Michael Leifer
ASEAN and the Security of South-East Asia

Reviewed Arena, 87, 1989, pp. 166-70.

“Does ASEAN exists?” is a question provoked by Michael Leifer’s book. By way of conclusion, Leifer calls for two cheers for ASEAN, though his evidence suggests that one cheer might be enough. Even his two cheers are a long way from the 1982 claim by the President of the Brookings Institution: “ASEAN is regarded as the most important and promising effort at economic integration since the creation of the European Community.”

As a percentage of their total trade, intra-ASEAN exchanges had reached 22% by 1983, a figure kept as high as it is through bilateral trade between Indonesia and Singapore, and Malaysia and Singapore. Indeed, were that entrepot removed from the statistics, intra-ASEAN trade would be much less impressive. The other major exchange is between Malaysia and its contiguous neighbour, Thailand. These bilateral trades would continue without a regional organisation. As ASEAN’s most industrialised member, Singapore, is clamourous for freer trade, while Indonesia resists it as a threat to its own development.

As a free-trade zone, the ASEAN grouping remains crippled. According to Leifer, meetings of economic ministers are “restricted to tinkering with preferential tariff arrangements. A proposed free-trade area was too controversial for serious consideration.” At the beginning, ASEAN’s Preferential Trading Arrangements were treated as a joke, with members offering to reduce tariffs on goods they had never produced. A slightly more serious approach followed with the introduction of across-the-board cuts. Another friendly scholar admitted that this liberalisation was “severely constrained” by allowing each country to determine which goods would not be subject to the cuts.

Rationalised investment policies under an ASEAN Industrial Projects scheme have had no greater success. The idea was to marshal scarce resources of capital and human skills by building one or two factories of each kind to service all the member nations; for example, there would be one iron-and-steel works instead of five or six. By nominating a previously planned urea fertilizer plant as its contribution, Indonesia completed its project by 1984. Others were abandoned, most replaced. Before Thailand was ready to begin work on the Association’s soda-ash plant, Indonesia was proposing its own facility. Singapore dropped its diesel-engine factory because, once more, Indonesia was encouraging investment in a similar undertaking.

Michel T. Skully’s 1981 survey of merchant banking in ASEAN was a chapter of brave beginnings, full of sentences starting with “Unfortunately”. The 1985 update of his list of merchant banks operating with ASEAN showed little sign of intra-mural activity but rather catalogued the preponderance of East Asian, European and US American conglomerates. A survey in Asia Week (13 January 1989) spotlighted eight major investments involving an ASEAN country, but only one of these was between fellow members; the others were among ASEAN partners and outside Asian economies. Generally, alliances with one or more of the Newly Industrialising Economies are deemed more helpful than deals within ASEAN.

If ASEAN were to be positioned in terms of economic integration, it is nothing like an embryonic EEC. As the cover of the Far Eastern Economic Review (3 December 1987) headlined on ASEAN’s twentieth birthday: “ASEAN Integration – Who Cares?”

Instead of seeing ASEAN as a would-be this or a lame that, it should be taken for what it has been during the past 21 years, namely, an opportunity for managing certain kinds of localised difficulties, principally those stemming from its members’ fears about each other. Singapore, for instance, sees ASEAN as a way to contain anti-Chinese sentiments.

For Leifer, the substance of ASEAN has been in joint diplomacy. Formed in 1967 as a way of re-establishing relations in the region after the fall of Sukarno and his confrontation with the UK over Greater Malaysia, ASEAN was kept alive at first by the 1969 announcement of Nixon’s Guam Doctrine. No one paid much attention to ASEAN, though, until after the 1975 Communist victories in Indo-China. One linguistic benefit from ASEAN’s existence for distinguishing non-communist countries in what had previously been lumped together as South-East Asia. The first ASEAN heads-of-government meeting did not take place until January 1976, and the third not until after the fall of Marcos; no date has been set for a fourth.

