Embrace Soft Power (but Recognize its Limits)

ASEAN’s consensus-driven system has enabled diverse states to coexist within a supranational order. But without harder rule-making, the Southeast Asian grouping may struggle to address emerging regional security challenges.

Expert comment Updated 16 March 2021 Published 12 June 2019 4 minute READ

Champa Patel

Executive Director, Governments and Policy Climate Group

Thailand worker cycles past life-size portraits of the ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Photo by ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images.

Thailand worker cycles past life-size portraits of the ten leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Photo by ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images.

Joseph Nye, when writing his seminal work on soft power, defined it as the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. The three pillars of his conception of soft power were political values, culture and foreign policyNye, J. S. (2004), Soft power: The means to success in world politics, New York: Public Affairs..

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an intergovernmental body comprising 10 countries from the region, is an embodiment of soft power in practice. ASEAN’s consensus-oriented model offers a constructive, if limited, means of managing a membership that shares few obvious commonalities. But despite decent prospects for economic integration, how will this model cope with emerging regional challenges where more binding rules may be demanded?

The core principles and norms underpinning ASEAN are enshrined in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, signed at the first ASEAN Summit in 1976. Broadly speaking, these are a) respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member nations; b) non-interference in the internal affairs of one another; c) peaceful dialogue, non-confrontation and consensus; and d) non-use of force in dispute settlementASEAN (2016), ‘Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia’, Indonesia, 24 February 1976..

Collectively often referred to as the ‘ASEAN way’, these principles and norms were later incorporated into the ASEAN Charter, which came into force in 2008, signalling the shift from a loose alliance of countries to a more formal organization.

ASEAN member states encompass a hugely diverse region. A wide range of governance models (democracies, authoritarian regimes, military governments) coexist with countries encompassing some of the world’s major faiths (Islam, Buddhism and Christianity). ASEAN members also range from wealthy states (Singapore) to some of the poorest (Myanmar).

In addition to contending with this internal heterogeneity, ASEAN has multiple challenges to balance: the impacts of natural disasters and cross-border crises; territorial tensions such as those in the South China Sea; and the increasing great power competition between China and the US. With all these considerations in play, the impact of ASEAN’s soft power approach is uneven, more effective in some contexts than in others.

The most promising area is economic relations. Unlike the EU, ASEAN began life as a political initiative. The original five members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – first came together to reduce regional tensions but also to work as a bloc against communist-led insurgencies. It was not until 1993 that economic integration became a strong plank of the body, culminating in the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.

One key part of this agenda is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), launched in 2012, which seeks to bring together ASEAN members’ existing free-trade agreements with six other Asia-Pacific countries into one accordFor further information, see ASEAN (2016), ‘Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)’.. Once implemented, RCEP could cover an aggregate population of 3.6 billion spread across economies with a combined GDP of $25 trillionPetri, P. A. and Plummer, M. (2018), ‘The Case for RCEP as Asia’s Next Trade Agreement,’ Brookings, 6 November 2018..

As Peter Petri and Michael Plummer note, in the contemporary context of protectionism and populism, RCEP is both a ‘developing country-centric [and] pro-integration alternative on an unprecedented scalePetri, P. A. and Plummer, M. (2018), ‘The Case for RCEP as Asia’s Next Trade Agreement,’ Brookings, 6 November 2018.. It could be a game-changer for ASEAN, not only establishing a shared market of monumental size but also illustrating the organization’s ability to bring together a wide range of stakeholders to achieve a common goal.

In contrast, ASEAN’s approach to peace and security illustrates some of the limits of soft power. Although there has been a high degree of institutional development of peace and security norms – as embodied in the 2012 ASEAN Concord II – the region faces several challenges in making these principles a reality. The main tension is how the primacy of non-interference, consensus decision-making and the non-use of force undermines attempts at a coherent approach to crises within the region.

Non-interference in the affairs of another country is hard-wired into the ASEAN system. It must be acknowledged that the primacy of this norm is what has enabled such a wide range of member countries to coexist within the same body. However, the rise of transnational peace and security issues – including cross-border terrorism, refugee and migrant flows, trafficking and illicit financial flows – puts into question whether this approach can be effective in response to complex problems that affect multiple countries.

For example, there is no mechanism to invoke a response, without a nation state’s consent, to actions that represent a regional threat to peace and security. As such, any ASEAN member that poses a threat of this kind can be confident that no real action is possible against it. The risk, therefore, is that the principle of non-interference could provide cover for governments, as they know that any use of violent means – despite any criticisms made – would not lead to an active interventionThalang, C. N. (2017), ‘Brokering Peace in Southeast Asia’s Conflict Areas: Debating the Merits of an ASEAN Peacekeeping Force’, Heinrich Boll Stiftung Southeast Asia, 7 August 2017. ASEAN’s peace and security norms lack the type of enforcement powers that would be needed to tackle such issues.

