September 6th, 2012
10:50 AM ET

Why ASEAN will stay weak

By Joshua Kurlantzick, CFR

Editor's Note: Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of ‘Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World’. This entry of Asia Unbound originally appeared here.

In her visit to Asia this week, including her trip to Jakarta on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not only highlighted the renewed American focus on Southeast Asia, especially regarding the South China Sea, but also highlighted the rising importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), by visiting the organization’s headquarters, or secretariat, in Jakarta. At a bilateral meeting with ASEAN’s secretary general, Clinton remarked: “We [the United States] have an interest in strengthening ASEAN’s ability to address regional challenges in an effective, comprehensive way.”

When I speak of ASEAN, and the United States’ renewed interest, I do not necessarily mean the countries that encompass ASEAN, the ten nations in Southeast Asia. Washington has a renewed interest in the actual organization itself, and more clearly sees how ASEAN could play a larger role in managing regional integration. Compared to other regional organizations, not only in Europe but also in Africa and Latin America, ASEAN remains badly understaffed, with little ability to do its own independent research and analysis, and headed by a figure who, although sometimes capable (as in the current case), is given minimal powers and cannot compete on the global stage with leaders from the Southeast Asian nations themselves. The current ASEAN head, former Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, does not even attract the global attention that Singapore’s finance minister does, let alone the leaders of nations like Singapore and Indonesia.

But Secretary Clinton, or other American, Japanese, or Australian officials pushing and prodding ASEAN to develop a stronger organization, is likely to have little impact. The organization was designed to be relatively weak, by powerful, often autocratic leaders of the original ASEAN member states, who were highly reluctant to cede any ground to a regional organization.

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Today, however, many ASEAN leaders themselves are starting to realize that, for the organization to pull its weight in regional affairs, and to effectively defend members’ interests on critical issues like the South China Sea, ASEAN will require both greater unity and a more substantial secretariat, led by a high-profile figure who can command world attention (say, former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, or former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun). This more recognized secretary general should then be given greater control of regional fiscal, security, and diplomatic affairs. The current ASEAN secretary-general, Surin, has long been known as a reformer pushing for a stronger secretariat. Following the collapse of the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia earlier this year, Surin admitted that ASEAN was failing and the organization needed to be stronger, with a stronger secretariat. For years, his voice was a relatively lonely one, echoed only by a few academics, and not by most of the leaders from critical ASEAN members like Singapore and Indonesia.

Now, that dynamic has begun to shift. Many leaders in Indonesia and Singapore, the two most important ASEAN members, have started to see the downside of a weak secretariat. For these nations, one option in the face of a weak secretariat would be simply to engage with other world powers bilaterally, or through other organizations like the G-20 or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – a temptation both Indonesia and Singapore have indulged in. Yet as Indonesian diplomats have worked hard over the past three months to paper over ASEAN’s splits, and to move ASEAN nations toward a more effective common position on the South China Sea, Jakarta has increasingly realized that, instead of simply opting out of ASEAN, it can get what it wants – regional leadership – while also boosting a stronger secretariat. More than anything Secretary Clinton says, it is the decisions of the Indonesian leadership that will matter most.

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Topics: Asia

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soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Prime Outsourcing

    ASEAN should continue to prosper in order for us Asian countries to continue in our state's development.
    We, ourselves should start changing from within then from there we move forward in improving not just our country's economy but also human, sustainable development.

    September 6, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  2. USMC Forever

    Let's all hope the ASEAN remains weak since Hilary Clinton seeks to use this alliance to increase U.S. domination of Eastern Asia. The M.I.C. is greedy for power and this must be curtailed. Enough said.

    September 6, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
    • USMC Forever

      I talk, I talk and I talk but I pull all that talk out of my hiney.

      September 6, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Reply
      • Patrick

        Well put, Phunnie boy and thanks for trying to discredit another Marine. Shame on you!

        September 6, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
      • USMC Forever

        Thank you, Patrick. This Tea Partier here must really be full of hate to mimic us like that!

        September 6, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
      • Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007©™/JoeCollins/J. Foster Dulles/Marine5484/OldManClark/Willie12345/KillerO'Bama/Patrick-2/USMCForever

        You are a useless piece of camel dung who works at the moron stage. You post anti-American, anti GB, anti-Semite, anti-India, anti-modern anything because you have PMS. You have stolen Patrick’s moniker because you are so ashamed of yourself, and you post the most stupid comments because you are an imbecile. Mohammed the pedophile has taught you well. When people get angry with you, you claim they are the stupid ones. If you are not careful, your brain will explode because it is so full of hate and puss.

        September 6, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  3. JosephMcCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007©™/JoeCollins/J.FosterDulles/Marine5484/OldManClark/Willie12345/KillerO'Bama/Patrick-2/USMCForever

    I am the same guy. I am a useless piece of camel dung who works at the moron stage. I post anti-American, anti GB, anti-Semite, anti-India, anti-modern anything because I am a good Moslem from Pakistan. I am so ashamed of myself and I post the most stupid comments because I am an imbecile. Mohammed the pedophile has taught me well. When people get angry with me, I claim they are the stupid ones. If I am not careful, my brain will explode because it is so full of hate and puss.

    September 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Reply
    • Asiano

      Tsk tsk tsk, you need a psychiatric test right now!!!!

      November 20, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Unlike the EU the ASEAN doesn't have a draft that provides for a code of conduct and a regional tribunal that could settle disputes among member states. The ASEAN Charter, adopted in November 2007 still leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless it's not too late to be serious about it.

    September 8, 2012 at 6:48 am | Reply
  5. Asiano

    This article is pure garbage. A second year high school in a regular public high school can write a better one.

    November 20, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Reply

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