Project: Asia Programme

Associate Fellow, Asia Programme

Masahiro Kawai, Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo
Moe Thuzar, Lead Researcher for Socio-cultural Affairs, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

To maintain its regional influence in the next decade, ASEAN must manage the tension between its consensus-driven approach and the collision of domestic and regional interests. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe inspects the Royal Malay Regiment Guard of Honour during his welcoming ceremony in Putrajaya, Malaysia on 25 July 2013. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images.Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe inspects the Royal Malay Regiment Guard of Honour during his welcoming ceremony in Putrajaya, Malaysia on 25 July 2013. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is entering a new phase in its development, following the adoption in late 2015 of blueprints for an integrated regional community that will involve deeper coordination between ASEAN’s 10 members in politics and security, economics, and society and culture over the next decade. The challenge will be for ASEAN to move towards more formal and effective cooperation – without, however, sacrificing the relative harmony that its tradition of consensual diplomacy and informal management of relations between states has allowed.
  • ASEAN’s potential evolution is significant for Japan, which has long-standing connections with the region as an investor, trade partner, supplier of overseas development assistance and mediator in political disputes. As the new ASEAN Community takes shape, a better understanding of Japan’s role in the region will be crucial for anticipating future developments.
  • In the past few years the foundations for an ASEAN Economic Community have been developed around four pillars: developing a single market and production base, raising competitiveness, supporting equitable development and integrating ASEAN into the global economy. Progress has been achieved in some areas, such as reducing tariffs and streamlining customs procedures, but reforms are needed to liberalize services trade, foreign direct investment, capital markets and labour markets. Trade policy to date has emphasized the negotiation of multilateral and bilateral free-trade agreements, with some success.
  • Leadership transitions in several member states have led to new or different interpretations of regional institutions and processes. ASEAN’s track record of minimizing or managing political instability has been characterized by working through the ‘ASEAN Way’. This consensus-driven approach is being challenged by the collision of domestic and regional interests. To maintain its regional influence in the next decade, ASEAN must manage the tension between these forces. 
  • Despite plans for an ASEAN Political-Security Community, the rhetoric of this commitment appears more significant than the reality. Member governments lack enthusiasm for creating a common foreign and security policy, reflecting their continued resistance to the partial surrender of sovereignty such a policy implies. Bilateralism will therefore remain important in foreign relations and security.