The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar is illustrative of this problem. ASEAN’s non-confrontational response has had no impact in preventing the forced displacement of Rohingya people into neighbouring Bangladesh, nor has it provided any means to agree constructive ways forwardFor further information, see Wake, C. and Yu, B. (2018), The Rohingya crisis: Making the transition from emergency to longer-term development, Overseas Development Institute Humanitarian Policy Group, Policy Brief 71, March 2018.. Some member states, such as Indonesia, tried to use bilateral diplomacy to ameliorate the situation.

Others, such as Malaysia, took on a more outspoken stance and were openly critical. As a collective, however, ASEAN has been ineffective at pressuring Myanmar to improve its treatment of the Rohingya people. Beyond the difficulties associated with the norm of non-intervention, the need for collective agreement makes it difficult for ASEAN to achieve cohesive positions on contentious issues.

Increasing pressures resulting from the formidable rise of China add further complexities. For example, on the South China Sea issue, China and several ASEAN states share overlapping claims. ASEAN first committed to finding a peaceful resolution in 1992 but has struggled to form a legally binding position on maritime disputes in the South China Sea. It was not until 2002 that a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was agreed, and even this agreement is non-binding.

There is an argument that with greater political and economic engagement with China, the ‘internal relations of ASEAN itself’ are being transformedStorey, I. (2013), ASEAN and the Rise of China, London: Routledge, cited in Beeson, M. (2016), ‘Can ASEAN Cope with China?’, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 35:1, pp. 5–28.. Put simply, China also has deep bilateral relationships with ASEAN countries, which may factor into any decision-making.

For example, in 2012 and again in 2016, Cambodia blocked a joint ASEAN statement on the South China Sea issue, a move perceived by some as reflecting Chinese influence on the country’s positionAFP, Baliga, A. and Sokheng, V. (2016), ‘Cambodia again blocks ASEAN statement on South China Sea’, Phnom Penh Post, 25 July 2016.. Without consensus, the bloc had nothing meaningful to say on one of the major issues in the region.

However, progress is possible. When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, the country struggled to respond to the devastation. The government compounded the crisis by blocking aid and support from some international agencies. ASEAN took on a brokering role, acting as a bridge between Myanmar and the international community, and helped ensure the delivery of aid.

Another illustration of how ASEAN can play a more constructive role on contentious issues was the establishment, in 2009, of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). Though sensitivities about criticism of human rights abuses remain an obstacle to more robust rule-making, and the commission lacks enforcement mechanisms, this is an important development in shaping and building norms.

For ASEAN to be an effective peace and security actor, it needs to marry non-intervention with a greater investment in preventive diplomacy. It also needs to recognize when the limits of this type of diplomacy have been reached and stronger recourse is needed.

Preventive diplomacy is an important part of the toolkit for ASEAN, as it chimes with its doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of member countries. However, this should not be to the detriment of also working more through multilateral institutions, such as the UN, and potentially through non-governmental organizations, to find solutions to challenging situations.

ASEAN could also undertake peer-to-peer learning, for example through formal dialogues with the African Union, to better understand how other regional bodies have balanced respect for state sovereignty with a more active role on peace and security issues.

There is a risk that norms may become redundant if their development goes beyond what states are prepared to accept. The ASEAN way, while it may seem ponderous, has avoided major conflict in the region since the organization’s inception. Furthermore, issues that were once considered too sensitive, such as human rights, have become part of the ASEAN architecture.

However, without greater institutionalization or means to enforce accountability, any progress will always be at risk. Moving forward, the greatest challenge for ASEAN as a peace and security actor is whether it can go beyond its established norms to promote greater stability in the region, or whether its commitments will remain unfulfilled promises.

What needs to happen

  • A consensus-driven model has enabled the coexistence of diverse member states within the ASEAN system, but the resulting constraints on governance need to be overcome if the grouping is to remain relevant.
  • The doctrine of non-intervention can impede meaningful action on peace and security challenges. To be effective, non-intervention needs to be married with investment in preventive diplomacy.
  • ASEAN also needs to recognize when the limits of this type of diplomacy have been reached and stronger recourse is needed.
  • ASEAN could work more through multilateral institutions such as the UN, and potentially also through non-governmental organizations, to address regional problems.
  • It could also undertake peer-to-peer learning, for example through dialogues with the African Union, to better understand how other regional bodies have balanced recognition of state sovereignty with a more active conflict-prevention or mediation role.

This essay was produced for the 2019 edition of Chatham House Expert Perspectives – our annual survey of risks and opportunities in global affairs – in which our researchers identify areas where the current sets of rules, institutions and mechanisms for peaceful international cooperation are falling short, and present ideas for reform and modernization.