ASEAN in the Cold War Era
In considering whether ASEAN was necessary to the Cold War world, various arguments have been raised to suggest that the grouping did not meet the needs of the Southeast Asian region. Firstly, ASEAN was not created as a mechanism for resolving disputes, but was first formed merely to build up confidence between member states. Indeed ASEAN almost “faded into oblivion” less that a year after its formation, with Malaysia and the Philippines suspending diplomatic relations over their rival claims to Sabah. To address this issue of conflict resolution, documents such as the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and the Declaration of ASEAN Concord were created to formalise the grouping’s founding goals and conceive a “high council” for formal dispute resolution. These mechanisms, however, were never used, with ASEAN instead choosing to resolve individual conflicts through bilateral discussions.
Secondly, the Association had taken on the characteristics of a loose regional body, with limited cooperative capacities. In adopting a principle of non-interference, ASEAN lacked a supranational authority, which meant that issues not resolved by consultation and consensus were set aside. In addition, there was also no one defence pact binding the Association together. Regional stability and security were based on “regional resilience”, which involved political and economic development, as well as national defence. In Henderson’s opinion, however, inter-state suspicions, differing threat perceptions and a focus on internal security challenges were the main reasons why such a pact was not possible. These reasons highlight that ASEAN as an entity did not practice its stated claim of seeking greater regional interactivity, but was instead nurturing separate national identities within the broader auspices of the Association.
A third failing of ASEAN was its inability to implement concrete programmes outlining the Association’s stand towards neutrality and external alignment. Take for instance the 1971 Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) concept. The document called for Southeast Asia to be “free from any form or manner of interference by outside Powers”. As the different ASEAN states held differing notions of neutrality, no concrete implementation programme was developed. In addition, member states held separate formal defence arrangements with external powers. Consequently, the ZOPFAN concept never became a reality as the defence policies and alignments of various ASEAN countries were still closely linked to external powers.
Despite the regional grouping’s numerous failings, it would be extreme to say that ASEAN was not necessary in the Cold War world. Arguments have been made, debating that the Association was indeed necessary in such an era. Firstly, ASEAN was a key step towards political unity among its member states. In fact, the organisation’s very formation was due to a need for the non-communist Southeast Asian states to band together, so as to guard against a common communist threat. Maintaining a united front was therefore important, and this probably explained why Malaysia and the Philippines restored diplomatic ties merely a year after their 1968 Sabah dispute.
Secondly, the formation of ASEAN resulted in socio-economic development becoming an integral aspect of the Association’s security objectives. As ASEAN had capitalised on the concept of regional unity through its reliance on the “regional resilience” strategy, this served as the foundation for the grouping’s socio-economic development. According to Joseph Camilleri, the concept reflected a “shared” sense of vulnerability to internal threats and a corresponding commitment to the preservation of political order. Consequently, regional cooperation came to be seen as an instrument for promoting self-sufficiency and resourcefulness in each ASEAN country.
Another key contribution of ASEAN lies in its role of confidence-building and consensual decision-making among member nations. This process has been an “important ingredient” as well as a precondition for comprehensive security, paving the way for an informal structure of intra-ASEAN military-security cooperation. Such a security framework not only addresses intra-ASEAN conflict avoidance and administration, but also involves the management of order outside the grouping. Take for instance the Declaration of ASEAN Accord, which laid down ground rules for intra-regional disputes. Although such a document was never used in the resolution of disputes, it nevertheless set a “psychological framework” for issues to be resolved bilaterally. For issues outside the region, multilateral meetings with specific dialogue partners provided ASEAN with an “invaluable instrument” for engaging in extensive dialogue on global issues. However, it was the Cambodian crisis that allowed the organisation to cement its policy of consensual decision-making. Henderson argues that in jointly denying legitimacy to the Vietnam-installed Phnom Penh regime, ASEAN had adopted consensus to attain diplomatic success. Indeed the Association had “come of age”, despite its victory being largely attributed to the backing of Great Powers like China and the US.
ASEAN & the Post-Cold War World
With the collapse of the Cold War in 1990, ASEAN experienced a significant shift in its modus operandi. This was largely caused by the collapse of bipolarity and the emergence of multipolar centres of influence, which brought about political and security uncertainties in the Southeast Asian region. Considering the unpredictable nature of this new world order, arguments have been made suggesting that ASEAN no longer featured prominently in the regional balance of power, and was consequently no longer relevant or even necessary.
