changing, even if on paper they remained great trading and/or political empires. The United Kingdom was the only European country not to have been occupied by Germany’s Wehrmacht. It had retained its spheres of influence and possessions in Africa and Asia; yet it quickly lost India and Burma. The showdown in Suez (1956) confirmed the conclusion: even though Churchill had sat next to the US presidents and Stalin at Yalta and Potsdam, Britain was now becoming an aligned power. The same could be said of France and the Netherlands, which were also present in Asia.
4Lastly, the time had also come for most colonial territories to begin creating genuine nation-states. Across the continent of Asia, colonialism was fading away because of the scale of the nationalist movements during the war and the confidence they had gained.
5At the end of the war, the islands of the Dutch Indies, which had previously been administered by the Netherlands, declared themselves to be the ‘New independent Nation of Indonesia’. On 17 August 1945 in Jakarta, Ahmed Soekarno, who had overseen the islands under the Japanese occupation, and Mohammad Hatta, leader of a group of nationalist partisans, unilaterally decreed Proklamasi (independence). Before long, the Nationalists consolidated their position and set about establishing a strong government to resist the Allied efforts to restore the Dutch to power, a response that began in December. Progress was gradual from 1946 to 1948, with delicate negotiations involving the UN followed by vague agreements (Linggadjati, Renville) and continual outbreaks of violence. The situation was further complicated by the communist secession. For as happened in many other countries in Southeast Asia, the communists and nationalists had shared a common purpose during the early years of the struggle for independence. However dissent had become too strong, the united front crumbled and the situation quickly turned to the advantage of the Republican troops. On 27 December 1949, the Revolusi1 officially ended with the nation’s declaration of independence and the election, by the delegates of the 16 Indonesian States’ representatives, of Soekarno as first president.
6Malaysia followed a similar path, but the parallel with Indonesia was short-lived, especially in terms of relations with the West. The country was still under British colonial administration, but was caught up in a constant struggle with communist guerrillas operating in plantations and areas around the mines. The Federation of Malaya was founded in 1948 and internal autonomy was finally sealed by the London Conference (1956). On 31 August 1957, the day of Merdeka (freedom) was officially declared2.
7The Philippines, after a long period of gradual autonomy marked in particular by the Tydings-McDuffie Act3 and the election of its first president in 1935, was officially declared a Republic on 4 July 1946. This was the same day as the US national holiday, but it was not the only thing the country had in common with the US. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied forces in the Pacific and a personal friend of President Sergio Osmeña, had already shown a keen interest in the country and pledged to return there after the Japanese had chased him out. Strategically, the archipelago’s 2,000 islands provided key control of the South Pacific. Hence, just as Japan was remodelled after the war along US precepts, the new state after July 1946 came under strong US economic and political influence – as underlined by its membership of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (Seato). However, the new nation soon faced major internal unrest. The first post-war elections were held at a time of great hostility; over several months animated discussions raged over the denunciation of corruption, collaboration with Japan and the control of communist movements. The situation was chaotic. MacArthur had exonerated Manuel Roxas, first president of the fledgling Third Republic. But Roxas was criticised for his role in the occupation. The communist movement Huk, which had fought the Japanese, was now opposed to the government and the policies it was trying to impose.
8Singapore had been almost destroyed by the conflict. After rejoining the British Empire in 1945, the country rapidly challenged its power. As happened in most Asian countries, the communists, who had opposed the Japanese, claimed power and were engaged in armed struggle. Clashes became so serious that a state of emergency was declared in 1948 and the communist party was outlawed. In 1954, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was born. This moderate left-wing group was led by Lee Kuan Yew, a 31 year-old Chinese lawyer, who had been educated in Cambridge and was well versed in the British system’s subtleties. Seen as a moderate militant, as well as a defender of democracy and individual freedoms, Lee emerged as a consensus figure in the eyes of the Singaporeans and British. Hence the nickname he was sometimes given, ‘banana’ (yellow of skin and white underneath). On 3 June 1959, the island officially became the State of Singapore, acquired its own constitution and joined the Commonwealth. However Lee, now prime minister, would gradually establish an authoritarian regime and would help to create an ideological, nationalist and hard-line movement, based on the promotion of Asian values and denunciation of the degeneracy of Western values (see below).
9In 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaya, bringing together the states of the Malay Peninsula and the British possessions in Borneo. But deep divisions soon emerged, mainly because Malay nationals on the island could not enjoy the same rights as those guaranteed by the Federal Constitution of Malaysia. Moreover, the Malays feared the Chinese (who made up almost 80% of the population) would have too much sway. The separation was officially acknowledged on 12 August 1965, when for the first time in its history the City-State was completely independent.
