Termsak Chalermpalanupap about the history and future of ASEAN: „The EU could be compared to a world-class research university with enormous resources; whereas ASEAN is merely a kampong kindergarten school“

Termsak Chalermpalanupap about the history and future of ASEAN: „The EU could be compared to a world-class research university with enormous resources; whereas ASEAN is merely a kampong kindergarten school“

Global Review had the pleasure and honour to have an short interview with Termsak Chalermpalanupap about ASEAN. Below we published some of his articles about ASEAN to allow the reader a better understanding of ASEAN.

Mr. Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Director of Research and Special Assistant to the Secretary-General of ASEAN.  He assisted H.E. Ong Keng Yong, Secretary-General of ASEAN,   who was the resource person to both the High Level Task Force on the Drafting of the ASEAN Charter, and the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter.  He writes this paper in his personal capacity as an ASEAN citizen.  His e-mail address is termsak@asean.org   Please visit the website of the ASEAN Secretariat at :  www.asean.org


Global Review: Dr. Termsak,there have been different approaches to organize South East Asian countries as ASA, ASPAC and SEATO?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap:ASPAC and SEATO were clearly anti-communist organizations.  ASPAC, I believe, was led by RoK and Taiwan; SEATO, of course was led by the US.  Once the US turned to recognize Beijing, ASPAC and SEATO lost their reason for existence.

ASA was the pathfinder pilot project on regionalism in Southeast Asia by Malaysia (including Singapore), the Philippines, and Thailand.  It was the predecessor of ASEAN.  ASEAN was set up primarily to engage Indonesia after the downfall of President Sukarno and his successor, President Suharto, was looking for a peaceful mean of exercising Indonesian regional leadership.

Global Review: What were their goals, why weren´t they successful and why has ASEAN emerged as organization?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: I would say ASA didn’t fail; although it didn’t achieve much either.  It led the way for the formation of ASEAN in 1967.    The main objective of ASEAN, I would say, was to buy time for each of its five founding members to concentrate on nation-building in the wake of growing communist threats in Southeast Asia.  At least ASEAN members started to learn to coexist peacefully among them, despite the recent past conflicts in Konfrontasi between Indonesia vs Malaysia+Singapore+the UK in the early 1960s acrimonious breakaway of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965.

Global Review: Which were the most important development phases of ASEAN over the decades?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: I would say it was during the Kampuchean conflict 1979-1991.  That was when ASEAN and its members learned to speak with one clear voice and make effective use of its external friends in frustrating Vietnam in its armed occupation of Kampuchea after knocking down the Khmer Rouge regime.

Later on, ASEAN and its members have entered a new phase of regionalism:  the community-building stage as supported by the ASEAN Charter and now the (second) Roadmap of ASEAN 2025.

Global Review: What are the main differences between ist original form and the present organization and what is planned for the future?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: The current form of ASEAN is much more institutionalized, as evident in the ASEAN Charter, the Roadmap of ASEAN 2025, and numerous other ASEAN agreements.  Earlier, ASEAN was mostly about meetings, and more meetings, without trying to build anything concrete.  Now ASEAN and its members are building a concrete ASEAN Community.

Global Review: What are the main similiarities and the main differences between the European Union and the ASEAN?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: See our ASEAN Focus.  We had one issue on the comparison between the EU and ASEAN.  I would say the EU could be compared to a world-class research university with enormous resources; whereas ASEAN is merely a kampong kindergarten school.

Global Review: Why have the South East Asian countries not a military organizatioon as NATO in Europe?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: There was no and still there is no common perception of any common external enemy, unlike in Western Europe where members of NATO used to see the Soviet Union as their common external enemy.

Global Review: Some experts perceive the quadrilateral dialogue between the USA, India, Japan and Australia as potential core for an Asian NATO if China is expanding in the next decades?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: I doubt that is the case.   Each of the four may see China was a rival, in different degree of intensity.  Australia, for one, certainly doesn’t see or feel any direct security threat of China’s growing powers.   India, on the other hand, says the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) is part of PM Modi’s “Act East” policy of engaging ASEAN and East Asia – including China.    India would never want to enter into any military alliance with any external powers, although it did in effect had the Soviet Union as its ally during the Cold War.

Global Review: Do you think this is realistic and will the South East Asian countries build their own military organization to counter Chinese influence?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: No not realistic for ASEAN members to develop into a military alliance, for the reason I mentioned above:  no shared perception of any external common enemy.  Moreover, ASEAN and its members are unwilling to spend more in ASEAN.  This is the main reason why ASEAN members have rejected the UN’s idea of setting up some PKO standby force in ASEAN.  PKO is going to be costly and long-term.  Just look at the UN’s PKO.

One way for ASEAN and its (some of its) members to try to counter the growing Chinese influence is to encourage the US and India, as well as Japan and Russia to have a constructive role in ASEAN’s initiated processes, such as the ASEAN+1 ministerial meetings and summits, the ARF, the ADMM-Plus, and the EAS.

Global Review: ASEAN has a Charter, a declaration of human rights.What are ist main contents and what practical consequences have they?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: See my articles on the ASEAN Charter, and on human rights cooperation in ASEAN.    The ASEAN Charter certainly has more practical consequences, for example it gives ASEAN a legal personality (in the 2009  Agreement on Privileges and Immunities of ASEAN), the DSMs in Chapter VIII (now operationalized in the 2010 Protocol to the ASEAN Charter on Dispute Settlement Mechanisms, and the convening of two ASEAN Summits annually, etc.

Global Review:As many ASEAN countries are not democracies, which role does democracy promotion play in the ASEAN affairs?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap:They help set the framework for ASEAN norms.  These are aspirations which ASEAN and its members are aiming for.

Global Review: Noninterference in internal affairs and human rights might be a contradiction. How does ASEAN handel this contradiction?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: The ASEAN Charter has incorporated two new principles designed to create a good balance between non-interference and regional responsibility.  See Article 2 , Paragraph 2 (b )  and 2 (g ).

There is a common understanding in ASEAN that protection of human rights shall, for the time being, be the primary responsibility of the national government concerned.  Issues concerning serious human rights violations by government or state authorities shall be first and foremost be handled by national mechanisms, and if necessary by the UN Human Rights Council.

Global Review:Does China try to disintegrate or to split the ASEAN and try to install a divide and rule policy?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: Officially, China is trying to engage ASEAN .  And China has been very successful in the engagement.  Now ASEAN-China has the most number of meetings and cooperation mechanisms (around 50, a few more than ASEAN-Japan), including the annual China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning, which none of the other Dialogue Partners of ASEAN have.

Global Review: How does the policy of the new Trump administartion influence ASEAN?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: The US still wants to continue and even strengthen engagement with ASEAN.   But we know that ASEAN and Southeast Asia are not high priorities of the Trump Administration, unlike in the previous Obama Administration.

Global Review: As Trump is not an advocate of free trade and democracy promotion, will China benefit from this?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: ASEAN and its members are pro-trade, pro-globalization.  And you know we are leading the RCEP negotiations, which doesn’t include the US, but the RCEP includes China.

Global Review: As Trump is not a promoter of democracy, can this be good forthe USA in its relations to ASEAN as most ASEAN countires are not democracies but authotarian regimes?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: Maybe this pragmatism can help improve the US’s room for manoeuvring in engaging ASEAN.  The US now can work with Thailand, for example, even though Thailand (my home country) is still under a military government since the coup of May 2014.

Global Review: Were the relations between the USA with ASEAN bette runder Obama than under Trump?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: President Obama was certainly more interested in ASEAN than President Trump.  The Trump Administration has not yet appointed its new Ambassador to ASEAN at the US Permanent Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta after over a year of vacancy.     Nevertheless, President Trump seemed to enjoy the ASEAN-US Summit in Manila last November and promised to come again to Singapore later this year.

Global Review: Will the planned ASEAN Econmomic Community (AEC) become a common market as the EU and a counterbalance to China?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: No such ambitious goal.  At best we just hope to see more contents of the AEC occurring on the ground to benefit the business sector. Singapore and Brunei are practically free-traders, with few import tariffs, whereas the other ASEAN members still need to rely on some import tariffs to collect government revenues as well as to protect some domestic producers.

Global Review: How are the relations between ASEAN and  the USA, China, the EU and India? Which great power has most influence and what are the main  spheres of cooperation? Besiedes the ASEAM summit with the EU are there similar summits between ASEAN and other powers and which sumits are more influential?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: These are too broad that I cannot give satisfactory answers.    Suffice it to say that ASEAN and its leaders are trying their best to engage all our Dialogue Partners.  They will meet the Australian PM in Sydney for an ASERAN=Australia Special Summit this weekend.  Last January they were in New Delhi to meet with PM Modi.

Global Review: If you can give a prognosis about ASEAN fort he next decade: Which path of developmenmt will ASEAN take? More economic and political integration or is therer the danger of an erosion or even desintegration?

Termsak Chalermpalanupap: Certainly more economic cooperation activities, especially in the digital economy.  Singapore’s chairmanship of ASEAN this year has the theme :  Resilient and Innovative.     ASEAN is to help its members develop national resilience as well as regional resilience in coping with cyber security challenges, global warming, international terrorism, HADR; and to develop ASEAN economies and societies with innovation, including the creation of a new ASEAN Smart Cities Network.


ASEAN Centrality Beyond 2015: 

Old Challenges, New Questions


By Termsak Chalermpalanupap*

As ASEAN and its 10 Member States venture into the post-2015 community-building under the new  (2016-2025) Roadmap, the ASEAN Centrality (AC) continues to face many perennial challenges.  This paper first explains the meaning of the AC.  Then it focuses on one major challenge confronting the AC: the power rivalry between China and the US in the South China Sea to show how it has adversely affected ASEAN unity.


