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Can ASEAN cope with the changing world order?

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Demonstrators display placards against US, Japan, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during a rally ahead of the ASEAN summit in Manila, Philippines, 28 April 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro).

In Brief

The contemporary order, in place since the end of World War II and often called the US-dominated liberal hegemony, is changing. But it is not simply returning to the multipolar geopolitics of the prewar era, as many pundits and policymakers claim.


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In the context of Asia, we often hear that ‘Europe’s past could become Asia’s future’. This view is misleading. The prewar multipolar world was largely one of states, empires and colonies. Today, the main actors are not only great powers, or even just states. They are also international and regional institutions, corporations, transnational non-governmental organisations and social movements, and transnational criminal and terrorist groups.

Economic interdependence has become much more extensive and multidimensional, consisting of trade, finance, and global production networks and supply chains. What’s more, there is a far greater density of relatively durable international and regional institutions today. Pre-World War I Europe had only one — the European Concert of Powers — and the interwar period only had the short-lived League of Nations.

The emerging world order can be better understood as a ‘multiplex world’.

The multiplex world is characterised by the absence of a global hegemon and a proliferation of major actors. It is one of complex global and regional interdependence, covering not just trade, but also economic and ecological linkages as well as transnational challenges. Governance architecture has multiple levels, comprising global, regional, national and sub-national elements. Each of these has links with formal and informal institutions and networks.

And crucially, the multiplex world has multiple modernities, rather than a singular, liberal modernity — it is a world of cultural, ideological and political diversity, including alternative pathways to stability, peace and prosperity.

While Trump promises to ‘make America great again’, he is unlikely to reverse the decline of the American-led liberal international order nor stop globalisation.

China and India are likely to push for globalisation without automatically accepting the liberal values associated with it. The new globalisation will be politically illiberal and more respectful of state sovereignty.

The future of ASEAN and ASEAN-led multilateralism in the multiplex era will be more complex, messy and uncertain than in the bipolar era, the ‘unipolar moment’ or the old-fashioned multipolar system. A strategic approach to multilateralism must begin by recognising the limitations — and the possibility of obsolescence — of the existing ASEAN-led architecture, which faces major external and internal challenges.

Externally, the key challenge arises from changing great power dynamics. A multiplex world does not permit global hegemony by any single power. But what about regional hegemony? It is said, with some justification, that China seeks global multipolarity and regional unipolarity. But a Chinese effort to develop a Monroe Doctrine-like sphere of influence is unlikely to succeed because of the persisting limitations of Chinese material power as well as resistance from other powers in the region.

Still, the rise of China is raising concerns — some valid, some overstated — about a divide-and-conquer approach from Beijing aimed at weakening ASEAN. What is clear is that China is no longer content with ASEAN-led multilateralism.

Another external challenge to the ASEAN-led architecture is the attitude and policies of the United States under the Trump administration. The Trump administration is unlikely to display the same interest in and support for ASEAN as the Obama administration. If — and it’s a big if — the United States’ approach weakens US alliances in the region, especially the US–Japan alliance, ASEAN may lose a major geopolitical cushion for its multilateral diplomacy.

The ASEAN-led architecture also faces major internal challenges. There can be no ASEAN centrality without ASEAN unity, and that is clearly fraying. Cambodia — the last Southeast Asian nation to join ASEAN — displays a noticeable lack of commitment to ASEAN’s ideals and norms. The expanded ASEAN is overburdened, overextended and understaffed both in terms of the numbers and professionalism of its secretariat. There a huge gap between its expanded vision — having three communities, each with a grandiose vision and blueprint — and its capacities. For various reasons, domestic politics in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have reduced the commitments of these governments to ASEAN.

If ASEAN and its members are to adapt their strategic diplomacy to the realities of a multiplex world, they need to embrace a more selective and strategic approach to multilateralism.

ASEAN needs to develop new informal coalitions among its members, including ‘ASEAN Minus X’ approaches, to pursue its economic and security initiatives. This would mean developing ‘minilateralism’ on specific issues, like the Indonesia–Malaysia understanding of the 1980s and 1990s, within the larger ASEAN-centric multilateralism.