10Lastly, Thailand had undergone many changes before the war, including the overthrow of its absolute monarchy, the establishment in 1932 of a constitutional monarchy and unification of the country around the Thai language. It also took advantage of the French collapse in Europe and the weakening of France to attack Indochina and annex several provinces. This was under the watchful eye of Japan, a member of the Axis, with which Thailand also signed a friendship treaty4 authorising the Japanese army to operate from Thai territory into Burma. On 25 December 1942, the Thai regime, under the leadership of General Luang Phibun Songkhram, sided definitively with the Japanese by declaring war on Great Britain and the US. However, the country also saw the birth of an opposition movement organised with the ‘Free Thai forces’ and of anti-Japanese movements. A Thai government in exile was also formed. It was headed by Seni Pramoj, ambassador to the United States, and by Queen Ramphaiphanni living in exile in London. Japan’s failures in 1944 would force Songkhram to resign.
11In 1945, Thailand was the only country in the region not obliged to fight for its independence, as this had been achieved before the war. Soon the military government, again led by Phibun Songkhram (who was behind a coup in 1947), forged closer ties with the US. It adopted policies favourable to the US, including the establishment of an anti-Maoist policy, participated in the UN multinational force during the Korean War, joined Seato, supported US forces in Vietnam and Laos (1961), and allowed its US ally to set up airbases on Thai territory.
12Having achieved their independence, several nations in the region got together and made their first real attempts at forming a coalition which would years later become Asean. The first attempt resulted in the Seato treaty, which through the Treaty of Manila (1954) brought together two of the founding countries – Thailand and the Philippines. However this alliance was the result of an American initiative to counter communist expansionism in the Korean War and mainly served Western interests via the majority of its members (Australia, New Zealand, US, France, UK) based on a traditional concept: Unity, Peace and Progress. This alliance was also modelled on the modus operandi of Nato (a collective response in the event of an attack on any member). But there was no question of this alliance delivering any mutual aid when Pakistan, which saw Indian support for the secession of Bangladesh as an attack, called for this aid. This decision is understandable: the founding text of Seato – unlike Nato’s – did not provide for an automatic response in the event of communist aggression5. Although the alliance’s headquarters were in Bangkok, this did not make the organisation – which would be disbanded in 1977 – especially Asian. Yet Southeast Asia was of course the operational and military theatre for the policy of containment that lay at the core of this alliance.
13Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand briefly banded together in 1959, forming the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA). This regional coalition was also driven by a desire to contain China, but it retained a degree of autonomy from the US. It would also show a willingness to cooperate in different areas, especially economic, cultural and social. This coalition can be seen as the first experiment with regionalism, linking independent nations in Asia.
14From May to August 1963, there was another attempt to bring nations together through the Maphilindo (‘pan-Malay confederation’), with the setting up of a proposed confederation between Malaya, the Philippines and Indonesia. Nevertheless, the political climate was hardly conducive to the consolidation of a viable regional structure, particularly given the recent Sino-Indonesian rapprochement6. The Maphilindo was intended to settle territorial questions arising from several areas claimed by each member. But the dispute over the sovereignty of the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak in northern Borneo rapidly worsened, degenerating into open conflict and military action. Indonesia’s policy of konfrontasi, or the anti-Malaya campaign, started in December 1962. It led to a fierce dispute between Soekarno (Indonesia) and Tunku Abdul Rahman (Malaya/Malaysia) – although Diosdado Macapagal (Philippines) also claimed Sabah.
15The Bangkok Declaration was signed in 1967, a period marked by an apparent calm, or at least some sort of renewal, within the five signatory countries and their relations. Nonetheless, the term ‘calm’ should be put into perspective. As in Indonesia or the Philippines, authorities had earlier used an iron fist and occasionally violence to restore order. The result was the establishment of authoritarian regimes, which would soon resemble true dictatorships. The rest of Southeast Asia was shaken by major upheavals, notably in three countries. Cambodia saw a peasant rebellion against Prince Sihanouk. Vietnam experienced an intensification of the conflict with the reinforcement of US forces. And in Burma, the capital city of Rangoon was the scene of riots provoked by fear of a copycat Maoist Revolution. These riots led to thousands of Chinese deaths. Moreover, most of the ‘fathers of the nation’, from the former generation of leaders who had led anti-colonial new states during the early years of independence, had been replaced by new leaders. They would now take responsibility for national destinies. The fierce defence of national sovereignty was still on the agenda, but it was no longer as important as it was in the late 1940s.
