ASEAN Must Avoid the EU 'Trap' on Security
The alliance aspires to more than an economic role, but is it prepared to do so?
12 February 2014
By: Brad Nelson

As we know, ASEAN has long been modeled after the European Union (EU), the most successful regional bloc in existence. Like the Europeans, ASEAN countries have made it a priority to remain autonomous and independent, not tethered to or dependent on one or more actors in the world. ASEAN is continually aligned and linked, not divided by outside powers. As a result, it is a constructive force in regional and world politics as it seeks to bolster cooperation between Southeast Asian countries and foster linkages between Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.

Moreover, much like the EU, ASEAN strives for regional integration. ASEAN is a bloc that pools its power, enabling it to be a major player in world politics. Like the EU, ASEAN aspires to speak with one voice on a wide range of issues. Of course, with the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) set to take the stage in 2015, ASEAN leaders are also positioning the bloc as an economic powerhouse, potentially to rival the EU down the line.

Keep in mind, though, that the EU has accomplished quite a bit since the days of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in the 1950s. It is now a relatively cohesive entity on economic and legal affairs. The European Commission has substantial political power. ASEAN has far to go to reach this level of regional integration. Indeed, within ASEAN, concerns about sovereignty, lingering bad feelings about colonialism, varied political systems and manifold conceptions of identity and self-interest, along with deficiencies in the rules and structure of the ASEAN institution itself, create roadblocks to regional unity.

Southeast Asia is where it’s at

Despite the reservations, the respect for and standing of ASEAN is quickly catching up to that of the EU. The flow of power from west to east, the rise of China, maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas and Southeast Asia's massive economic growth have all enhanced ASEAN’s standing and importance in foreign capitals. Southeast Asia is the place to be nowadays. Russia, India, Japan, China and the US have all invested considerable time, effort, resources and energy in cultivating strong ties to ASEAN members. By contrast, the EU feels old, retrograde, unwieldy and in decline; its best years it seems are in the past. The future is Asia, and Southeast Asia, represented by ASEAN, is an essential reason for all the optimism.

I get a sense that ASEAN leaders and diplomats, in some respects, would like the bloc to be a supercharged version of the EU. This is particularly the case on foreign policy and security issues. Whereas the EU has struggled with ethnic conflict and security threats on its doorstep and inside member countries, ASEAN wants to move and operate like a well-oiled machine on foreign policy matters. Undoubtedly, there is a sincere desire to implement a code of conduct to manage relations on the high seas. And ASEAN countries are eager to develop and entrench norms of cooperation, peace and stability throughout Asia.

As an example, last year, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa proposed the idea of an Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. It’s an idea that builds off and arguably improves on a previous proposal by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, namely because it emphasizes open communications, confidence and trust building.

Marty believes that while Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia and Pacific-Asia have benefitted from regional peace and stability, those things should not be taken for granted, particularly given the fluctuating power trends between China and the US, the ongoing violence in Myanmar and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. In his words, the region needs “a preemptive mechanism for conflict prevention and resolution.” In essence, Marty wants to replicate the ASEAN model over a wider area in Asia by including not only ASEAN members but also external powers like China, Japan, India and the US.

Complicated proposal

But there are complications. ASEAN is a bloc of middle powers that lacks a clear leader. Of all ASEAN members, Indonesia - with its large population, rising economic base, strong military and functioning democracy - is best suited to be the leader of the bloc, but is unwilling to strongly and consistently assert itself. And even if Indonesia did make a bid for the leadership mantle, there is no guarantee it would go over well. Other ASEAN members could reject such moves and push back against them.

Additionally, there are divisions within ASEAN on foreign and security policy. At this point, ASEAN members are still competing with each other on security, as the rapid rise in military budgets across ASEAN attests. There are competing visions on how the bloc should cope with maritime disputes, nuclear proliferation and competition between China and the US. Moreover, I'm not certain that ASEAN members walk lock-step on how the bloc should look and act in the future.

In the end, for reasons mentioned above, internal reform - either within ASEAN countries or the institution itself - is probably an unlikely source of foreign policy change. Instead, security exigencies within Asia are what will likely drive ASEAN countries closer together. Until that time, ASEAN leaders and diplomats will try to make headway on hot button foreign and security policy issues, though these efforts will likely not produce a whole lot.

My hope is that when major threats do surface, it's not too late for ASEAN to respond adequately and in a timely manner. Otherwise, ASEAN risks going the way of its institutional mentor, the EU: a nice consultative body, a good tool to create connections with other states and international organizations, a powerful economic community, but, overall, a miserable failure on defense and security affairs.


Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a research organization, and an adjunct professor of international relations at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois.

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