Meaning of the ASEAN Centrality


The evolving security architecture in the Asia-Pacific has attracted a great deal of attention. Discussions on this complex issue often involve scrutinizing  the role of ASEAN and questioning the AC.  Many outsiders dismiss the AC as irrelevant or, worse, caricaturize it as ASEAN’s self-delusion of omnipotence. Therefore, it is important to get a better understanding of what the AC is all about.


In my opinion, the AC has four basic components, of which the most visible one is in ASEAN leadership and management of its growing external engagements.   But in fact the more important part of AC is inside ASEAN– it is the ongoing community-building endeavour to increase more weights to ASEAN.  Both ASEAN’s external engagements and community-building efforts are supported by the third component of the AC, which is the institutional framework of ASEAN based on the ASEAN Charter.  And the most important part of the AC, albeit least visible one, is the political will, the shared responsibility in ASEAN and collective commitment to ASEAN of all the 10 ASEAN member governments in enhancing regional peace, security and prosperity.


*      Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a research fellow at the ASEAN Studies Centre of the ISEAS—Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.  He presents this paper at the Regional Conference on “Cambodia and ASEAN: Managing Opportunity and Challenges Beyond 2015”, organized by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, in Phnom Penh on 28 March 2016.  Views expressed in this paper are Termsak’s personal opinions.  Termsak’s e-mail address :  termsak@iseas.edu.sg


External Component of the AC

The ASEAN Charter prescribes  the AC as an ASEAN principle in external relations in Article 2 Paragraph 2 (m).  The AC calls for active, efficient, constructive, non-discriminatory and forward-looking leadership of all the dialogue and cooperation processes that ASEAN  has initiated.  They include  ASEAN+1 with 10 Dialogue Partners and the UN, the ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and the RoK), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS)[1], the ADMM-Plus[2], and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF).[3]   The ASEAN member chairing ASEAN in a given year hosts and chairs these meetings.  All participants accept the ASEAN Way of making policy decision by consultation and consensus.  ASEAN can rightfully claim the role of the primary driving force in  managing these external engagements.


ASEAN also engages other regional groupings such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Pacific Islands Forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Economic Cooperation Organization, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  In recent years, ASEAN has found good prospects in pursuing close ties with  the GCC, which consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.  Most of these Gulf states have  oil wealth which can contribute to infrastructure investments in the ASEAN region.  Another new and interesting group that ASEAN has started engaging is the Pacific Alliance of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, which have a combined population of 216 million.  Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand have become observers at the Pacific Alliance.


At the sub-regional level,  ASEAN Member States that are Mekong River riparian states (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam) have  development cooperation with China and the ADB in the Greater Mekong Subregional Economic Cooperation, with India in the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, and with Japan, the RoK, the US and other “Friends of  the Lower Mekong”[4].   In addition, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam are in the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

Lancang-Mekong Summit

China has not joined the MRC. China as well as  Myanmar is only a special observer in the MRC, which is formed by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Viet Nam.    China calls the upstream of the Mekong as the Lancang and treats it as internal Chinese river.   China has built five dams on the Lancang to generate electricity for its southern provinces.    In the wake of the serious droughts in the five downstream countries in recent months, China has released more water to help the other Mekong countries cope with the water shortage.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang hosted the First Lancang-Mekong Summit in Sanya, Hainan Island, on 23 March 2016. The Summit represents a new Chinese approach to working with the five downstream countries of the Mekong River to share the water resource of Southeast Asia’s most important international river.   Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Myanmar Vice President Sai Mauk, Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh attended the Summit.[5]

The Chinese Premier assured the five downstream countries of China’s intention to work cooperatively with them on the water resource issues.  He pledged to provide US$11.5 billion of credit line and loans for the five to fund their national development projects.   And he said China considers the Lancang-Mekong engagement as another new forum to foster cooperation between China and ASEAN.

Myanmar[6] and Thailand are active in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.   Indonesia and the Philippines are prime movers in the West Pacific Forum, which involves Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Timor-Leste.[7]

ASEAN members  have  been participating in ASEM, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Asia Cooperation Dialogue,  the WTO and the UN etc.  Seven of them (excluding Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) are participating economies in APEC.  The Philippines chaired APEC in 2015.   Indonesia is a regular participant in the G-20, and the ASEAN Chairman (in 2016 it is Laos), accompanied by the Secretary-General of ASEAN, has been invited to the G-20 summits.   This year the G-20 Summit will be hosted by China in Beijing in September.

The AC requires ASEAN members  to try to speak with one unified voice when defending ASEAN and advancing ASEAN interest in international meetings.   In the UN, for example, the ASEAN New York Committee, consisting of Permanent Representatives to the UN from the 10 ASEAN members, meets regularly to compare notes and coordinate their positions on UN issues.  In the WTO, the coordination is done by the ASEAN Geneva Committee formed by the Ambassadors to the WTO from the ASEAN members.

ASEAN considers the growing popularity of the TAC as an international endorsement of its peace-oriented principles.   Dr. Marty Natalegawa, when he was still the Foreign Minister of Indonesia (2009-2014),  proposed internationalizing the TAC principles in a new Indo-Pacific treaty of amity and cooperation to overcome what he considers as “trust deficits” in the Asia-Pacific.  But so far his idea has not gained regional support.  The Jokowi Administration in Indonesia doesn’t seem interested in pursuing it now.

Four Aspects of the AC in External Relations

The AC in external relations can also be seen in four major aspects: membership of an external engagement process,  modality,  agenda setting, and outcome documents.   ASEAN members develop the terms of reference of a new external engagement process and determine which countries will be invited to participate.   They become the gatekeepers in charge of allowing additional participants to join after the process has been launched.

The modality of ASEAN is sometimes referred to as the “ASEAN Way”, which includes basic principles and practical standard operating procedures.  Sovereign equality, non-interference in each other’s domestic political affairs,  peaceful settlement of disputes, non-discrimination, and goodwill in cooperation are the basic principles in ASEAN.   Standard operating procedures in ASEAN include chairing of meeting by the ASEAN Chair Country, respect and support for the ASEAN Chairman, decision-making by consultation and consensus, and low level of institutionalization to minimize operating expenditure.

The ASEAN Chair Country usually hosts all important external relations meetings[8] and sets the agenda, in consultation with all others concerned.  ASEAN issues such as narrowing the development gaps and implementation of the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, would often feature prominently in these meetings.

Outcome documents are usually drafted first by the ASEAN side and circulated to external parties concerned for their comments and suggestions.  However the ASEAN Chair Country would  have the final say, especially when the documents are chairman’s statements of meetings.

In Jakarta, the Committee of Permanent Representatives to ASEAN (CPR), consisting of the 10 Permanent Representatives (PRs) of the 10 ASEAN Member Governments,  is ASEAN’s frontline in engaging ASEAN external partners on a day-to-day basis.  The PRs  interact with a growing number of Ambassadors to ASEAN.    At last count, 83 countries and the EU have accredited  their Ambassadors to ASEAN.   The US, Japan, China, the RoK,  Australia, New Zealand,  India, the EU, and Canada  have set up their Permanent Missions to ASEAN in Jakarta headed by their respective resident Ambassadors to ASEAN.   Russia now is the only Dialogue Partner without a resident Ambassador to ASEAN or a Permanent Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta.

External Economic Engagements

In external economic engagements, ASEAN is the driving force in the  Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiation.  The goal is to create new synergies among the 10 ASEAN economies with their free-trade-area counterparts from China, Japan, the RoK, India, and Australia and New Zealand.   RCEP is widely seen as ASEAN’s solution to end the unhealthy rivalry between China and Japan:  China preferred pursuing the ASEAN Plus Three FTA, whereas Japan advocated an East Asia Economic Community under the EAS framework.     If successfully created, RCEP can rival the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) led by the US and Japan.    Four from the ASEAN side are taking part in the TPP :  Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Singapore and Viet Nam.

In finance, ASEAN members, China, Japan and the RoK have created a pool of US$240 billion for currency swap under the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM).  But the ASEAN Secretariat was deemed incapable of managing the highly complicated CMIM.  Thus the ASEAN Plus Three Macroeconomic Research Office has been established in Singapore to do the job.     So far this regional financial safety net has not yet been tested.

ASEAN and its members  have been quite successful in attracting attention of the international community and support from their external partners.   Canada and the EU want to  join the ADMM-Plus, and the EAS.  Others want to join the ARF, they include the UAE, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Chile, etc.    The UN wants to undertake more cooperation activities with ASEAN.  Now Norway has become a Sectoral Dialogue Partner of ASEAN, just like Pakistan has been since 1994.   And since March 2011 Timor-Leste has applied for the ASEAN membership.    Ex-Secretary-General of ASEAN Dr. Surin Pitsuwan describes the popularity of ASEAN s as the “ASEAN’s convening power”.  When ASEAN initiates a new engagement process or cooperation activity, several external partners come and support ASEAN, because, according to Dr. Surin, they know and appreciate the fact that “ASEAN is welcoming all, and threatening none.”

However, ASEAN and its members  cannot be complacent.  Publicly many  foreign leaders and ministers would  routinely  praise ASEAN and voice support for the AC.  The Sunnylands joint statemernt of the US-ASEAN Special Leaders Summit reiterated “Respect and support for ASEAN Centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms in the evolving regional architecture of the Asia-Pacific.”[9]

Undoubtedly, foreign leaders  can accept the AC by default, because ASEAN is the least objectionable convener of dialogue and cooperation.   But privately, they and their senior officials  might still harbour some  doubts about the viability of the AC and the unity of ASEAN members  in the wake of intensifying power rivalries in and near Southeast Asia.   Beyond the ASEAN region, the AC would often encounter doubt and disdain.   Mr. Kevin Rudd, when he was prime minister of Australia, tried to bypass ASEAN in his short-lived initiative to establish a comprehensive Asia-Pacific Community.   His grand idea didn’t gain international traction because Australia lacked the “convening power” that ASEAN has.