16In Indonesia, the konfrontasi policy – as well as Soekarno’s anti-imperialist and anti-neo-colonialist policy, and the rapprochement with China – put Soekarno in a difficult position, since the UK and US supported Malaysia militarily and logistically. There was also growing internal opposition to the president and, although the ’30 September 1965’ attempted coup did not bring about his fall, it certainly underlined that Hadji Mohamed Soeharto was now the strong man in Indonesia. Soeharto was elected in March 1967. But he had become virtual master of the country from March 19667, having acquired extensive powers through the Supersemart, a legal act through which Soekarno passed control to his successor. The first measures taken by the new government were: to establish a ‘new order’, which was highly centralised and supported by the military; to put an end to Indonesian isolationism, marked by the end of the konfrontasi; to rejoin multilateral organisations (UN, IMF, and the World Bank); to open up to foreign investment; to put as much distance as possible between the nation and communist circles; to shut down (March 1966) the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) which was accused of having ‘fomented the 30 September movement’; and to prosecute those of its members who had not made amends. In truth though, under the banner of ‘restoring law and order’, Soeharto established a reign of terror by more or less openly encouraging the use of mass violence. This appalling repression led to hundreds of thousands of deaths8 in the ranks of the PKI and associated militant movements. On 8 October, Jakarta saw violent riots, during which thousands of Muslim and Catholic demonstrators burned down the headquarters of the PKI. The movement quickly spread to the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, where outbreaks of violence turned into what can only be called ‘witch hunts’. The army was supposed to be moderate and for most of the time it played an indirect role in the acts of violence. But over this period it was still guilty by association with these events. After the departure of Soeharto (1998), investigations revealed a number of facts. Chief among them were the responsibility of several high-ranking officers in coordinating paramilitary groups – such as the Ansor, the youth organisation of the Muslim Party Na had Latul Ulama (NU) or the youth movements of the Indonesian National Party (PNI) – and the ‘purging’ of those with links to the PKI in the army9 The Chinese community suffered significant ‘collateral damage’, because Beijing was suspected of supporting the PKI and the military coup of 30 September – even though Soekarno and the PKI were in a coalition at the time and no member of the PKI was among the ranks of the arrested insurgents.
17In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, who had won the elections and attained the highest position in December 1965, would also pursue a system of ‘democratic authoritarianism’, a convenient euphemism behind which the autocratic post-colonial regimes justify their typical political monism. However, behind this ‘democratic’ facade aimed at controlling every aspect of the nation’s social, economic and political life, there was very little space left for the opposition or protests. The revival could be seen in the introduction of the Bagong Lipunan (New Society) and a policy to redistribute land and businesses under a martial law promulgated after the arrival of the new president.
18In 1967, the time was ripe to create a new form of cooperation between states, but not by sacrificing national identities. The Bangkok Declaration, which was authored using an intergovernmental method, emphasised this point, especially through the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the signatories. Moreover, the partners opted voluntarily for a text without binding legal terms, namely a declaration and not a treaty. And despite the use of consensual and unifying terms – including ‘mutual interests and common problems’ – the Declaration hardly represents a strong collective identity. In addition, the word ‘Nations’, which was deliberately kept in the name and has been ever since, indicates a mindset strongly influenced by singularism. A study by Milward and Moravcsik on the EU concluded that regional association strengthens the power of member states, without really calling into question their national foundations when they adopt collective policies10. This conclusion clearly applies to the members of Asean. But we must of course take into account the specific context at the time: the second Indochina War (Vietnam War) was in full swing, and military operations had been successful in Cambodia and Laos.
19From a geopolitical viewpoint, the signatory countries formed a sort of trade association around the conflict zone. Malaysia had long enjoyed the support of Thailand (which had just reinforced US troops by sending a contingent of 10,000 men and had allowed the US to set up bases on its territory). The Philippines modelled itself on Indonesia, which in the post-Soekarno era (October 1967) broke off diplomatic relations with China. As for Singapore, the Chinese diaspora made up some 70 % of its population and Mandarin was one of the four official languages of the city-state – which continued to maintain relations with Beijing. Despite divergent views in Asean, it was for member states to establish a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), which partly explains why the Vietnamese membership bid was rejected by the Association in 196911. Admittedly article 4 of the Asean Declaration12 implicitly half-opened a door to Vietnam, even though semantically the term ‘participation’ should be understood in its minimalist sense. But only once peace was restored in Vietnam. This point was highlighted by the Kuala Lumpur Declaration (1971), which defended the principle of strict neutrality for the Association, free from all interference.
20During its early years, Asean mainly defended neutrality. But it was fairly inactive outside of the regular meetings of foreign ministers and focused on regularly affirming cooperation in areas defined by the founding text. During this period however, it worked to resolve some internal issues, including territorial disputes that had in part led to the konfrontasi. It also adopted economic convergence positions in multilateral fora. This was notable in the Tokyo Round (1973-1979), when Asean dealt with three major GATT players (US, EEC and Japan) on issues such as the categorical prohibition of quantitative restrictions.
21Asean’s first high-level meeting was in Bali (23-24 February 1976), known as the First Asean Summit. This resulted in two texts. The first was the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. The second, the Declaration of Asean Concord, contributed nothing fundamentally new compared to previous Asean positions; but it did strengthen cooperation among the member states.
22The first text for example promotes perpetual peace (art. 1), mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations; the right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, (...); non-interference in the internal affairs of one another (art. 2). Then the chapter on cooperation lists the fields covered by this: economic, social, technical, scientific and administrative fields (...), international peace and stability in the region and all other matters of common interest (art. 4). Lastly, the chapter on the peaceful settlement of disputes mentions the setting up of a High Council comprising a Representative at ministerial level from each of the contracting parties (art. 14).