The organisation needs to obtain resources and develop capacity by forging partnerships with other international bodies, including other regional institutions like the EU and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, in dealing with transnational challenges.

Finally, while it cannot entirely avoid getting involved in great-power rivalry, ASEAN needs to reconsider its role in the wider Asia Pacific, particularly its policy of engaging all the great powers on an ASEAN platform. Some degree of self-isolation, or strategy for avoiding a deep entanglement with great power geopolitics, has to be revived. ASEAN could also think of forging closer ties with Japan, India, Australia and the EU to create some strategic space between itself and Beijing and Washington.

ASEAN needs to change its internal and external outlook alongside the world order in this multiplex era, or risk losing its status as a regional bulwark of economic and political cooperation.

Amitav Acharya is the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service, American University, Washington DC. He is the author of The End of American World Order (Polity, 2014).

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’.

3 responses to “Can ASEAN cope with the changing world order?”

  1. Reports of ASEAN’s shift in its stance about China’s activities in the South China Sea may well demonstrate some of the challenging dynamics roiling the member nations at this time. It has struggled to achieve legitimacy in its 50 year history. I suspect the internal and external challenges it is facing will make it even harder to act in a coherent, let alone decisive, manner in the coming years.

    • Can’t help but agree with your assessment of the article above.

      Take the comment: “Still, the rise of China is raising concerns — some valid, some overstated — about a divide-and-conquer approach from Beijing aimed at weakening ASEAN. What is clear is that China is no longer content with ASEAN-led multilateralism.” I think a better way of stating this would be that far too many leaders and political parties are willing to sell out development, stability, humanity – etc. in exchange for economic increase. Which is, “the Chinese Way” of doing business…..

  2. Amitav Acharya is a recognised scholar in the field of international relations and is the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance. In this article ‘Can ASEAN cope with the changing world order?’ Acharya provides an interesting and insightful brief on the changing world order from a multipolar world to a multiplex world. A multiplex world comprises multiple key actors whose relationship is defined by complex forms of interdependence. Characterised by the absence of a global hegemon and instead a proliferation of major actors; the multiplex world acknowledges the increasing economic and regional interdependence of rising nations. It also gives notion to the cultural and political diversities which define our modern world. However, a multiplex world will not be free from disorder, this is evident from Russia’s actions in Ukraine and China’s claims in the South China Sea. The stability of a multiplex world would be attained through shared leadership among the rising and established powers as well as regional and civil society groups. Although this becomes difficult when considering that many rising powers suffer from poor relations with their immediate neighbours, which depreciates the potential for regional relations and the development of institutions. So why then is ASEAN’s prosperity in question given its regional ties?

    Noting that ASEAN member states are not amongst those considered to be rising powers in the region, their applicability to a new world order is limited. Acharya identifies the key external and internal challenges facing ASEAN, external being; China’s rise and its lack of regional integration and cooperation, as well as the attitude and policies of the United States under the Trump administration which holds the potential for weakening US alliances in the region and consequently losing ASEANs geopolitical cushion for its multilateral diplomacy. The internal challenges are concerned with ASEAN unity relevant to Cambodia’s lack of commitment to ASEAN’s ideals, along with the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia reducing their commitments to ASEAN due to domestic politics. Ultimately, it might be advocated that ASEAN is losing its influence, even over its members. Whilst Acharya proposes various mechanisms for ASEAN to reform its coalitions amongst members, as well as developing ties with other regional institutions such as the EU and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, ASEAN’s key reform will be in re-assessing their role in the wider Asia-Pacific. This involves engaging with all the rising powers in the region but on an ASEAN platform to re-assert their influence in the region. This is how ASEAN will move from a multipolar to a multiplex world; in recognising the changes occurring regarding interdependence, identifying the niche for regional organisations, creating ties with other key regional organisations and as a result increasing its likelihood to continue as a vital regional organisation in the Asia-Pacific. This would also involve the potential accession of rising powers to join ASEAN.

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