ASEAN and its members  must be vigilant  in strengthening and improving the AC with innovative leadership and thoughtful external engagement.  At a minimum, the AC within the ASEAN region must be tenaciously defended and advanced for international recognition.  External powers must be persuaded to believe that the AC will make Southeast Asia peaceful, stable and prosperous.  When ASEAN and its members expand the scope of their external engagements, they  must  pay due attention to legitimate strategic interests of all their external partners.  They must accept the fact that ASEAN is just one of the many players in this multi-polar international community. Outside of Southeast Asia, ASEAN must earn international support for the AC with careful action and consistent adherence to peace-oriented principles.


Internal Aspect of the ASEAN Centrality

Active and efficient  ASEAN management  of dialogue and cooperation processes can win external recognition for ASEAN as the primary driving force in Southeast Asia.  To make such recognition long-lasting, ASEAN must also  increase its own weights through meaningful  community-building beyond 2015. This is the crucial internal dimension of the AC.   This is to gain acceptance of the AC for its own merit and design.

As a combined one ASEAN regional  market and regional production base of over  630 million people, the ASEAN Economic Community is the world third largest market after China and India.  A more integrated ASEAN market through increased infrastructure connectivity and harmonization of rules, regulations and laws will enhance the ASEAN economic competitiveness and attractiveness for trade, service and investment.

Harmony and unity will increase political and diplomatic weights of ASEAN, and enable ASEAN to speak with one authoritative voice, especially on Southeast Asian affairs.   By the year 2022, ASEAN will have its “common platform” to formulate “a more coordinated, cohesive, and coherent ASEAN position on global issues of common interest and concern”.[10]    Then ASEAN will be in a better position to contribute as a responsible global player on important global issues.

One of the crucial strategic challenges facing ASEAN is how to continue to play its constructive role in maintaining  regional peace and harmony in Southeast Asia in the wake of rising China and US rebalancing to Asia. Obviously China and the US are competing for ASEAN attention and support.   As a group, the 10 ASEAN members need not and should not take sides, although individually some of them may be pro-US and others pro-China.  Their most pragmatic and safest common stand is for all ASEAN members – when acting as a group in ASEAN –  to be pro-ASEAN.

Therefore, ASEAN members should continue to enhance the AC and build a successful  ASEAN Community beyond 2015 under the new Roadmap for 2016-2025.   A strong, unified, and prosperous  ASEAN Community can cope with  the  dynamics of great power rivalries. It can also help shield its individual members  from excessive external pressure, making it unnecessary for any of them to take sides and antagonize  any external powers.


In community-building, the AC calls for giving due importance to ASEAN, with goodwill in exercising equal rights of the ASEAN membership, and best national efforts in fulfilling all obligations in ASEAN.   In the  ASEAN Charter, Article 5 Paragraph 2 says “Member States shall take all necessary measures, including the enactment of appropriate domestic legislation, to effectively implement the provisions of this Charter and to comply with all obligations of membership.”


All ASEAN members  are obliged to ratify without delays and implement all ASEAN agreements signed by their Leaders and Ministers.  Better still, they should also adjust their national policy to keep it in line with what they are doing in ASEAN at the regional and international levels.


Nowadays, national sovereignty is no longer absolute, especially when a country interacts with others in the international community, in the UN, and in ASEAN.  Every ASEAN government must fulfil all obligations arising from the ASEAN Charter and ASEAN agreements.     ASEAN members  need to develop a good balance between national interests (sovereignty) and ASEAN common interests.  In the long-run, these interests should complement one another.  After all ASEAN common interests are determined by the ASEAN members through the painstaking process of consultation and consensus.


Institutional Support

To sustain and enhance its role as the premier regional player in Southeast Asia, as well as an emerging global player, ASEAN requires efficient and coherent institutional support and more resources.   This is the institutional part of the internal dimension of the AC.

At the Twenty-Fifth ASEAN Summit in Nay Pyi Taw in  November 2014, ASEAN Leaders endorsed a long list of recommendations from the  High Level Task Force on Strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat and Reviewing the ASEAN Organs.  Implementing these recommendations will involve investing more resources in ASEAN.  The  key ASEAN bodies that deserve urgent strengthening support are the CPR, the ASEAN Secretariat, the ASEAN Foundation, and the 10 ASEAN National Secretariats.  These are the ones handling ASEAN  affairs on a full-time basis.

After one year of the new strengthening, ASEAN Secretariat’s staff report satisfying positive outcome.[11]  Members of the CPR also report positive changes which are enhancing the CPR’s role.

ASEAN is a poor organization.  It has very limited  resources to fund development cooperation projects, let alone to invest in major infrastructure construction.    Some ASEAN member governments are reluctant to invest more of their scarce human and financial resources in ASEAN.  Financial responsibility in ASEAN is, as a rule, equally shared by member governments.     How to mobilize more resources remains a difficult  question in ASEAN’s quest to strengthen its  institutions, particularly the ASEAN Secretariat.  In the current 2016 budget year, about US$19 million has been allocated for the operations of the ASEAN Secretariat.  This requires each member government to contribute US$1.9 million.


Political Will and Commitment to ASEAN

At the 27th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, 20-22 November 2015, ASEAN Leaders announced the formal establishment of the ASEAN Community by 31 December 2015.  They adopted the new Roadmap for ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together, which includes the three new community-building Blueprints.


ASEAN will be as strong as  its member governments  want it to be.  If they truly believe in sharing their common destiny in ASEAN, then they must be serious about community-building, and fulfill their shared commitment and collective responsibility to ASEAN.   In this regard, it is imperative that they  promptly ratify and  implement  all the ASEAN agreements their Leaders and Ministers  have signed.   They must also comply in good faith with the ASEAN Charter.


Moreover, they should provide more resources to strengthen ASEAN institutions, especially those that are handling ASEAN affairs on a full time basis.   They should take serious  steps towards creating the ASEAN common platform on global issues, which is supposed to be put in place by the year 2022.


All the ASEAN member governments can pay more attention to implementing  the ASEAN Communication Master Plan.  The strategy of the Master Plan is to drive home the point that ASEAN is “Community of Opportunities”.


If and when more ASEAN peoples see this point, they may pay more attention to ASEAN affairs.  They may even monitor more closely whether ASEAN governments are implementing ASEAN agreements.  Then new political will could arise to stimulate implementation of ASEAN agreements.  This could lead to new resolve in member governments to mobilize more resources for ASEAN institutions.


The future of ASEAN is in the hands of not only the ASEAN Leaders,   Ministers and senior officials, but also in the ASEAN peoples.  But the ASEAN peoples need first to discover ASEAN and realize  that they can have a meaningful role in it.  They need to learn more about ASEAN, about community-building towards ASEAN 2025.  And they need to understand and appreciate ASEAN’s contribution to peace, security and prosperity in Southeast Asia.


Peace and Security in Southeast Asia


For nearly 50 years, ASEAN’s raison d’etre has been (and should continue to be) the maintenance of peace and security in Southeast Asia, especially among its Member States.   Looking back to the year 1967 when ASEAN was established, it was the height of the Cold War when the armed conflict in South Vietnam was escalating and US military involvement was growing.   The   Philippines and Thailand,    being US allies under SEATO[12], were soon dragged  into the Vietnam War.    Meanwhile, in the aftermath of  the bloody border clashes during the  Konfrontasi  in early 1960s, Malaysia and Singapore were still wary of Indonesia’s new military dictator General Suharto, who in March 1967 toppled firebrand nationalist President Sukarno.


The five founding members of ASEAN (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand[13] ) shared one common concern:  they all wanted time and political space to concentrate on nation-building without external interference.     In spite of their significant  diversities, the ASEAN members have  managed to survive the  formative years of ASEAN and developed  a new habit of regional consultation and cooperation for common interest on the basis of sovereign equality.  ASEAN then expanded to embrace five more members:  Brunei Darussalam (soon after independence from the British) in January 1984, Viet Nam in July 1995, Laos and Myanmar in July 1997, and Cambodia in April 1999.  Timor-Leste in March 2011 applied for the ASEAN membership.[14]


Compared with the Middle East, South Asia, and Northeast Asia, the ASEAN region has enjoyed better relative peace and security.   Southeast Asians can attribute their security and well-being to ASEAN’s growing role in promoting political and security cooperation.   For example :  ASEAN’s 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia[15] helps guarantee sovereign equality, non-interference, and peaceful settlement of disputes.  Peace-oriented principles in the Treaty have gained support from all the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and a diverse group of countries around the world, including India, Japan, the EU, Brazil, and the DPRK.


In  Northeast Asia,  the secretive nuclear weapon programme of the DPRK has created a continuing nuclear nightmare for South Koreans and Japanese.  But in Southeast Asia, the 1995 Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) has kept the region nuclear weapon-free.  Unfortunately, France, Russia and the UK still have some formal reservations.  Therefore they cannot yet join China and the US in signing a protocol to pledge their recognition and support for SEANWFZ.  Nevertheless, SEANWFZ remains in effect and it has provided  the legal foundation for ASEAN Member States to establish in 2013 the ASEANTOM[16] for regional cooperation on peaceful use of nuclear energy.  Nuclear security, safety and safeguard will become a growing regional security issue if and when ASEAN Member States build and operate nuclear power plants.[17]


Under the ASEAN Charter, maintaining and enhancing  regional peace and security is part of the “shared commitment and collective responsibility[18] of all ASEAN Member States.   After almost five decades, it is reasonable to say that ASEAN has not failed in this mission.  ASEAN Member States have lived and grown peacefully with one another despite their diversities, including their differences of political systems.  The only serious blemish exception was when Cambodia and Thailand clashed intermittently over their  Preah Vihear /  Khao Pra Viharn  temple dispute from 2008-2011, during which the Thai side declined intervention of ASEAN on the ground that Cambodia and Thailand had bilateral mechanisms which could still be used to settle their differences.


The South China Sea

Growing international concerns about disputes in the South China Sea have once again reminded us, the Southeast Asians, of the strategic importance of Southeast Asia.  This is the region where all the major powers in the world, as well as quite a number of middle powers, claim to have their national interests at stake; and therefore, they want some say in what is happening or not happening in the South China Sea.