23In its preamble, the Declaration of Asean Concord sets out the objectives and principles on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit in the pursuit of political stability, including the establishment individually and collectively of the ZOPFAN, and the use where possible of resources available in the Asean region. The text also mentions a spirit of Asean of solidarity, the development of a regional identity and the creation of a strong Asean community. Although the text also mentions the principles of self-determination, sovereign equality and non-interference in the internal affairs of nations, it defines the framework for Asean cooperation in political, economic13, social, cultural and security terms.
24The Bali summit and resulting statements showed a desire to expand cooperation while preserving the principles of national sovereignty. This choice is seen in the chapter on security, an area clearly deemed less important if we are to judge by the Declaration of Asean Concord. Yet by bringing together heads of government, the summit went beyond the ministerial conferences to which the Association had previously confined itself. After 1976, summit meetings became more important and they were institutionalised and planned. In addition, a High Council would be set up to study the numerous sub-regional disputes, mainly on islands where sovereignty was unclear since the attainment of independence14. Lastly, the establishment of an Asean Secretariat and the study of a new constitutional framework for Asean should also be seen as evidence of closer cooperation, with a view to understanding and resolving common issues.
25Another initiative (Indonesia’s) was launched in 1975, the Asean Parliamentary Meeting (APM). Its goal was to promote closer collaboration between the parliaments of Asean member states. In 1977, it became the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Organization (AIPO) and started holding annual meetings and debating issues of general interest (environmental, wildlife protection, human rights issues, and the impact of AFTA). In September 1980 in Jakarta, the Philippines proposed the creation of a genuine Asean Parliament. The General Assembly of Cebu (Philippines, 2006) acknowledged that ‘it would be a long term goal’, but approved ‘the transformation of the organization into a more effective and closely integrated institution’15, the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA).
26Today however, questions are being asked about the relevance of such a body. Two of its member states are represented there as special observers (Brunei Darussalam and Burma, which lack legislatures in their internal systems) and the possibility of legislating at supranational level is limited, since AIPA’s members are parliamentarians from each Member Parliament of Asean.
27Despite the progress outlined above, Asean should first be seen as a utilitarian association, because Asian nations do not see themselves as belonging to a community16. The former Foreign Affairs Minister of Singapore, S. Rajartnam, a signatory of the Asean Declaration, even told The Straits Times (1989) that ‘moving Asean towards economic or political integration was the best way of breaking up the Association into rival and unstable States’17.
28Nevertheless, efforts to move towards specific regional cohesion would grow after the Fourth Asean Summit, held in Singapore (27-29 January 1992). The meeting laid the economic-cooperation foundations for the Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA). At the initiative of Malaysia, the member states also acknowledged the importance of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), established in 1989, and of an East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC), which was proposed in 1990 and whose main goal was to distance itself from Pacific rim Western nations in APEC (United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand)18.
29At this point in Asean history, two members, Malaysia and Singapore, were making tremendous economic progress and showing off their success. This could be seen in major projects such as the Petronas towers – constructed in the shape of an Islamic star and featuring tops that recall minarets – which symbolised the emerging Asian miracle. Against this background, a new school of thought, ‘Asiatism’, struggled to emerge. Prime Ministers Mahathir Bin Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew promoted this new form of Asiatism. Its ideological foundations – which were more aggressive and demanding than those of the Asiatism supported by Jawaharlal Nehru at the Inter-Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi (April 1947) – extolled Eastern, Confucian and Islamic virtues. They advocated family values and collective discipline, while vehemently denouncing the colonialist and decadent attitudes of Western societies – such as individualism (including texts on human rights), homosexuality, alcoholism, etc.19 At the Fifth Asean Summit (Bangkok, 14-15 December 1995), the Opening Statement of Malaysia’s Prime Minister made it clear how he thought issues should be resolved: ‘(…) the Asean countries, (…), should rightfully claim and play its role in the management of Asia Pacific regional affairs. We have every reason to do so’. Mahathir had also boycotted the 1993 APEC summit, claiming that he was detained in Blake Island (US).
30However the defence of this new form of Asian values would enjoy limited success. Nor did everyone necessarily subscribe to these values, even if for example, in December 1998, to mark the UN International Symposium at Chilston Park (UK), the Burmese military junta took advantage of the event to call for Asian solidarity20 in the hope of breaking the diplomatic isolation imposed on the country by the US and EU, among others.
31Taken together, Asia is a mosaic of languages, religions, peoples, cultures and so on. Not all countries there believe in an isolationist withdrawal or the creation of a homogeneous community; this is true both of countries in APEC (in particular Japan and South Korea) and in Asean. Malaysia’s Prime Minister has never hidden his religious convictions, although he claims to subscribe to a modern Islam21 and rejects any form of fundamentalism. Yet the fact remains that apart from Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, where Islam is the main denominational movement, other countries are predominantly Buddhist (Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand) or Catholic (Philippines). Different beliefs are also widely represented across Asia – among them Animism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Taoism.
32So an Asiatism whose foundations are based on the rule of faith, far from uniting people could instead divide them or even inflame conflict. The region is already home to several conflict areas, including continual clashes in which the ruling regime comes up against Islamic independence movements in southern Thailand (Barisi Revolusi Nasional and Pattani United Liberation Organisation) or in the Philippines (Moro National Liberation Front).