ASEAN’s diplomatic significance after 1979, possibly its survival, depended on the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea. By the skin of its teeth, ASEAN maintained a common approach to this conflict, although Indonesia has never seen Vietnam as being as threatening as Thailand does. The 1981 New York Indochina Conference backed by ASEAN failed because the Vietnamese stayed away. Before then, Indonesia had broken ranks by opening negotiations with Vietnam which it favoured as a bulwark against China. Ringmaster to this exercise was the United States which found in ASEAN a stalking horse for denying the Vietnamese-backed regime in Kampuchea a seat at the United Nations. Without a restraining hand from Washington, Indonesia might have bolted completely.

What will happen to ASEAN should the sole point of its more or less united action dissolve with a Vietnamese withdrawal from Kampuchea? If no obvious external threat arises to keep the partners together, they could revert to squabbling with each other.

Tensions between the six member nations are still strong enough for disputes to break out. Brunei finally joined so that Malaysia and Indonesia would be embarrassed should either try to take it over while it was a guest of their regional kampong. Singapore has held a similar attitude towards Malaysia which, in turn, is worried about what might happened to Sabah under a more assertive Filippino regime. Papua New Guinea’s application to join carries some of the same self-defensive reasoning towards Indonesia.

No mechanism exists for arbitrating or policing disagreements between members, let alone for assisting in each other’s domestic difficulties. Apart from postponing the third heads-of-government meeting due for Manila, ASEAN made no contribution to the restoration of democratic forms in the Philippines – a development which the five other regimes might well consider a distasteful precedent.

Some joint military operations occur, but ASEAN is almost as far from being a military pact as it is from becoming a free-trade zone. Links exist between intelligence agencies, whose allegiances are to who knows whom. Matters are no better at the administrative level since ASEAN’s peak committees change chairmen and personnel every year. The national secretariats provide the real operating machinery since the General-Secretary is a secretary to the Secretariat, not to ASEAN itself.

If ASEAN is flimsy on the economic, military, administrative and even diplomatic fronts, why does it receive so much attention? One answer for Australia is that ASEAN is the acceptable face of Indonesia. A 1982-83 survey of two hundred Australian leaders from business, the bureaucracy, academe and the community showed that 91% thought ASEAN would be helpful in solving regional problems while only 57% held this opinion of Indonesia, which is by far the most powerful member of ASEAN. This disparity of opinion was possible, the survey argued, because “a romantic aura surrounded the notion of ASEAN”.

More popularly, ASEAN has become a shorthand way of talking about South-East Asia, taking over from the “Far East” and the “Near North” as a means of expressing one’s uncertainty about where these places are on the map. Not only Wal Murray (NSW Deputy Premier) can be trust to say ASEAN when six individual names would be more than he could remember after dinner; announcing pleasure at visiting ASEAN decreases the danger of expressing delight at being in Malaysia while being entertained by the Suntan of Brunei.

Although ASEAN remains barely more than a geographic expression, underlined by resort to the phrase “ASEAN region”, it is the relationships with and between those six countries that are crucial for Australia. As with the so-called Pacific Rim, links with the individual ASEAN states are too important to be obscured by catch-phrases masquerading as political-economic entities.

ASEAN’s individual members will continue to invoke the collective needs of ASEAN as an additional way of getting what they want for their own country, as Thailand has been doing with Japan over exports. Indonesia will do the same during difficulties with Australia over Papua-New Guinea border and the Timor Sea oilfield. These surges of public unity should not intimidate Australia into forgetting that the other five ASEAN members are not anxious for Indonesia to establish further precedents for expansion.

Providing ASEAN is seen in bilateral terms, its internal tensions can be better weighted to the advantage of those left nervous by Indonesia’s pursuit of regional leadership. Recognised as a contrivance of counterweights, ASEAN offers diplomatic opportunities to Canberra that will be lost from sight by concentrating on freer trade as the yellow brick road to regional stability through economic integration. Australia cannot approach ASEAN in the way that Vietnam has done by playing the middle against one end, that is, Jakarta against Bangkok. Australia would be hard pressed to find any ASEAN member willing or able to balance Indonesia which needs ASEAN less than the Association needs Indonesia.