It is well-known that as a group, ASEAN does not and cannot take sides on the merits of any individual claimants’ claims in bilateral disputes (like in the Paracels between  Viet Nam and China, and in the Scarborough Shoals between the Philippines and China) or in multilateral disputes (like in the Spratlys ) involving  Malaysia, the Philippines, Viet Nam and China as well as Taiwan with overlapping claims over islands, rocks, reefs and low-tide elevations as well as maritime rights associated with these features.  ASEAN’s common position calls for peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[19]


Disputes in the South China Sea also arise from overlapping claims of  coastal states for their respective exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under UNCLOS, which can go as far as 200 nautical miles outside of the 12-nautical-mile territorial water.   China’s infamous and mysterious nine-dash line of  massive claims in the South China Sea appear to overlap with EEZ claims of all other coastal states, including Brunei Darussalam and Indonesia.   Under UNCLOS, EEZ disputes in each particular area shall be handled by the coastal states concerned in order to work out some provisional arrangements until they can settle the delimitation by peaceful means.  This need not involve ASEAN, which is not a party to UNCLOS.[20]


Similarly, there are coastal states’ overlapping claims of continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the South China Sea.  These claims are handled by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf   (CLCS).


The issue that directly concerns ASEAN is the implementation of confidence-building measures and projects under the  Declaration on the Conduct of  Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), signed by 10 ASEAN Foreign Ministers and Chinese Special Envoy Wang Yi in Phnom Penh on 4 November 2002.   The DOC includes a joint ASEAN-China commitment to develop and adopt a code of conduct in the South China Sea (COC) to further promote peace and stability in the region.


Officials of ASEAN members and China met at the 16th meeting of the ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the DOC in Manila, 9-11 March 2016.  But no substantive outcome was reported.   Apparently, the Chinese side is waiting for the outcome of the Philippine legal case against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).   In the meantime, China is actively changing situation on the ground in disputed areas, this time at Scarborough Shoals, in anticipation of an unfavourable decision from the arbitral tribunal.


Issues of common interest under the broad heading of maritime security, such as search and rescue, assistance to people in distress at sea, anti-piracy, typhoon warning, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, have been discussed in ASEAN-initiated processes such as the ARF, the ADMM-Plus, and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum.


Changing US Position in the South China Sea

However, in recent years, a new issue in the South China Sea has emerged to capture the world’s attention:  the growing rivalry between China and the US.  The crux of the problem is the US insistence on undertaking military operations as part of freedom of navigation and overflight,  and the Chinese fierce objection to all foreign military operations near its territorial sea and airspace.   The Chinese side is apparently concerned about the security of its growing South Sea Fleet on Hainan Island, especially the nuclear ballistic missile submarine bases in  the south-eastern part  of  Hainan Island.


While the US insists on taking no position on the merit of various claims of sovereignty and jurisdiction in disputed areas in the South China Sea, the US position has actually developed into something that the Chinese find as bitterly unpalatable.   The major shift started when Ms. Hillary Clinton, as the US Secretary of State, declared at the 17th ARF in Ha Noi on 23 July 2010 that peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea has become “national interest” of the US.   The US, she added, “opposes the use or threat of force by any claimant” in the South China Sea disputes.   Her Chinese counterpart, Mr. Yang Jiechi was so upset with the new US stance that he launched an impromptu rebuttal in English, in which he matter-of-factly reminded  ASEAN members  that they are “small” and China is “big”,  and cautioned against drawing in the US and other external parties  to gang up against China.[21]


The US disagrees with China on including the South China Sea as  part of China’s growing “core national interests” at par with sovereignty, national unity, regime stability (of the Communist Party of China), Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan  – these are off limit to external political interference and non-negotiable.  Neither has  President Obama agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping on a “new type of major power relations” between the US and China, which according to the Chinese side would involve respecting each other’s “core national interests”.


The US welcomed the Philippine move in January 2013 in referring to an international tribunal its case against China’s nine-dash line and alleged Chinese encroachment of Scarborough Shoals, Mischief Reef and  other features claimed by the Philippines.    The US has reiterated its call for China to clarify what China is claiming with the  nine-dash line, which envelops international sea-lanes which are crucial to international commerce and transport in Southeast Asia, East Asia and Indo-Pacific.  One oft-cited estimate puts the value of sea-borne international trade passing through the South China Sea at around US$5 trillion a year.   If China’s nine-dash-line stands unchallenged, it will enable China to control about 90% of the South China Sea and practically turn it into a  “Chinese Lake”.  In fact, Chinese authorities have regularly imposed unilateral seasonal fishing bans in disputed areas in the South China Sea and deployed its armed coastguard ships to enforce the Chinese laws.   One new incident took place off Indonesia’s Natuna Island on 19-20 March 2016.  Eight Chinese were arrested for alleged illegal fishing in the Indonesian waters.  But a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to the area as “traditional Chinese  fishing grounds”.[22]


The US has operated its warships, including aircraft carriers, and military surveillance planes within China’s nine-dash-line in order to uphold what it considers as freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as to challenge “excessive claims” of maritime rights by any coastal states.  The US position which has been repeatedly asserted is this : “The United States is going to fly and sail anywhere where international law allows, and we support the right of all countries to do the same.”[23] The commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift has pointed out that losing access to international waters claimed by China’s nine-dash-line would have far-reaching implications.  But he emphasized that the US does not expect to lose the access.[24]


Some international observers expect China to impose its air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the Paracels first and around the Spratlys later in order to enhance defence security of its bases of the Chinese South Sea Fleet  on Hainan Island.   Each Chinese nuclear missile submarine of the Jin-class Type-094 reportedly carries 12 ballistic missiles, each is armed with 3-4 multiple nuclear warheads, with the maximum range of up to 7,500 kms.   From the South China Sea, China can attack with the ballistic missiles from its nuclear submarines against targets in South Korea, Japan, Guam, Southeast Asia, Australia, and India.   The US Department of Defense reported to the US Congress in 2015 that China has deployed four Jin-class submarines and started deterrent missions and strategic patrols.  In the near future, China plans to build the new Type-095 nuclear ballistic submarines, which will enhance the Chinese Navy’s anti-surface warfare capability as well as new  more clandestine land-attack option.[25]      Chinese diesel-powered submarines have openly sailed through the Straits of Malacca to operate  in the Indian Ocean as well as patrolling around the Japanese archipelago in recent years.  It is a matter of time when Chinese nuclear submarines will follow suit and operate  in the Indian Ocean and in western Pacific, perhaps just to show the flag and boost the Chinese national pride of becoming a new full-fledged maritime power.


The ongoing Chinese naval build-up on Hainan Island and the Paracels has aroused more robust responses from the US.  US Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned China against imposing any ADIZ over disputed areas in the South China Sea.  He stated in Manila on 17 December 2013 that the US had “deep concerns” about China’s ADIZ in the East China Sea.  “The zone should not be implemented and China should refrain from taking similar, unilateral actions elsewhere in the region, and particularly over the South China Sea.”[26]


None of the ASEAN countries are expected to  challenge  China openly should  China declare its ADIZ over any disputed areas in the South China Sea. But they would  certainly  welcome a robust US response, just like what the US did against China’s ADIZ over disputed areas near Diaoyu / Senkaku island in the East China Sea in November 2013.   On 26 November 2013 two US unarmed B-52s flew into the Chinese ADIZ without identifying themselves to the Chinese air traffic control.


In 2014-2015,  the growing and massive scope of China’s “Great Wall of Sand” land reclamations and construction works in turning reefs into huge artificial islands began to alarm other claimants in the South China Sea.  China’s artificial island at Fiery Cross in the Spratlys now has  a 3,000-metre long runway, a vegetable greenhouse and a pig farm  producing foods for 200 Chinese military personnel, and is about three times the size of Itu Aba Island, which is occupied by Taiwan and was in the past  the largest island (with its own natural sources of fresh water)  in the Spratlys.[27]  The long runway can certainly supporting landing and take-off of military aircraft.  But the Chinese side would only say these new Chinese artificial islands can have civilian purposes, like in search and rescue,  and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.


However, the US saw the Chinese move as an attempt to strengthen claims of disputed areas and waters through militarization in the South China Sea, and  responded with a  freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the newly-built Chinese artificial island  at Subi Reef by the USS Lassen on 26 October 2015.  Under UNCLOS, artificial islands are not entitled to claim of any territorial waters around them.  At most each can have a 500-metre safety zone around it.   Also under UNCLOS, coastal states have jurisdiction to regulate construction of artificial islands within their EEZ.    But this has not deterred the Chinese side to ignore all other claimants and to build what it wants  in disputed areas in the South China Sea.


Another US FONOP took place on 30 January 2016; the USS Curtis Wilbur sailed under innocent passage within 12 nautical miles of  Triton Island at the southernmost part of the Paracels.  This time the US rationale was   to drive home the  point that the US needs no prior permission from China to sail there under an innocent passage.    Quite expectedly, the Chinese side considers these US FONOP as serious provocations.   In Beijing, US Ambassador Max Baucus was summoned to hear a Chinese protest.


Now the US is calling China and all other claimants to stop further land reclamations and construction works in disputed areas in the South China Sea, and also to avoid further militarization of the disputed areas.   This may lead to little improvement in the South China Sea situation, because China seems to have completed  most of its construction plans.  China can point out that it was not the first to send military personnel to occupy disputed areas in the South China Sea.  Taiwan has occupied Itu Aba or Taiping Island since the end of World War II.   And China considers US FONOP as a provocative militarization of the South China Sea by a foreign power with no direct claim to any of the disputed areas.    What China  will continue to do now is to enhance “self-defence” through installation  of  radar and communication facilities, equipment for port facilities, and refurbishment of housing for long-term stationing of Chinese personnel.