33Lastly, it should also be underlined that the Malaysian Prime Minister developed a sort of cultural and political order during his term in office (1981‑2003). Consequently, he was criticised by certain sections of Malay society, especially the Malaysian Islamist party and the opposition, whose freedom he restricted by police force. He was also criticised by others outside the country. For example, the removal and hasty judgement of Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim raised an international outcry. There was also international criticism of the country’s expulsion of several thousand Indonesian nationals and of its rejection of international institutions (IMF, World Bank), which Malaysia said were responsible for the financial crisis of 1997. After the fact, it is clear that the financial crisis which shook the Asian Tigers (it started in Thailand in February 1997, before spreading in July to Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) originated partly in the hazardous evaluations made by the IMF and World Bank. Before 1997, these institutions praised the positive indicators of those four countries – low inflation, continued growth in GDP or a broad opening to the world market – and officially dismissed the risk of major crisis. However, they later criticised the states for getting into serious debt and facing insurmountable repayment problems. Clearly, the economic fundamentals had been poorly evaluated – especially the external capital inflows, the level of imports of goods and low wages22 paid. However, the IMF advocated remediation plans involving the elimination of thousands of jobs and the disruption of commodity subsidies. Lastly, there was regular mention abroad of the Prime Minister’s constant criticism of the West, even though his country had benefited greatly from US support for its reconstruction, and of his armed response at the time of the konfrontasi.
34Mahathir’s policies resulted in spectacular economic successes, making Malaysia one of the most successful Asian tigers. They include the country's modernisation, its specialisation in finance, high tech and telecommunications, completion of major infrastructure projects (the Sepang racing circuit, Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and the Petronas Towers), soaring exports, rising employment and a remarkable resilience during the severe economic crisis of 1997. Nevertheless, the overall picture for the country remains rather mixed.
35In absolute terms, it is not easy within Asean to identify many similarities that could be forged into a regional identity among member states. One of the obvious ones is a stubborn defence of the principle of national sovereignty; yet even this often comes under attack internally, due to the many movements contesting the legitimacy of central authorities and the territorial areas that emerged after independence (e.g. the Hmong minority, including Karen and Shan).
36Efforts to define a common image would underpin the Singapore summit (18-22 November, 2007) and the organisation’s 40th jubilee. In the proposed Charter, there was talk of an identity, a shared destiny, goals, values, a motto (‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community’), an Asean flag, an emblem, an Asean Day (8 August), and so on. Also discussed were the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, although Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam expressed reservations about this when signing the Charter23.
37Asean became much stronger internationally in the 1990s, after its enlargement with Vietnam (1995), Laos, Burma (1997) and Cambodia (1999). On the face of it, there was little evidence that the new partners would be very stable or that they would meet the wishes of the ZOPFAN.
38The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with its Marxist inclinations and rather pro-Soviet aspirations, was opposed to China. Having joined Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) in 1978, Hanoi would sign in the same year a treaty of cooperation with Moscow and seek further support from the member states of Asean – which was then busy as a mediator in various regional disputes24. In the early 1990s, Vietnam emerged from decades of conflict. It had clashed successively or simultaneously with France (1946-54), the US (1959-75), and the pro-Chinese Democratic Kampuchea (through several offensives from 1979-99). It also came to blows directly with China (1979 and 1984), although in this case it was more a question of border skirmishes. Vietnam was undergoing major economic revival at the time and this membership would open new horizons for the nation – as noted by the Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet in his Opening Statement at the Fifth Asean Summit in Bangkok. He started by saying, ‘Gone are the Dark days for the Southeast Asian region’, before underlining the necessity of ‘preserving an environment of peace and stability for the whole region and fostering an effective cooperation among the Member States’. He also called for Vietnam to play an effective role in the Asean Forum (ARF)25, to ‘develop its economy after a number of decades of destructive wars (…) and enter into a new stage of development’, and later highlighted the ‘Asean spirit among the people of our seven countries’26.
39The 1980s also saw the economic opening of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Collectivist policies launched by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (a one-party system) had enjoyed only limited success and the country suffered from serious shortages. It also reconsidered its cooperation with the USSR, which was in decline. Although it still enjoyed the support of Comecon, Laos gradually opened up to foreign trade and investment. It also normalised relations with neighbours, although those with Thailand, which financially supported the anti-communist resistance from mountain tribes and conducted undercover and armed operations in the upper Mekong, were not clear-cut. Laos’ geographic situation, between Vietnam (with which it signed a friendship and cooperation treaty in July 1977)27 and Thailand, made it an ideal place for a hub within Asean. Having undertaken major infrastructure work over a decade, mainly financed by international donors28, the country committed itself in 1988 to a policy of good neighbourly relations with Thailand, despite repeated border incidents. This led to the signing of a friendship and cooperation agreement (February 1992). The same year, political dialogue was opened with Malaysia. An Asean observer since 1993, Laos would seek formal membership in March 1996; it joined Asean in 1997 and its capital Vientiane hosted the Tenth Asean Summit (29-30 November 2004). This membership was in keeping with the nation’s desire for economic opening to foreign countries.
