Wherefore Art Thou ASEAN?

Typhoon Haiyan's Teachable Moment
Published : 20 November 2013

By: Jeffrey Wright

On November 8, Typhoon Haiyan blasted through the heart of the Philippines, leaving thousands dead and the country’s midsection flattened. One of the most powerful storms in recorded history, Haiyan carved a path of destruction reminiscent of the Asian tsunami in 2004 that demolished Indonesia’s Aceh province and other coastal areas in the Bay of Bengal. Similar to that disaster, the poorest citizens bore the brunt of calamity in the archipelago, their matchstick homes and enterprises reduced to rubble.

Natural disasters are revealing phenomena, and Typhoon Haiyan is no exception. The damage they inflict often unveils systemic domestic problems, especially in poor countries. In the Philippines, a lack of storm protection facilities and decrepit infrastructure on the islands of Leyte and Samar not only exacerbated the devastation and loss of life but now reminds people that entrenched corruption in Manila continues to exact an unsettling toll.

Disasters also reveal the capacities of actors to respond effectively. In the case of Typhoon Haiyan, it is clear that the region’s most prominent organization possesses no such resilience. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) carries a mandate to respond “to all forms of [security] threats.” But it lacks the political will and resources to fulfill its Charter obligations. Indeed, ASEAN’s role in the Philippines has been limited to basic information-sharing functions. Prior to Haiyan making landfall, the Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance—ASEAN’s disaster management unit—monitored the storm’s movements and deployed logistics personnel to Manila and Tacloban to help coordinate relief efforts with national authorities. Now in the typhoon’s aftermath, ASEAN lies in the shadows altogether, wielding neither the power nor funds to play a substantial part in the humanitarian response.

In the absence of a strong ASEAN, the Philippine recovery is simply more fragile and harder to execute, relying on a range of actors to fill the void. The leading international organization in the relief effort is the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), but OCHA is heavily constrained by having to raise voluntary contributions from member states for every crisis it tackles. Meanwhile, individual countries have pledged extensive aid, with a recognizable cast of donors topping the list, including Australia, Britain, Japan, and the United States. Yet depending on the generosity of foreign governments does not seem a sustainable (nor politically astute) approach to disaster management. Not only do climate scientists predict storms to strike Southeast Asia and elsewhere with increasing frequency and severity—foreshadowing the limits of future aid—but sadly geopolitics have been a factor in decisions to extend humanitarian assistance (read: China’s embarrassingly paltry initial pledge of $100,000). It goes without saying that the politics of help have no place in times of crisis.

More importantly, Typhoon Haiyan raises larger questions about the state of regional cooperation in Southeast Asia. What is the role of ASEAN in providing regional security, and what is ASEAN’s place in the broader architecture of Asian security? How does ASEAN best leverage the competencies of its partners and allies? Can the organization improve its capacity to respond to emerging threats, including national disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan and the risk of infectious disease in its aftermath? How can states close the development gap in the region?

These and other queries were the subject of an enlightening workshop held in Jakarta this past June on “Rising Regionalism: Trends in Southeast and (Wider) Asia.” Cosponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, the workshop convened scholars from the United States, Indonesia, and Singapore to discuss future directions in Southeast Asia. A summary report appears online, but here are a few highlights:

  • ASEAN’s effectiveness suffers at the hands of a weak secretariat and consensus decision-making: The regional organization has lofty ambitions for deepening integration in Southeast Asia, aiming to complete the single market by 2015. Though achieving this goal and making progress in other areas of the ASEAN Community, namely the political-security and socio-cultural pillars, will prove extraordinarily difficult without moving toward some form of majority voting and empowering the secretariat with greater resources.
  • A changing strategic environment threatens the integrity of ASEAN’s centrality: As China continues to amass strength and the United States rebalances toward Asia, ASEAN must promote unity from within its ranks if it intends to manage dynamism in the region. The juxtaposition of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—two overlapping regional free trade agreements—may threaten the integrity of ASEAN, particularly if the TPP is able to grow its membership with Southeast Asian nations. Consolidating the ASEAN Economic Community will represent an important step to navigating the future of regional trade.
  • ASEAN has responded to public health threats with national strategies at the expense of regional approaches: Since the global SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, public health regulators around the world have focused on improving the capacities of governments to respond to emerging threats, such as novel coronaviruses, pandemic influenza, and non-communicable diseases. But in Southeast Asia, countries have concentrated efforts on national rather than multilateral solutions, undermining regional security. ASEAN should use its extensive intergovernmental forums to identify regional health deficiencies as a prelude to further cooperation.

In conclusion, it bears mentioning that there are historical reasons for ASEAN’s institutional weaknesses. Born out of Southeast Asia’s colonial past, norms of sovereignty and noninterference are inviolable pillars of foreign policy in the region. These principles are unlikely to diminish anytime soon. Nevertheless, ASEAN cannot afford to remain sidelined as both cooperation and conflict take shape in Southeast Asia and the broader region. It would risk tarnishing its credibility and backsliding on much of the progress made during its near fifty-year history.


Reposted by permission from The Internationalist, a Blog maintained by  Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director, Program on International Institutions and Global Governance of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York City. Jeffrey Wright is a research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

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