The US supports ASEAN in engaging China in improving the implementation of the 2002 DOC and in speeding up the discussion on a COC to help reduce tensions and mistrust in the South China Sea.   But China has sent mixed signals about the DOC implementation and the COC talks.   As things stand now, it would be a miracle if ASEAN and China can agree on a COC within this year.


The US also supports  ASEAN’s common position on settling disputes in the South China Sea through peaceful means.   President Obama and his ASEAN counterparts reiterated the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes in their joint statement issued at the end of the US-ASEAN Special Leaders’ Summit in Sunnylands, California, 15-16 February 2016.


Question about ASEAN Unity?

President Obama discussed disputes in the South China Sea and their implications on US strategic thinking with ASEAN Leaders during a working dinner in Sunnylands on 15 February 2016.   But  there was no ASEAN consensus support to mention the disputes or the South China Sea in the Sunnylands joint statement, which was issued on 16 February 2016.   The joint statement mentioned UNCLOS twice but without connecting it to the disputes in the South China Sea.  Neither did the joint statement touch on the Philippine case against China in the PCA arbitral tribunal.  The highly sensitive legal case was hidden under the broad terms of “legal and diplomatic processes”.


One big question now is this :  Will ASEAN be able to come up with a joint statement in support for  the ruling of the arbitral tribunal, which is widely expected to be announced by mid-2016?


During the 45th AMM in Phnom Penh in July 2012, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand sided with Cambodia on excluding from the draft joint communique any reference to recent incidents[28] in early 2012 in the South China Sea that the Philippines and Viet Nam had brought to the urgent attention of the AMM.  Cambodia’s stance then was that the draft joint communique should not include “bilateral issues” of individual ASEAN members that involved an external party.


Now, based on what appeared in the Sunnylands joint statement, there may still be no ASEAN consensus on what to say if and when the arbitral tribunal announces its decision on the Philippine legal case against China.  Should this be the case, ASEAN’s credibility and the AC on matters concerning peace and security in Southeast Asia will undoubtedly come under serious doubtful scrutiny in the international community.


A related question is :  Can ASEAN members resist the push and the pull from the rivalry between China and the US and choose to stay “pro-ASEAN” when acting as a regional group?  


Using the South China Sea as the test case, the answer to the above question is :  Very seriously doubtful.


One imminent crucial test of ASEAN unity is looming ahead:  What can or will ASEAN say if and when there is the announcement of the PCA arbitral tribunal’s decision on the Philippines’case against China in disputed areas in the South China Sea, including the question of consistency with UNCLOS of China’s infamous but ambiguous 9-dash line?   Chinese officials have dropped strong hints that China would not like to see any ASEAN statement supporting the decision of the arbitral tribunal, in which China has refused to participate.


In the wake of the rising tensions in the South China Sea, ASEAN Foreign Ministers have reportedly agreed in principle to go to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in China before this year’s 49th AMM (21-26 July 2016, in Vientiane).


The Philippines appears to have given up any hope of receiving ASEAN support because of the lack of ASEAN consensus.   The Philippines has therefore  reverted to relying  more on US security support.  The Philippines has agreed to allow US access to eight airbases, including one on Palawan Island facing the Spratlys, as part of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the Philippines and the US.  The Philippine Supreme Court has ruled that the Agreement is constitutional.


The Philippines has also  increased security cooperation with Japan and requested Japan for coastguard ships, P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft, radar equipment and military training support.


Similarly, Viet Nam is also seeking closer security cooperation with the US and Japan in recent years.  In addition, Viet Nam has received five of the six  Kilo submarines purchased from Russia to enhance its defence capability.  Individually it is clear that the Philippines and Viet Nam have little confidence in the ASEAN neutrality. In November 2015, the Philippines and Viet Nam became bilateral strategic partners.


Still unknown is the security orientation of the upcoming new government in Myanmar under President Htin Kyaw, which will start office on 1 April 2016.  But it is plausible to assume that the new Myanmar government under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy will try to develop a more neutral stand in the wake of  the growing China-US rivalry.


All 10 ASEAN member governments have joined the China’s led AIIB.  They are keen to take part in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.   Indonesia has awarded a train project to a Chinese group to build a new railway from Jakarta to Bandung.  Laos and China have agreed on a rail project which will connect southern Yunnan with Laos, going all the way to Vientiane in order to connect with Thailand’s northeast at Nong Khai.  And just last week, on the sidelines of the Lancang-Mekong Summit in Sanya (23 March 2016), Thailand and China agreed on how to proceed with a Thailand-China railway project.  The financial investment will come from the Thai side; the first priority is to build from Bangkok to Korat in Nakhon Ratchasima (Thailand’s second largest province) in the Northeast; the construction will be done by a Chinese group.  But operations of the railroad will be undertaken by the Thai side.  Eventually, the railroad will be extended to Nong Khai to link up with the China-built railway from southern Yunnan through Laos to Vientiane.  The rail connection can be built across the existing Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.


One confounding factor is the participation of four ASEAN members (Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Viet Nam) in the TPP.  The TPP, in  which China has not joined,  is widely seen as being led by the US with support of Japan to pre-empt China from dictating trade, financial and other economic terms in Asia-Pacific. Indonesia and the Philippines have expressed serious interest in joining the TPP.  And Thailand may follow suit after the Thai military government gives way to an elected government in 2017.


Will ASEAN be able to stay united to celebrate its 50th founding anniversary in 2017?  This  is now a big question.





No Brexit Repeat in ASEAN

No country is looking to leave the Southeast Asian bloc — yet.

By Termsak Chalermpalanupap

June 28, 2016








In the aftermath of the Brexit, Southeast Asia watchers are asking the question: Could it also happen in ASEAN?

My answer: No.

Let’s call this hypothetical situation “X-exit.” There is no known potential candidate to be the “X “country in X-exit.

All member governments in ASEAN still see as valid the original reason for the establishment and the existence of ASEAN – to create and maintain regional peace and security, and to prevent the balkanization of Southeast Asia by superpowers.

Regional peace and security, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation’s peace-oriented principles, and the nuclear weapon-free zone in Southeast Asia benefit all ASEAN members. In the wake of the growing U.S.-China rivalry, ASEAN provides its members with a safe collective choice of  being “pro-ASEAN”  without antagonizing China or alienating the United States.

Maintaining regional peace and security will require a strong and united ASEAN with the capability to pursue constructive cooperation with external partners. This requires concerted efforts of all in ASEAN and this will keep all member governments together in the grouping.

Small members like Brunei Darussalam, Laos, and Cambodia enjoy the equality in ASEAN, which enhances national security and independence. They also benefit from the international recognition and support which comes with ASEAN membership. Laos, for example, will for the first time host a state visit by a U.S. president when Barack Obama goes to Vientiane for the ASEAN-U.S. Summit and the East Asia Summit in September.

Larger members like Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam see and take advantage of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) opportunities. Indonesia, meanwhile, can still play a de facto leadership role of being the first among equals in ASEAN.

As things stand now, there are three additional reasons X-exit will not happen in ASEAN.

ASEAN Is Not Linked to Domestic Politics

First and foremost, no leader of any ASEAN member government would ever dream of gaining any political advantage from calling a national referendum on the membership of his or her country in ASEAN.  There has never been any discernible connection between the popularity or disapproval of ASEAN and public opinion in any ASEAN country.

Thailand will have a national referendum on the new draft constitution on August 7. If it is accepted, the new  Constitution (which will be the 20th since the end of the Siamese absolute monarchy on June 24, 1932) will go into force; and general elections are expected to be held in the second half of 2017. But there’s no sign that ASEAN membership will be an election issue.

During the visit of Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi to Thailand last week, she agreed with Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha on the need for all in ASEAN to stand united together. Hence it is safe to say that neither Myanmar nor Thailand has any problem with ASEAN membership.

Singapore is due to chair ASEAN in 2018, and to hold general elections in the first half of 2021. However, the political prospects of the party of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appear to have nothing to do with how successful  Singapore’s chairing of ASEAN in 2018 will be. The conventional wisdom in  Singapore seems to be this:  Singapore will help take care of ASEAN’s survival, but it shall never let ASEAN take care of Singapore’s survival.

Cambodia and Malaysia will see general elections in 2018. The Cambodia People’s Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen will worry more about stiff competition from the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party of Sam Rainsy than anything else.  In Malaysia, the UMNO under Prime Minister Najib Razak will be more concerned about  jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and how Dr. Mahathir Mohamad will play his role. None in Malaysia may now remember how well their government did in chairing ASEAN in 2015.

People in ASEAN Don’t Know ASEAN

Secondly, another huge difference between ASEAN and the EU is that ASEAN agreements have seldom touched the life and livelihood of the man in the street anywhere in ASEAN.  The aspirations of making the ASEAN Community a single regional market and production base still have a long way to go to become reality.

There is no  “ASEAN citizenship.” Nationals of ASEAN countries do not have complete freedom of movement, or freedom of residency to live and work in other ASEAN countries. In ASEAN, only Cambodia and the Philippines are parties to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The others in ASEAN do not have any direct obligation to receive any refugees. Hence ASEAN member countries in general do not face any of the stress and strain of significant intra-regional migration or influx of refugees the way the U.K. and several EU members have.

In the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), there are  efforts to facilitate the movement of skilled labor. But recipient countries such as Singapore and Malaysia continue to maintain tight national controls on migrant workers from all external sources. After nearly 10 years, discussions on a legal instrument for the protection of rights of migrant workers in ASEAN have little progress to show.

ASEAN has mutual recognition arrangements (MRAs) to facilitate the movement of professionals in eight areas:  engineering (2005); nursing services (2006); architectural services (2007); surveying qualifications (2007); accountancy services (2009); medical practitioners (2009); dental practitioners (2009); tourism professionals (2012).  Implementation of these agreements has been mostly sluggish. Domestic laws and national regulations on these professions have not been sufficiently adjusted to support implementation of these agreements in good faith. Consequently these MRAs have not led to any large-scale movement of professionals across borders in the ASEAN Community.