40Burma’s autarky on the other hand was a thorny problem for the region. The nature of its regime and its sources of illicit financing, mainly from poppy opium crops, drew condemnation from most of the international community. Burma is one of the world’s biggest producers of opium, but the country comes far behind Afghanistan, supplier of 74 % of the drug’s global production. Nonetheless, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Burmese poppy opium crops increased from 5 % to 12 % of global production between 2007 and 201029. Rangoon became a destabilising yet key piece on the regional stage, for several reasons. These included the country’s rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China after March 198530; its stormy border relations with Thailand (which since 1988 had supported the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)31 and financed the struggle against the Karen minority – after supporting the ethnic minorities32 for several years); and its animosity to Vietnam, after Burma condemned the occupation of Cambodia – to the immense satisfaction of China. Burma’s membership of Asean, however, was an endorsement of a de facto situation – because for several years, some of the investment financing the junta came from Singaporean and Thai companies. This led to Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi passing bitter comment that although Burma enjoyed observer status in Asean, she could not see how any future membership would bring peace and prosperity to the region33. This awkward situation became more acute when Malaysia and Singapore were handed fishing concessions in the Andaman Sea and when several oil companies – US, British, Dutch and French – signed drilling agreements with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces). These agreements brought discredit to Malaysia and Singapore, with criticism coming from their own people and the international community.
41Asean countries were eager to normalise relations with Burma, which would sign the Bali Treaty and join the Asean Regional Forum in 1996. Yet some leaders expressed their reservations. Goh Chok Tong, Prime Minister of Singapore, considered Burma’s membership to be politically and economically premature. His Thai counterpart, Banharn Silpa-archa recalled the Burmese army’s repeated incursions into refugee camps across the border. During their official visit to Rangoon (March and October 1997), Mahathir bin Mohamad and Fidel Ramos each sent their foreign minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi34 and Domingo Siazon, to visit Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Lastly, the Philippines and Singapore would invite Burma to undertake urgent political reforms in order to improve relations with Europe. Yet Europe, in the Asia-Europe (ASEM) foreign affairs ministers’ meeting (Berlin, 29 April, 1999), cancelled the EU-Asean meeting following a dispute between Europe and Burma over democracy. Europe also refused to issue visas to executives of the SPDC, placed an embargo on the export of products that could strengthen the Burmese junta, and froze its relations with Asean until January 2001.
42Meeting in Phnom Penh on 16 June 2003, the Asean foreign ministers diverged from the sacrosanct principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a member state. They unanimously condemned, with the exception of Burma’s representative, the re-arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, which had occurred several weeks earlier. Strong reactions to this arrest worldwide only added to the criticism heaped on Asean’s timorous attitude towards Burma. Similarly, the nine partners welcomed the SPDC's withdrawal from the rotating presidency in 2006 and 2007. For its part, Burma’s military junta would multiply bilateral contacts in order to raise outside support. Soe Win, the Prime Minister, would also visit Beijing (February 2006). His goal was to boost economic cooperation and above all to win Chinese support in the UN Security Council, since a referral-to-court procedure against his country had been underway since 2005. Maung Aye, Burma’s army chief, visited Moscow (March 2006) for the same reasons. New oil concessions would be granted to Russia and China in 2007, and 15 Fulcrum fighter jets would be purchased from Russia.
43Cambodia only joined Asean after a lengthy process. Cambodia had clearly experienced its darkest days during the 1970s – including the horrific US bomb campaigns of 1973 and from 1975 to 1978 the genocidal regime of Pol Pot. It had also been invaded by Vietnam in 1978, despite still being supported by China and for a time by the US (whose diplomatic relationship with Hanoi was still cool). In June 1982, the first round of negotiations was held by Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The goal was to get an agreement between the warring factions – the followers of Sihanouk, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front and the Khmer Rouge. All three were opposed to the pro-Vietnamese regime in Phnom Penh. This regime also irritated Thailand, whose eastern border was the scene of regular clashes between Vietnamese forces and the three resistance movements, which had rear bases in Thai territory35. Under Indonesian leadership, a new phase of negotiations began between the Asean countries and Hanoi, designed to resolve the Cambodian problem. A further goal, less obvious, was to resolve any potential problems if Chinese domination were to be extended in the region as a result of Beijing’s support for the Khmer Rouge. Already complex, the diplomatic situation was muddied by Bangkok’s role. Relations with Phnom Penh deteriorated significantly during the 1990s, leading to clashes in January 1995. Meanwhile, King Sihanouk would embark on an extensive diplomatic tour (1995-1996), taking him to Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam to seek support for his country’s reconstruction.
