Why ASEAN must strengthen its institutions and networks – The Diplomat

The conventional wisdom within international governmental organizations is that the secretary general should ideally function more like a secretary than a general. The reason for this is the general reluctance of member states to cede sovereign decision-making power to an international body.

The same logic can be applied to regional organizations. Two regional organizations are often seen as models of success: the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, there are important differences between the two organizations and the intellectual networks and institutions that surround them.

The EU employs tens of thousands of administrative officers and diplomats who are part of the staff of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament, while a host of advisory and advisory bodies provide input on policy common foreign and security interests of the EU. Leaving aside the question of whether the EU can indeed have a common foreign and security policy, it is at least trying to do so in difficult circumstances, while Russia, its main energy supplier, is withholding energy exports. energy in response to EU and other Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

In contrast, the ASEAN Secretariat primarily serves as a repository of documents on ASEAN’s international relations. Many of these documents contain expressions of long-term aspirations, as the Southeast Asian bloc lacks a regional development fund with long-term implementation budgets.

While Southeast Asia, unlike Europe, is currently experiencing no ground warfare, the list of issues facing ASEAN grows longer and more difficult, from the Myanmar crisis, the changing climate and COVID-19 to rivalries over the South China Sea and Mekong River and the rising cost of living. And while ASEAN’s participation in a number of key regional trade agreements, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), promises economic growth, integration and connectivity to global supply chains, it is also likely to accelerate economic, social and cultural disruption within Southeast Asian nations.

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Yet, despite these challenges, ASEAN’s existing institutional support is grossly insufficient. While an increasing number of entities are accredited to ASEAN, most of these organizations, institutions and other stakeholders do not provide intellectual advice to ASEAN.

An example of such an institution that provides intellectual input to the region is the Council for Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation (CSCAP), a Track II regional organization established in 1993. The CSCAP is an informal mechanism comprising ASEAN member strategic study centers. Member States and the 17 non-ASEAN Member States in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The mechanism enables intellectuals, scholars and policy makers to exchange information, ideas and experiences on regional political and security challenges relevant to the ARF. CSCAP maintains relationships with institutions and organizations around the world.

Apart from CSCAP, however, such support is generally lacking within ASEAN. First, the bloc lacks neutral regional think tanks dedicated to examining complex regional issues, advising ASEAN on the best ways forward, and helping coordinate foreign relations. of ASEAN with its many partners and the full range of multilateral cooperation mechanisms.

Second, there is poor coordination between national think tanks, national ministries and ASEAN institutions. The Malaysian think tank, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), for example, currently has no connection with the think tank of the same name attached to the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Putrajaya, although it is part of the ASEAN-ISIS network and is accredited to ASEAN. Other ASEAN-ISIS think tanks in the ASEAN region mainly work on national security issues, and regional issues are not a priority.

Third, these think tanks do not focus on regional social or cultural concerns.

In a broader sense, ASEAN has not specified how academics or stakeholders can be involved in the ASEAN-led mechanisms mentioned in the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook (AOIP), through which ASEAN hopes to engage with stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Most ASEAN-led external arrangements such as ASEAN Plus One and other ASEAN-led multilateral frameworks such as ASEAN Plus Three, East Asia Summit and ADMM Plus, lack formal mechanisms through which stakeholders can exchange ideas and information.

Finally, on the economic level, the links between the numerous ASEAN business councils, the business councils of ASEAN’s external partners and the ASEAN institutions are non-existent, infrequent or weak.

The late Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the only ASEAN Secretary General who was a former minister and one of Thailand’s longest-serving foreign ministers, acknowledged that the bloc’s greatest challenge was to create a regional organization of stature globally, with commensurate resources and capabilities. He called on ASEAN to engage with its stakeholders, especially those working on social and cultural concerns, to build an ASEAN community. But the momentum it created has stalled, even as the number of meetings convened by the organization has grown to around 1,500 each year.

ASEAN’s actions must be commensurate with the scale and complexity of the issues it faces and rely on interactions with a range of stakeholders, such as think tanks, business councils, business, civil society and other interest groups. This is especially important as the United States and China begin to decouple from each other and dramatic political, security and economic changes threaten to disrupt ASEAN’s goals. Meaningful discussions and reforms are needed to ensure that ASEAN’s economic progress is balanced, especially given the diverse political, social and cultural circumstances of its 10 member states.

Without strong intellectual and institutional support, it is difficult to imagine how ASEAN will achieve the ASEAN community by 2025, nor to maintain its prized position of “centrality” amid rival diplomatic cadres and the intensification of the standoff between the great powers.

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