For promotion of intra-ASEAN tourism, ASEAN countries have bilateral visa exemption agreements. The latest one involves Myanmar and Singapore, which will go into effect on December 1. These visa exemption agreements enable ASEAN tourists to get entry visas on arrival at another ASEAN country, but they do not permit the visitors to work, and the duration of visit is just  one month or less.

No Resentment of Jakarta

Thirdly, another significant difference between ASEAN and the EU is the absence of any domineering central body in ASEAN that could issue and impose legally binding regulations to inconvenience anyone in ASEAN. There is no ASEAN Parliament to make supranational ASEAN laws. Commitments to ASEAN and the implementation of ASEAN agreements are fulfilled under the implicit understanding of best national voluntary efforts with due consideration to unique national circumstances.

Not many in ASEAN know about the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta (established in 1976). Fewer still know the current secretary-general of ASEAN (2013-2017) is Le Luong Minh from Vietnam.

Since little is known about ASEAN, the general public in each ASEAN country has no strong views about Jakarta one way or another — unlike in many EU member states, where there is strong and vocal public resentment of the alleged arrogance of Eurocrats in Brussels.

At the European Commission in Brussels, the total staff in early 2016 was about 32,900; about 2.4 percent of which are British nationals. ASEAN has no such “bloated bureaucracies.” ASEAN has only the following full-time bodies: the ASEAN Secretariat; the Committee of Permanent Representatives to ASEAN (CPR) with their Permanent Missions to ASEAN in Jakarta; the 10 ASEAN National Secretariats in ASEAN capitals; and the ASEAN Foundation in Jakarta. The ASEAN Secretariat has a staff of no more than 300 (about 100 professional officers recruited from ASEAN countries, 100 professional Indonesian officers recruited locally, and another 100 Indonesian support staff).

ASEAN Secretariat officers handle technical matters, procedures, and records.  They and the secretary-general of ASEAN have no direct role in any policy decision-making.  Policy decisions are made by ASEAN member governments based on the principle of consultation and consensus.

Indonesia does entertain the ambition of making Jakarta the “Brussels of the East.” It is going to fund the construction of a 17-story building next to the current 35-year-old premises of the ASEAN Secretariat near Blok M. Once completed, the  building will house the ASEAN Secretariat and several other ASEAN institutions.

Indonesia now also hosts in Jakarta the Permanent Missions to ASEAN of nine ASEAN Dialogue Partners: the United States, Japan, China, the Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India,  the EU, and Canada; Russia is expected to follow suit soon. Jakarta is  the seat of the ASEAN Center for Energy and the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), although it is just an entity associated with ASEAN, also has its secretariat in Jakarta.

Rich or poor, large or small, each ASEAN member government contributes an equal share to the annual operating budget of the ASEAN Secretariat.  This year the budget of the ASEAN Secretariat is only about $20 million. This requires each member government to contribute $2 million. Such a financial burden is minute when compared with the U.K.’s expenditure of about $12.3 billion in net contributions to the EU in 2015 (contributions minus EU spending in the U.K.).

Nevertheless, the growing number of ASEAN meetings and summits does create a financial strain on some poorer ASEAN member governments. At least two governments now are in favor of  cutting the number of annual ASEAN summits to once a year, instead of  twice a year as stipulated in the ASEAN Charter. This year, just to be in compliance with the ASEAN Charter, Laos will host two ASEAN Summits (the 28th and the 29th) back-to-back in Vientiane from September 6-8. This will save the Lao government a lot of money.

No Provision for Withdrawal  

In the EU, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty provides for a two-year timeframe for a member state to withdraw from the EU. In ASEAN, the ASEAN Charter has no such withdrawal provision.

Since ASEAN makes policy decisions by consultation and consensus, technically speaking, there may be no consensus to allow any member to leave. In practice, however, a member government can just stop attending ASEAN meetings. ASEAN could then be paralyzed, because of the absence of one of its members. The member government that wants to leave can also withhold its contribution to the budget of the ASEAN Secretariat.

As a sovereign state, any ASEAN member can give up its ASEAN membership when it so decides, perhaps citing some new developments in ASEAN as a substantive change in circumstances from the time it joined ASEAN. Potential substantive changes may include the following:  the recurring disunity on the South China Sea problem;  the admission of Timor-Leste, which the Philippines reportedly intends to push next year when it chairs ASEAN as part of the 50th anniversary of the group;  the resurrection of the Philippine claim over Sabah; the possible collapse in the ASEAN-initiated sluggish talks for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP); the loss of ASEAN’s  centrality and neutrality to become either pro-China or pro-U.S.;  the unabated growth of ASEAN meetings and summits; and the continuing failure to narrow development gaps.

Lessons for ASEAN from Brexit

One eye-opening lesson for ASEAN from Brexit is that the benefits of regional cooperation are not always self-evident.

Another lesson is that  we cannot continue to assume that regional cooperation would progress in a linear positive upward direction. In fact, a sudden disruption and reversal of the cooperation trend could happen, as we have now witnessed in Brexit.

Yet another lesson  is that economic benefits tend to be taken for granted, whereas political disagreements, financial and bureaucratic  burdens, and social costs can be blown out of all proportions.

In conclusion,  there is no imminent threat of X-exit in ASEAN for the time being. ASEAN is still  considered as useful to all member governments in different ways. But we cannot continue to assume that ASEAN is indispensable to every member government in all ways at all times.

Dr. Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a F

In Defence of the ASEAN Charter





Too many unfair criticisms have been heaped on the ASEAN Charter soon after the historic agreement was signed by Leaders of the 10 Member States of ASEAN on 20 November 2007 during the Thirteenth ASEAN Summit in Singapore.   Some have  even called for a boycott of its ratification.    In their haste to belittle the ASEAN Charter,  these critics seldom bother to get  all the facts right.


This article is intended to tell the other side of the story, based on first-hand facts that I have seen in serving both the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter (the EPG) and the High Level Task Force on the Drafting of the ASEAN Charter (the HLTF).


Though this is not the occasion to justify the existence of ASEAN, I would contend that the overall achievement of ASEAN is invaluable to Southeast Asia and its peoples – although too few  of them are aware of what ASEAN has accomplished.  At least, there can be no dispute that ASEAN has managed to strengthen peace and security in Southeast Asia and kept all the countries in this region in its fold[29], at peace with one another and with the rest of the world,  working hand-in-hand in building the ASEAN Community.




Mr. Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Director of Research and Special Assistant to the Secretary-General of ASEAN.  He assisted H.E. Ong Keng Yong, Secretary-General of ASEAN,   who was the resource person to both the High Level Task Force on the Drafting of the ASEAN Charter, and the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter.  He writes this paper in his personal capacity as an ASEAN citizen.  His e-mail address is termsak@asean.org   Please visit the website of the ASEAN Secretariat at :  www.asean.org   ASEAN documents mentioned in this paper (as shown in bold italics) are available on the website.



The mere fact that ASEAN has existed for 40 years and is growing steadily must have frustrated quite a few critics, who tend to doubt that  Southeast Asian  Governments and their political leaders  can  do  anything  good  together  for  their   peoples.    The ASEAN Charter maybe yet another big surprise to these detractors.


The following are 10 things about the ASEAN Charter that most of the critics either didn’t know or choose to  ignore.    With this information, I hope more people who care about ASEAN can evaluate  the ASEAN Charter more objectively, and come to appreciate it better.


  1. The ASEAN Charter is not a new idea


The ASEAN Charter  is actually not a new idea.  As far back as in the early 1970s, the five founding Member States of ASEAN (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) did consider the possibility of developing some  agreement to formalize the establishment of ASEAN.  The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established on 8 August 1967 through the signing in Bangkok of the ASEAN Declaration, which is also known as the “Bangkok Declaration”.


Strictly speaking, the 1967 ASEAN Declaration was merely a political document announcing the aspiration of the five Founding Fathers to work together under ASEAN.  They might not be very confident whether  their ASEAN experiment would work, let alone produce satisfactory results over the next four decades.  After all, regional cooperation  was quite alien  to most  in Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s when conflict, ideological confrontation and  war were  the unpleasant realities.


The discussions on some constitutional framework for ASEAN in the early 1970s did not result in any ASEAN constitution or ASEAN charter.  But it did lead to the signing at the First ASEAN Summit in Bali on 24 February 1976 of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which is also known as “the TAC”.   In addition, in the Declaration of ASEAN Concord also issued by ASEAN Leaders at the Bali Summit,    it was stated that, as part of the measures to improve ASEAN machinery,  ASEAN Member States would undertake “Study of the desirability of a new constitutional framework for ASEAN.”



  1. Indonesia and Malaysia led in reviving the Charter idea


Fast forward to the 21st century.  In the early 2000s, the 10 ASEAN Member States (Viet Nam joined ASEAN in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999) started revisiting the old idea of formalizing the establishment of ASEAN in order to better equip ASEAN and reposition it  to achieve  new and more ambitious objectives, as well as to meet  modern-day challenges.   Eventually, during the ASEAN Chairmanship of Indonesia,  at the Ninth ASEAN Summit in Bali in October 2003, ASEAN Leaders agreed  to embark on building the ASEAN Community consisting of  political-security, economic and finance, and socio-cultural community pillars.[30]   At first the goal was to complete building the ASEAN Community  by the year 2020.  Subsequently,  ASEAN Leaders, in their Twelfth  ASEAN Summit in Cebu in January 2007, agreed to accelerate and  complete the (first phase of ) ASEAN Community by the year 2015.


As a follow-up to the 2003 Summit decision on building the ASEAN Community, the Vientiane Action Programme (VAP[31]) was developed as the first 6-year roadmap  (2004-2010)  for cooperation in each of three community pillars.  In the course of formulating  the VAP, Malaysia came up with a paper on “Review of ASEAN Institutional Framework : Proposals for Change”.   One of Malaysia’s recommendations in the paper called for the transformation of ASEAN into a “legal regime with the signing of an ASEAN Treaty or Charter incorporating all the basic documents; …”


It may be disclosed  here that soon after H.E. Ong Keng Yong took over the post of the Secretary-General of ASEAN in early January 2003, the ASEAN Charter idea was one of the key urgent issues that his senior staff at the ASEAN Secretariat  presented to him for consideration, and he enthusiastically endorsed it.  Subsequently he  contributed to the ASEAN Charter process by serving as the resource person to both the EPG and the HLTF.