44Cambodia’s political instability, its economic difficulties and confrontational relations with some members of Asean explain why, in spite of the country’s observer status and its membership request (March 1996), the Special Meeting of Asean Foreign Ministers in Kuala Lumpur (10 July 1997) decided to delay Cambodia’s admission into the Association until a later date. But on 15 December, at the second Asean Informal Meeting, leaders of the nine Asean members agreed to consultations… so as to enable Cambodia to join Asean as soon as possible, preferably before the Hanoi Summit scheduled in December 1998. Finally, on 30 April 1999, Cambodia became the tenth and newest member state of Asean. This followed political normalisation of its domestic situation and the creation of an upper house in the National Assembly, a condition that had been imposed during the integration. Since then, Phnom Penh has fully assumed its role and chaired Asean’s eighth Summit (November 2002), the sixth Asean+3 Summit, the first Asean-India Summit and the first Lancang-Mekong (GMS) Summit36; but tense relations with Thailand have continued37.
45For the four countries, membership of Asean was a way to break with their isolation. But it did little to mark significant progress in terms of good governance, domestic stability, pluralism policy, and respect for human rights or promotion of the rule of law. Moreover, the four member states do not really set a great example in areas such as these. Thailand alone has seen around 17 coups since 1946. The authoritarian regimes of Indonesia and Malaysia also show how, where membership is concerned for example, the Association acts in an intergovernmental manner. The same could be said for the delicate issue of human rights, with the creation on the sidelines of the Cha-am Summit (Thailand, 23-25 October 2009) of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). This also shows the extent to which practical calculations underpin Asean membership, calculations that are made by the candidate and the Association. Burma is a perfect example of this: Rangoon believed that membership of Asean would allow the country to rejoin the community of nations while softening Western pressure on Asean to reduce China’s influence in the region.
46The emergence of a multipolar system, a shift in the balance of regional forces, the emergence of new global challenges and increasingly neighbourly relations between China and India would oblige Asean to consider new forms of cooperation in various configurations. India and China, which are partners but also competitors, are now at the bloc’s doors following the latest enlargement.
47The establishment of individual bilateral relations was endorsed in 197638, but they were still determined by collective interest, and damage to this collective interest would have been frowned on. Asean+1 inter-regional relations would come later. The first Asean-India Summit (2002, Phnom Penh) would strengthen the Sectoral Dialogue Partnership established in 1992 and work mainly towards promoting peace and regional stability, as well as economic, technical and development cooperation. In practice, there do not appear to be any fundamental or insurmountable problems between the two partners. However, India is anxious to maintain cordial relations with an area that is coveted by China.
48The close proximity of China is of an altogether different nature. Like India, China strongly influences the regional policy of Asean and its members. But there is a significant difference because, when Asean was founded in 1967, one of the Association’s objectives was to contain the PRC – even though some 12 years earlier China, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia had joined together in non-alignment. Afterwards, Jakarta and Beijing had also signed an agreement granting dual citizenship to the Chinese living in Indonesia. Since then, China has undergone profound changes: the collapse of the nation’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the rejection of communist ideology by Soekarno, the rift between China and the Soviet Union, nuclear acquisition, and the start of an economic policy of openness and reform by Deng Xiaoping (1978)39, which would gradually lead to China’s membership of the WTO (2002), and so on. If some form of peaceful coexistence has been established, it is chiefly because China has always influenced Asean’s modus operandi. In the 1970s, the member states would gradually restore relations with Maoist China. Malaysia would pave the way in 1974, soon followed by the Philippines and Thailand (1975). The way forward was set at international level by US President Richard Nixon, who re-established diplomatic relations between China and the US (February 1972). However, although China has local allies (Burma, Cambodia, Laos) on the regional stage, it also has an opponent in Vietnam.
49Specific Asean-China dialogue began at the 24th Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM, Kuala Lumpur, July 1991) and full dialogue on Partner status was granted at the 29th AMM (Jakarta, July 1996). Asean+1 meetings are an opportunity to build partnerships around issues such as political, economic and security cooperation, and they suggest genuine closer relations between the Association and China. Nevertheless, the member states sometimes adopt a less conciliatory group attitude towards their partner. In December 2005, at the first East Asia Summit (EAS, Kuala Lumpur), the Asean nations released a joint statement focusing on various democratic values. Coming from the new Asean members, particularly Burma, this gesture was rather surprising – especially as the promotion of human rights is not one of the Association’s formal principles. But the gesture was designed above all to win over other participants (Japan, Australia and New Zealand), in order to forge a common position on China, or even to snub Asean’s collective nose at the country. Moreover, after the Asean+1 summit in Cebu (Philippines, 11-14 January 2007), the ten agreed to sign a free trade agreement with the PRC (see below). The Final Declaration clearly emphasised the central role played by Asean in regional economic integration and immediately adopted a Declaration on the Blueprint of the Asean Charter40. This Declaration is very important, because it provides ‘an enhanced institutional framework as well as conferring a legal personality to Asean’41. Put another way, this represented a new step towards integration.
50The objectives are still to stimulate growth, strengthen regional stability and, more than ever, to strengthen regional cooperation. But there is also a growing urge to be equal partners in international negotiations, the latter including Beijing. Moreover, in purely commercial terms, ‘China's accession to the WTO,’ according to Diana Hochraich, ‘has led to a significant change in the organisation of trade flows with developed countries, because a growing proportion of their exports now pass via this country’42. Hence the need for the Asean nations to balance their respective positions and regain market share from their powerful neighbour.
