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A House Divided: How Consensus in ASEAN Shapes Southeast Asian Relations

Despite its 50-year history, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remains one of the most misunderstood regional organizations in the world. Observers frequently attribute ASEAN’s sluggishness in political and economic integration – particularly compared to the European Union – to its commitment to its unanimous voting procedure. Instead of using traditional majority voting to break diplomatic deadlocks, it relies upon consensus and compromise. Decisions in ASEAN cannot be reached if any member objects, invoking criticism that the organization is a “talk shop” that achieves little in formal regional cooperation, and causing one US diplomat to bemoan that “the ASEAN way is no way.” In reality, making decisions by consensus is both ASEAN’s strength and weakness; it has exposed disunity in recent years and has historically held the group together. In fact, it is only by achieving consensus on regional economic integration that ASEAN stands a chance at preserving national autonomy while confronting the contemporary forces that threaten to divide it.

The diversity among ASEAN countries means that consensus has been and will be the only way to preserve regional peace and maintain national sovereignty. Unlike Europe, a geographically contained entity with similar economies and cultural histories, Southeast Asia is intrinsically diverse. Not only is it divided in terms of political ideologies and levels of economic development, but also along immutable lines of ethnicity, religion, and language. Therefore, regional cooperation has been built upon consensus and mutual respect for cultural and political differences, a challenging but important task.

ASEAN’s commitment to consensus was particularly effective during the Cold War: Even in a turbulent geopolitical environment, its member states channeled the shared threat of communism into a pursuit of common strategic objectives, putting aside national differences. Its response to the 1979 Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea, part of modern-day Cambodia, illustrates two examples. Faced with strong opposition from Thailand and Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia withdrew their recognition of Vietnamese interests in Kampuchea in 1980, demonstrating their willingness to put aside national interests to preserve regional unity. Furthermore, ASEAN collectively put aside its dissensions with China regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea to form a unified opposition to the Soviet-backed Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea.

However, with the end of the Cold War, there has been greater discord among ASEAN member states about how to position themselves vis-à-vis China and the US. ASEAN’s member states must delicately balance their relationships with the two countries. Without the common ideological threat of Soviet communism, consensus as a mechanism for decision-making has exposed regional disunity and undermined ASEAN credibility. In 2012, in a remarkable break from precedent, ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement after its Foreign Minister’s meeting in Phnom Penh because of Cambodia’s uncompromising refusal to allow mentions of the South China Sea, despite the insistence of the Philippines and Vietnam. Cambodia’s actions, thought to be a strategic choice, seemed like kowtowing to their powerful patron and, more importantly, highlighted China’s exploitation of regional disunity for its own political advantage.

The unevenness in economic development creates real challenges for economic integration.

China’s meteoric rise has been accompanied with commensurate expansions of economic and political influence in the region, and Southeast Asian states have increasingly reciprocated this with open arms. Not only is Beijing currently the top trading partner for five out of the ten ASEAN member states, its investment activities in Southeast Asia, partially under President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” vision, continue to increase the region’s economic dependence on the country. For example, China has doubled foreign direct investment in the six largest Southeast Asian states, with investment totaling $16 billion USD in 2016. China is also poised to overtake the US as the largest investor in the Philippines by the end of 2017 and has unveiled comprehensive steps to strengthen economic ties with the traditional US ally.

In response, Philippino President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed intentions to cut the cord with the US during his first state visit to Beijing in 2016. Two weeks later, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak caved in to Chinese demands to handle Malaysia’s South China Sea claims bilaterally, motivated by $34 billion worth of investment deals. Meanwhile, institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank further deepen Chinese economic influence in the region by providing an alternative to American-led financial organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Particularly in the aftermath of US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trump’s “America First” policy, the prospect of Chinese economic leadership in Southeast Asia seems increasingly welcomed.

Cambodia is an example of a Southeast Asian country where dependence on China has turned into submission. Recognizing the country’s economic reliance on its larger neighbor, one of Cambodia’s state secretaries stated, “in terms of money, China is number one.” Its Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke out twice against mentioning the recent ruling against China, issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in the 2016 Joint Communiqué for the ministerial meeting in Laos. By holding trade and investment hostage, China has successfully coerced Cambodia into becoming its mouthpieces in ASEAN – possibly putting Southeast Asian sovereignty in jeopardy.

Regional economic cooperation is the best chance that ASEAN has to collectively resist Chinese manipulation. Regional economic integration would be a viable step to make the region more attractive to investment from other countries besides China. Further, market liberalization would position ASEAN to lead broader free trade negotiations with East Asia. For example, the organization has already made considerable progress towards its goal of creating a “highly integrated and cohesive economy” under a plan known as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). It has also subsequently started negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement negotiated between ASEAN and its six FTA partners. By bringing aboard other regional players like India, Australia, and Japan, ASEAN can reduce political-economic dependence on China through trade diversification. Since ASEAN collectively constitutes the world’s third largest single market, economic integration would be especially effective in raising the credibility of the organization and the political status of the Southeast Asian region.

However, the goal of extensive regional economic integration is littered with obstacles. For one, economic nationalism is on the rise in Southeast Asia, as demonstrated by the imposition of non-tariff barriers by countries such as Indonesia. There, President Joko Widodo also put state-owned enterprises in charge of infrastructure development just last year. Furthermore, the unevenness in economic development creates real challenges for economic integration, as evident by looking at Myanmar and Singapore. While the former has a total trade volume of $23 billion and a GDP per capita of $1200, the tiny island, on the other hand, trades more than $750 billion worth of goods and has a GDP per capita of almost 50 times that of Myanmar.

Decreased economic autonomy is another concern. Already, less developed countries, such as Laos and Cambodia, are experiencing significant anxiety about imposed tariff cuts planned in the first stages of regional economic cooperation. With ambitious plans for further integration under the AEC, local businesses in Cambodia fear losing their labor to other ASEAN countries with higher wages. Fears over the displacement of jobs to skilled labor from other countries is also increasing among Cambodian youth.

The experience of Brexit also serves as a reminder of how the politics of regional integration cannot neglect national politics and popular sentiment. Without addressing the underlying currents of economic inequality and xenophobia, the AEC, like the EU, would be subject to intense public backlash, especially in the recent wake of anti-globalization rhetoric. The principle of consensus, created by the common platform of ASEAN where officials can meet on equal terms despite unequal backgrounds, is one way to address the tensions and fears generated by regional economic integration. It encourages ASEAN member states to be accommodating of differences in developmental levels, leading to more constructive outcomes towards stable economic integration within the region.

Consensus, despite its many problems, remains the most effective mechanism to sustain feasible economic integration within ASEAN. The principle’s prominence in the historical political successes of the organization shows that ASEAN member states have the ability to put aside national differences for strategic regional benefit and has what it takes to further unite as an economic community in addition to a political alliance. While consensus may have brought about intransigence in 2012, it continues to bind the organization together and creates other important avenues for cooperation. Uniting in its spirit is the most effective way that Southeast Asian states can prevent themselves from being pawns in the broader rivalry between US and China.