In the ASEAN Security Community pillar,    the VAP included in the section on Shaping and Sharing of Norms the following cooperation measures :  1.2.1  Work towards the development of an ASEAN Charter :  Setting up relevant mechanisms to formulate an ASEAN Charter.


At the Eleventh ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur in  December 2005,  ASEAN Leaders reiterated in the Kuala Lumpur Declaration  on the Establishment of the ASEAN Charter their commitment to go for an  ASEAN Charter.    In the 2005 Kuala Lumpur Declaration, ASEAN Leaders also announced the establishment of the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter (EPG).


The EPG was mandated to study ASEAN and recommend what should go into an ASEAN Charter.  Led by H.E. Tun Musa Hitam, former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, the EPG  Members   presented their EPG Report to ASEAN Leaders at the Twelfth ASEAN Summit in Cebu, the Philippines, on 12 January 2007.  The EPG Report is available on the ASEAN Secretariat’s website at : www.asean.org


  1. Five good reasons to have the ASEAN Charter now


There are at least five good reasons to have the ASEAN Charter.  First of all, building the ASEAN Community  and at the same time narrowing the development gap within the ASEAN membership, will  require a stronger and more efficient organizational structure to deliver.    ASEAN needs to transform itself into a more rules-based grouping  with a legal personality of its own.    ASEAN also needs to restructure its expanding mechanisms and  improve coordination,  decision-making process, and  dispute settlement.


The second  reason  is that to be successful in building the ASEAN Community,  every Member Government must incorporate ASEAN priorities into its national agenda.  Every Member Government must commit to implementing ASEAN  Summit’s decisions and ASEAN agreements promptly.


ASEAN will become a whole new entity which is larger than the previous sum of its  parts.   But the symbiotic relations between ASEAN and its Member States will continue to grow.  ASEAN can regionally contribute to each of its Member States’ national development; at the same time, each of the Member States  can contribute  nationally  to ASEAN’s community-building.   This is a win-win relationship.


Third,  building the ASEAN Community while narrowing the development gap will require a great deal of resources.  Mobilizing  more resources needs  popular  support.   The ASEAN Charter can be the new rallying point to attract public attention and popular support.  Hence the inclusion of the promotion of ASEAN identity and symbols in Chapter XI
of the ASEAN Charter.


ASEAN  must  try harder in raising public awareness of its agenda and objectives and explain to nearly 600 million Southeast Asians  how they can benefit from ASEAN.     The dilemma is that substantive resources are needed to produce important concrete results; but  no such resources are available unless  peoples in ASEAN are willing to pay for more substantive cooperation activities in ASEAN.


Fourth, as an entity in its own right, ASEAN will be able to play a more proactive role in safeguarding and promoting regional common  interests, as well as in promoting ASEAN’s external relations and cooperation with all friends and partners.   The Charter provides for the establishment of the Committee of Permanent Representatives to ASEAN in Jakarta.  ASEAN’s friends and partners will be encouraged to appoint their Ambassadors to ASEAN to work with the Committee on a regular basis.[32]    This, in the long run, can help cut down the travel expenditure of ASEAN Member Governments in their participation in ASEAN, as more and more meetings can be conducted in Jakarta and attended to by these Permanent Representatives and their support staff.


And fifth, the Charter is a fitting noble gift to ASEAN from its 10 Member Governments for the 40th founding anniversary of the organization in 2007.


  1. No dilution of the EPG’s recommendations


One prevailing misunderstanding is that the EPG’s recommendations on what should go into the ASEAN Charter have been largely “diluted” in order to meet the consensus of the lowest common denominator.  This is not true.  It should be emphasized here that the EPG was not mandated to  draft any ASEAN Charter.   Therefore, the EPG only examined ASEAN and  recommended how to improve ASEAN to be more efficient and to reposition ASEAN to better meet new challenges in the 21st century.  The EPG did present their recommendations in the format of a draft charter, as shown  in Part III of the EPG Report.


One must bear in mind that the EPG Members, though appointed by their respective Governments, and some are senior Cabinet members,  served on the EPG in their private personal capacity.  They neither represented their respective Governments nor countries. They were given full liberty to “think outside of the box”.    On the other hand, the drafters of the ASEAN Charter – they are mostly senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials –  represented their respective Governments, acting under strict official instruction from their superior; they did not have the liberty to venture into new territories beyond their mandate.


Moreover, the EPG Members were not concerned about how to implement what they recommended; they would rather leave this operational question to bureaucrats.  The drafters, on the other hand, were fully aware of the need to ensure implementation and compliance of  every  provision in the Charter.  For they would be held responsible if they put in something that turns out to be too idealistic and impracticable.


Another  important point to know is that the EPG’s recommendations represented just one of the nine  main sources of inputs in the drafting of the ASEAN Charter.   The other eight were :  (1)  directives from ASEAN Leaders; (2) existing commitments in various ASEAN milestone documents and agreements since 1967; (3) guidance from ASEAN Foreign Ministers (because the HLTF was established by them); (4)  written  inputs from ASEAN Economic Ministers;  (5) consultations with the High Level Task Force on Economic Integration; (6) suggestions from other Ministers; (7) consultations with senior officials from all ASEAN sectoral bodies; and (8) consultations with other stakeholders outside the ASEAN official circles (details to follow).


Comparing the ASEAN Charter with the EPG’s recommendations, one can easily find many good ideas of the EPG written all over the ASEAN Charter.  These included :


  • Show understanding and commitment to democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, including international humanitarian law;


  • People-oriented ASEAN, which the EPG called it “people-centred Organisation”;


–   Legal personality for ASEAN;


  • Summit meetings at least twice a year;


  • Three ASEAN Community Councils;


–   Member States’ Permanent Representatives to ASEAN;


–    Enhance the role of the Secretary-General, especially in monitoring and reporting progress (as well as delays and non-compliance) in the implementation of Summit decisions and ASEAN agreements;


–   4 DSGs (though only 2, not all 4, will be openly recruited);


–   DSG at the rank of Deputy Minister;


–    ASEAN minus X formula for flexible participation in economic cooperation;


–   Single ASEAN Chairmanship;


–   Dialogue Partners’ Ambassadors to ASEAN;


–   ASEAN motto : “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”;


–   ASEAN anthem (ASEAN shall have one); and


–   Keep English as the official working language in ASEAN.


However, it  is true that a few other EPG’s ideas have been dropped during the drafting of the ASEAN Charter.  They were the following :


–   No mentioning of  any ASEAN Union as the ultimate goal;


–     No provisions for suspension, expulsion and withdrawal from  the ASEAN membership;


–    No voting; (actually the EPG recommended voting only in non-sensitive areas if consensus cannot be achieved);


–   No ASEAN Institute; and


–    No Special Fund for narrowing the development gap.


On balance, I believe,   a good part of the EPG’s recommendations have been adequately incorporated into the ASEAN Charter.  It should be also pointed out that  the drafters (with guidance of ASEAN Foreign Ministers) even  outdid the EPG Members by coming with the provision for the establishment of an ASEAN human rights body as a new ASEAN organ in Chapter IV, Article 14.   The EPG Members found the issue too hot to handle and thus did not attempt to work out any specific recommendation.


Moreover, the drafters also enhanced the idea of ASEAN’s becoming people-oriented by inserting Chapter V to institutionalize interactions  with “entities associated with ASEAN”.  The ASEAN Chair as well as the Secretary-General of ASEAN can now be requested by disputing parties to provide good offices, conciliation or mediation. (Chapter VIII, Article 23, Paragraph 2).    Therefore the oft-repeated gripes about the alleged “dilution” of the EPG’s ideas should now end.


  1. Drafting under time constraint the ASEAN Way


Two   important directives from ASEAN Leaders  for the HLTF appeared  in the Cebu Declaration on the Blueprint for the ASEAN Charter issued at the Twelfth ASEAN Summit in January 2007 were :  The ASEAN Charter “will serve as a firm foundation in achieving one ASEAN Community by providing an enhanced institutional framework as well as conferring a legal personality to ASEAN”; and  to complete the drafting “in time for the 13th ASEAN Summit in Singapore in November 2007”.


The HLTF consisted of 10 members appointed by their respective Governments.   Essentially, they drafted the ASEAN Charter the ASEAN Way :  through consultations and decision-making by consensus.


This means none of the 10 drafters could have his or her own way all the time.  At best, some of the more persuasive ones could convince their colleagues some of the time.  A great deal of discussion, persuasion and reconsideration  was involved in the give-and- take spirit of friendly collaboration.


The drafting was done in 13 meetings in all the 10 Member States from January to October 2007.  At first the drafters  met for only two days in each meeting.  Later on, they expanded their meetings to three days each; they also involved their legal assistants in preparing the groundwork and going over draft summary records of discussions and other papers.  Still they found they were running out of time and had to convene three extra meetings to try to meet the drafting deadline.


On the last day of the drafting meeting in Vientiane on 20 October 2007, the drafters had to accept a new ground rule :  one single objection would drop any new suggestion or idea.   Finally, the draft was completed just before midnight, just in time for the Thai delegation to bring the draft home; translate it into Thai for presenting  it to the Thai Cabinet on 22 October 2007, which was the last working day for the Cabinet to take a policy decision, 60 days before the impending general elections on 23 December 2007.


The Charter is certainly imperfect.  Not all of the drafters are completely satisfied with the outcome.  Anything done by  consensus would certainly not be the most desirable.    But this is how ASEAN keeps every Member State on board, moving together at a pace comfortable to all .  No one is left behind unhappy.