51However, without minimising the key role of political relations or the significance of geostrategic issues in the region, there is no denying that the economic dimension has been of major importance in negotiations between Asean and China during this decade. In November 2002, the signing of a framework agreement for cooperation highlighted the principle of lower tariffs between the partners on agricultural produce as well as facilitation of trade in goods and services. Ultimately, the objective was to create nothing less than the world’s largest free-trade area (FTA) – made up of 1.9 billion people (including Hong Kong) with a trade volume of around US$ 12,000 billion. This would happen in two phases. The first started on 1 January 2010 for the six longest-standing members of Asean. They will be joined in 2015 by Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Meanwhile, these four countries will benefit from a transitional clause, under which they will gradually reduce their tariffs to zero. This fact should be highlighted because, in addition to the FTA, the objective by 2015 is also to create a true Asean Economic Community (AEC), notably with the free movement of goods, services, investments and capital. A ‘common market’ like this should lead to a strengthening of intra-Asean trade. It should also result in a strong economic entity, able to position itself in relation to the United States, in addition to close neighbours such as India and China – even though all three remain partners.
52For now, the parties to the Asean-China FTA share goals in terms of their common desire to facilitate trade, encourage bilateral investments and overall to boost economic growth in the region. However, the continuation of a shared project does not in any way prevent the emergence of special interests. For the Asean countries, this means boosting their exports of agricultural produce and raw materials (especially wood and rubber, which are in fact very much in demand in China) and developing their direct investments. For China, there is the prospect of opening a market of 565 million people for its exports, as well as strengthening the yuan as the currency of reference in the region, with the long-term goal of replacing the US dollar.
53Nevertheless, the partnership raises strong concerns among the business community in the Asean countries. They believe that this opening would be of more benefit to China than it would to the Association, since Beijing is more interested in selling than buying. As a result, the market could quickly become flooded with ‘Made in China’ goods at knock-down prices. Moreover, in March 2011 the Xinhua Agency noted a 37.5 % increase in China-Asean trade since the launch of the FTA, equivalent to US$292.8 billion43. A little earlier, the same agency noted a volume of direct investments from Asean countries to China in 2008 of US$5.46 billion, against US$12.8 billion from China to Asean44.
54In its early years, Asean’s watchwords were: territorial integrity, self-determination and security. The watchword for the bloc’s running has been intergovernmentalism. Yet over time, and depending on the issues faced, its positions have softened slightly and certain forms of integration have emerged. However, the alliance remains utilitarian and is still driven by pragmatic and realistic regionalism
55The ‘state’ is still the standard for Asean. Despite their hard-won emancipation since the Second World War, Asean’s member states feel that the Association strengthens their foundations. This support is particularly beneficial for some of today’s governments in the region, which are still facing significant secessionist movements. For although they may have seen unification in their own countries, this unification was often decided unilaterally. Yet some secessionist movements have achieved their goals. East Timor for example has been independent since May 2002 and has been waiting to join Asean since 2006.
56Asean has also grown larger, because of carefully weighed decisions that this would be mutually beneficial for the Association and its members. This enlargement has helped to strengthen Asean’s territorial and demographic space, allowing the bloc to consolidate its position in international fora (EAS, ARF, ASEM), the Asean+3 and Asean+1 meetings, and to unite its internal influences in the face of neighbouring powers such as India and China. Some member states have also used Asean as a means to rejoin the international community and normalise their regional relationships. This is especially true of Burma, where more than 40 % of investments come from Asean.
57Back in 1967, the containment of China, the creation of an area of economic cooperation, and the search for regional stability – including the preservation of territorial integrity, all seemed like risky commitments. But these commitments have changed in the meantime. Asean relations with the PRC have changed, particularly since the entry into the Association of communist regimes and/or other countries supported by China, such as Laos and Burma.
58Asean today has more areas of cooperation. It has also become a slightly more homogeneous body and the prospect for 2015 of the creation of an Asean common market is a step in this direction. All the same, where appropriate, the major objective is to reduce the dependence of the 10 Member States on the United States and for them to position themselves more strongly in Asia compared to China and India. Recent FTA agreements concluded with these two powerful neighbours – which join a list of other trade liberalisation agreements with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – are in keeping with greater economic integration in the region, including the Pacific. This is reflected in the motto ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community’, created 40 years after its birth. Yet sustainable convergence in these areas will be difficult to achieve, due to the enormous ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of its member states, let alone the diversity of the Association itself. Indeed, the concept of ‘Asiatism’ has suffered something of a setback partly as a result of these factors. Yet it is worth highlighting that there have been exceptions to Asean’s guarantee of national specificities. Cambodia for example was requested to adopt a bicameral system, while Burma came under pressure to soften its domestic measures to meet international expectations on human rights. Furthermore, the launch of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Assembly in Kuala Lumpur in 2007 suggests an ambition towards more integration in Asean, although this would require the allocation of greater means.
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A propos de : Olivier Dupont
Research fellow, University of liège