One consideration was the issue of non-interference; that because ASEAN merely relied on consensual decision-making to resolve conflicts, it was weak institutionally. In addition, events such as the 1997 Cambodian coup exposed the Association’s apparent “helplessness” in resolving the deteriorating political situation. It led outside commentators and some of the organisation’s original members to question if ASEAN was still able to act as regional manager. Consequently, Thailand and the Philippines, with the support of ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino, called for a policy of “flexible engagement” to allow states to comment on the behaviour of their neighbours if this behaviour had a cross-border effect. The proposal was debated and subsequently rejected in favour of “enhanced interaction”, a term implying more “intensive” and “free” interactions on issues such as piracy and the haze, which had clearly defined cross-border effects. Enhanced interaction was therefore a means of addressing the problems caused by non-interference, although its effects have not yet been seen due to its recent nature.
A second issue plaguing ASEAN was its pursuit of an enlarged organisation. In pursuing such an enlarged membership, the organisation had opened itself to a greater diversity of views. Consequently, it would be more difficult to resolve issues through the “ASEAN way” of consensual decision-making. Moreover, the collapse of the Cold War meant that the founding basis of ASEAN, as a countermeasure against communism, was no longer relevant. This meant that Southeast Asia had to evolve different reasons to justify political unity. Diplomatically, ASEAN also opened itself to greater weakness through its admission of the internationally-isolated state of Myanmar. Plans to organise ASEAN-EU events in 1998 and 1999 were disrupted as the European Union had decided that Myanmar was not eligible to participate in them. This met with sharp resistance from ASEAN, which declared that it would not attend the events in Myanmar’s absence.
Thirdly, in failing to avert the 1997 economic crisis, ASEAN had exposed itself to arguments that the grouping was not effective in managing economic adversity in the region. While ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino acknowledged that the crisis had affected the Association’s “international reputation” and “self-image”, Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong noted that the regional grouping was “helpless” and disunited in the midst of crisis. Consequently, a surveillance mechanism was proposed in the 1997 Manila Framework, so as to help ASEAN countries to “exert peer pressure” over each others’ economic policies, enabling the early discovery of any potential crises. However, the details of such a mechanism have yet to be established, raising doubts over how future crises to the region should be resolved.
Indeed the post-Cold War era has posed many challenges to ASEAN. However, the ending of the War has also presented many new opportunities to the organisation. One such opportunity was the grouping’s ability to play a more assertive role in the region. As ASEAN had attained two decades of peace and strong economic performance among its member states, it managed to emerge from the Cold War as the region’s “pre-eminent institution”. Consequently, with the collapse of bipolar rivalries in Southeast Asia, the grouping was able to take advantage of the political vacuum and play a larger role in Southeast Asian affairs. Why then was ASEAN necessary in the post-Cold War world?
Firstly, the grouping was able to deepen economic cooperation between its members. The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) was one such proposal, using economic cooperation as the basis for closer ties between member states. Indeed Henderson notes that AFTA was initially a tool for building post-Cold War cohesion and increasing ASEAN’s credibility, as well as to boost the region’s economy. Only later was AFTA reinforced in a bid to commit the region to greater economic integration. The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum was another way of increasing economic growth and interdependence in the region. Although not directly shaped by ASEAN, the grouping’s approach to multilateralism resulted in APEC adopting a more consensual approach towards resolving economic disputes. This contributed to improvements in economic security, and indirectly affected the security of the Asia-Pacific region.
Secondly, ASEAN’s desire to enlarge its membership to all ten Southeast Asia countries implied that the Association was now to have an increased political weight in the region. It therefore desired and was able to play a more direct role in security issues so as to deal with the strategic uncertainties that arose with the fall of the Iron Curtain. In Daljit Singh’s opinion, Cold-War ASEAN did not want to be openly seen as an organisation concerned with security. This was as it might be perceived to be taking sides. With the ending of the War, such concerns about security ceased to be taboo and the Association could take a more aggressive stand on security. Consequently, enlargement provided the political backing necessary for such a prominent security role and heightened the organisation’s diplomatic role.
Thirdly, ASEAN had increased its involvement in security arrangements both in and beyond the region. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has indeed emerged as a leading forum for the discussion of regional security. By highlighting different views and concerns, the ARF hoped to promote confidence in the region, as well as engage the Great Powers in a constructive and positive manner, resulting in an increased discussion of both intra-regional and extra-regional issues. As argued by Michael Leifer, ASEAN’s “strongest card” in sustaining its central diplomatic role has been through the use of the ARF to engage China. Take for instance the South China Sea issue in which Beijing sought to preserve relations with ASEAN by not overly displaying its assertiveness. This was exemplified by China’s not allowing itself to be provoked by the Mischief Reef incident and the Philippine naval ships’ destruction of Chinese markers on other unoccupied reefs.  Although it has been said that the ARF is only serving a “one-dimensional” purpose of protecting regional states in an uncertain security environment, the Forum is nonetheless the only viable multilateral effort seeking an Asia-Pacific balance of power through non-traditional means. Consequently, the ARF is Southeast Asia’s most viable institution promoting regional security.
Another importance of ASEAN is the grouping’s increased role in the global arena. From an inter-regional point of view, ASEAN has been the main “bridge” to Europe through the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). This highlights an international willingness to treat the grouping seriously. As Michael Smith argues, the ASEM agenda was evolved as an “amalgam” of European and largely ASEAN-based Asia-Pacific preoccupations. Indeed the ASEM served as a forum for Europe, which needed the support of the Asia-Pacific countries on certain World Trade Organisation (WTO) issues. Consequently, ASEAN’s role had been enlarged to encompass one of greater global importance.
As can be seen, ASEAN’s necessity in both the Cold War and Post-Cold War eras remains highly debatable. However, what cannot be denied was that during the Cold War, ASEAN was vital in preserving the survival of its members in the midst of superpower rivalry and regional uncertainty. It was essential in creating a stable political climate necessary for sustained economic growth and prosperity. With the ending of the Cold War, the Association was crucial in occupying the resultant political vacuum in the region, pursuing a more aggressive role in regional security and economic cooperation. Indeed, changes in the global and regional climate have raised questions about the grouping’s future viability. However, as noted by Chin Kin Wah, the pressures of change will reinforce ASEAN’s value and significance. Consequently, the Association’s survival remains dependent on the extent to which it remains relevant to the needs of its members and the wider international community.
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Camilleri, Joseph A. “ASEAN’s Unique Contribution to Regional Security.” The ASEAN: Thirty Years and Beyond. Eds. Maria Lourdes Aranal-Sereno and Joseph Sedfrey Santiago. Philippines: Institute of International Legal Studies, 1997. 299-324.
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The Writing Page
 Henderson, Jeannie. Reassessing ASEAN. Adelphi Paper 328. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. p.75.
 Gill, Ranjit. ASEAN: Coming of Age. Singapore: Sterling Corporate Services, 1987. pp.13,17.
 Henderson, Jeannie. Reassessing ASEAN. p.16.
 Gill, Ranjit. ASEAN: Coming of Age. p.26.
 Amer, Ramses. “Territorial Disputes and Conflict Management in ASEAN.” The ASEAN: Thirty Years and Beyond. Eds. Maria Lourdes Aranal-Sereno and Joseph Sedfrey Santiago. Philippines: Institute of International Legal Studies, 1997. pp.331-2.
 Henderson, Jeannie. Reassessing ASEAN. p.17.
 ibid. p.18.
 Singh, Daljit. “ASEAN and the Security of Southeast Asia.” ASEAN in the New Asia: Issues and Trends. Eds. Chia Siow Yue and Marcello Pacini. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1997. pp.122-3.
 Henderson, Jeannie. Reassessing ASEAN. p.16.
 Camilleri, Joseph A. “ASEAN’s Unique Contribution to Regional Security.” The ASEAN: Thirty Years and Beyond. Eds. Maria Lourdes Aranal-Sereno and Joseph Sedfrey Santiago. Philippines: Institute of International Legal Studies, 1997. p.301.
 ibid. p.302.
 ibid. p303.
 ibid. p.306.
 Henderson, Jeannie. Reassessing ASEAN. p.19.
 ibid. pp.48-9.
 ibid. pp.50-3.
 ibid. p.34.
 ibid. pp.73-4.
 ibid. p. 42.
 Henderson, Jeannie. Reassessing ASEAN. p.43.
 ibid. p.20.
 ibid. pp.21-2.
 Singh, Daljit. “ASEAN and the Security of Southeast Asia.” pp.135-6.
 ibid. p.133.
 ibid. p.137.
 Leifer, Michael. The ASEAN Regional Forum. Adelphi Paper 302. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. p.55.
 ibid. pp.58-9.
 Chin, Kin Wah. “ASEAN in the New Millennium.” ASEAN in the New Asia: Issues and Trends. Eds. Chia Siow Yue and Marcello Pacini. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1997. p.149.
 Smith, Michael. “The European Union and the Asia-Pacific.” Asia-Pacific in the New World Order. Eds. Anthony McGrew and Christopher Brook. USA and Canada: Routledge, 1998. pp.304-5.
 Chin, Kin Wah. “ASEAN in the New Millennium.” pp.161-2.