  1. Other stakeholders consulted


As mentioned earlier, the drafters had to follow official instruction from their respective superior and struggled to cope with the  tight schedule.  But they did find time to consult other stakeholders outside the official ASEAN circles as often as their limited time could accommodate.   They met  representatives of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), the national human rights institutions of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, the informal Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism,  civil society organizations, business organizations, and think-tanks.


Some of the drafters also undertook national consultations, in which representatives of civil society organizations and think-tanks were involved.   As a matter of fact, in many of the drafting meetings, one delegation included a human rights expert who is an active  member of the informal Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism.


The drafting was, therefore, not really done in total secrecy without some public inputs.   But public participation in the drafting was not possible, because the drafting was in effect a government-to-government negotiation exercise.  Revealing the work in progress for public scrutiny would be counter-productive, because every drafter needed some room and some time to give and take and to consult his or her  superior.   Any drafter taking an explicit public position on any controversial idea would have little room for tactical compromise.


It is true that after the draft was completed, the document  was kept confidential.  This is prudent courtesy as the draft was being conveyed to each of the Head of Government/State through the ASEAN Foreign Minister of each Member State.   Why should the media have a copy of the draft before the ASEAN Leaders have a chance to read the draft ASEAN Charter?


It is also true that there will be no referendum on the ASEAN Charter in any  ASEAN Member State.   Can anyone really tell  how such a referendum could be carried out in the ASEAN region?   How much resource and time will be needed to do it fairly and democratically?


  1. Many new and significant initiatives


Those who try to find fault with the ASEAN Charter just simply miss the big picture that having the ASEAN Charter, after 40 years of ASEAN, is in itself a significant new great leap forward.  It signifies  a paradigm shift in the policy of all the Member States.  Through the ASEAN Charter, they will “codify organic Southeast Asian diplomacy” (in the words of H.E. Ong Keng Yong).  This is also a historic moment to reiterate their commitment to community-building in a legally binding agreement.   After the ASEAN Charter has entered into force, it will be registered with the UN Secretariat as an international agreement.


Drafting the ASEAN Charter was  a completely new exercise in ASEAN.  Ideally, the Charter should be visionary, inspiring, enduring and enriching; a historic agreement that  all in ASEAN can truly be proud of.   But it is unrealistic to expect the ASEAN Charter to recreate ASEAN in a “Big Bang”.   ASEAN has to continue to evolve and build on its existing foundation.     Instinctively and quite sensibly, every Member Government  was and should be extremely cautious in drafting the Charter.


Another important underlying fact to bear in mind is that ASEAN has no  political criteria of membership (unlike in the EU where before a  European State can apply for the EU membership,  it must be able to prove that it is a functioning pluralistic democracy with a good human rights protection record).  The  political diversity among the ASEAN Member States is a unique reality.     No Member Government can, and I believe no one wants to,  try to change the political system of any other Member Government in ASEAN through the ASEAN Charter.


If critics  examine the ASEAN Charter with an open mind,  they will find the following new and significant initiatives: the legal personality for ASEAN, the ASEAN human rights body as a new organ in the ASEAN organizational structure; the Committee of Permanent Representatives to ASEAN; Dialogue Partners’ Ambassadors to ASEAN; the Chapter V on Entities Associated with ASEAN.     If these are not yet enough to satisfy them,  I would suggest them to consider the following :


  • Reaffirmation of ASEAN’s recognition of democratic values, human rights, fundamental freedoms, and rule of law;


  • Promotion of a “people-oriented” ASEAN;


  • Principle of “shared commitment and collective responsibility”;


  • Principle of “enhanced consultations on matters seriously affecting the common interest of ASEAN”;


  • ASEAN Summit to handle cases of “serious breach”;


  • Secretary-General of ASEAN to have an enhanced role in monitoring progress in the implementation of ASEAN agreements and decisions;


  • Two openly-recruited deputies to assist the Secretary-General, in addition to the current two deputies who are nominated by Member Governments;


  • The ASEAN Foundation shall be accountable to the Secretary-General;


  • ASEAN Chairman and Secretary-General may be requested to provide good offices, conciliation or mediation in settlement of disputes;


  • Unresolved disputes (on ASEAN matters) shall be referred to the ASEAN Summit for its decision; and


  • Single ASEAN Chairmanship.


  1. No use comparing ASEAN with the EU


Inevitably, many critics would compare ASEAN with the EU.  This is irrelevant, like comparing a mom-and-pop store with the giant Carrefour international supermarket chain. The ASEAN Secretariat survives on a meager budget of US$9.05 million in its current financial year; whereas the European Union and its Commission have nearly 129  billion euro ( i.e. about US$190 billion!) for its annual operations.


ASEAN make no apology for not wanting to emulate the EU.  But ASEAN could learn from the EU.  From the European experience, we can learn, for example, that    economic integration is easier to achieve than political integration.  Political will and top-down leadership by visioning are essential to drive regional cooperation forward. Occasional setbacks will happen.  Strong, efficient, impartial and well-funded central institutions are necessary to serve as the foundation for a rules-based regional organization.


For the sake of argument, I would venture to mention the following boasting points that ASEAN has outdone the EU:  the ASEAN Charter (only 53 pages) is much shorter than both the aborted Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe (482 pages) and its replacement in the Reform Treaty of Lisbon (around 250 pages); a single working language (English) in ASEAN; the ASEAN motto  and the ASEAN anthem (in the near future).  The EU could only dream of using one official language, and it  had to drop the proposed motto “United in diversity” and proposed anthem “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven because some EU members saw them as trappings of a “super European State”.


  1. The ASEAN Charter is not cast in stone


From the beginning, the drafters had a common understanding that, because of the tight schedule,  they would  not attempt to tackle existing problems beyond their drafting mandate.  Neither would they try to address  issues that should be handled by existing ASEAN bodies.   They would avoid wasting time on details, because they were not going to  draft a plan of action.  Thus, Chapter II on the legal personality has no details of what ASEAN can and cannot do with its legal personality. (In the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe, Article I-7 on legal personality for the EU simply said: “The Union shall have legal personality.” )


Another important understanding was that the ASEAN Charter would not be “cast in stone”.  In fact, any Member State may propose amendments (Article 48)  as soon as the ASEAN Charter enters into force.  The ASEAN Charter is also due for  a review five years after its entry into force, or as otherwise determined by the ASEAN Summit (Article 50).


  1. ASEAN Charter is good enough for the time being


On 7 January 2008, Singapore became the first Member State to deposit its instrument of ratification of the ASEAN Charter with the newly-installed Secretary-General of ASEAN, H.E. Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, a former Foreign Minister of Thailand.   Receiving the Singapore’s instrument became the first official duty of Dr. Surin in his capacity as the Secretary-General.  He  has stated his intention to lobby every of the other nine Member Governments to speed up the ratification process.   As at the time of my writing this paper (25 April 2008), altogether 6 Member States have deposited their instruments of ratification.[33]

While it is important to show due respect to every Member State’s constitutional procedure, it is also important to start undertaking as soon as follow-up actions as required in the ASEAN Charter, in order to build greater momentum.  Some of the Charter provisions can be implemented by consensus while awaiting the full ratification;  like for example the appointment of Member States’ respective Permanent Representatives to ASEAN, and  the recruitment of two additional deputy secretaries-general[34].


Good Enough to Deserve a Chance


In the final analysis, the ASEAN Charter clearly has shortcomings.  But I would contend that overall, it is certainly good enough to be given a chance to serve as the new legal and institutional framework for community-building in ASEAN.  Over times, it  can and it will definitely be improved.


The ASEAN Charter is like  a glass that is half-full.  It can  be gradually filled with more new ideas for a better ASEAN Community.[35]  The ASEAN Charter deserves understanding and support from everyone who wants ASEAN to succeed.

[1] 18 EAS participants are 10 ASEAN members, and eight Dialogue Partners : Australia, China, India, Japan, the RoK, New Zealand, Russia, and the US.  The other two Dialogue Partners, Canada and the EU, have not yet been invited to join the EAS.

[2] ASEAN engages in the ADMM Plus the same eight Dialogue Partners like those in the EAS.     However, it  is simply a coincidence that the same eight Dialogue Partners are participating in both the ADMM-Plus and the EAS.  Membership in the ADMM-Plus was determined in 2006-2007; whereas the decision to expand the EAS to include Russia and the US was made in 2010.

[3] All the EAS participating countries are also participating in the EAMF.

[4] At the Fourth Meeting of Friends of the Lower Mekong in Nay Pyi Taw on 11 August 2014, the “Friends” of Mekong included Australia, the EU, Japan, the RoK, New Zealand, the US, the ADB, World Bank, and the Secretary-General of ASEAN.

[5] See their Sanya Declaration at www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1350039.shtml

[6] Myanmar hosted the Third BIMSTEC in Nay Pyi Taw, 3-4 March 2014, when BIMSTEC Leaders agreed to set up the BIMSTEC Secretariat in Dhaka, and to appoint Mr. Sumith Nakandala from Sri Lanka its first secretary-general.

[7] Timor-Leste chaired  the WPF in 2014; in 2015 Papua New Guinea was the WPF chairman.

[8] Occasionally, ASEAN Leaders go out of the ASEAN region to meet their counterpart from an important Dialogue Partner country for a special meeting.  ASEAN Leaders met with President Barack Obama in Sunnylands, California, on 15-16 February 2016.  They will meet President Vladimir Putin in Sochi in May 2016 for an ASEAN-Russia Commemorative Summit.    ASEAN Defence Ministers met with US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel in Hawaii on 1 April 2014 for a special informal meeting.   They went to Beijing to meet with Chinese Defence Minister in October 2015.   Now ASEAN Defence Ministers are considering another trip to Hawaii in October 2016 for an informal meeting with US Defense Secretary Ash Carter.


[9] See the text of the Sunnylands joint statement at the website of the White House at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/16

[10] See the Bali Concord III of the 19th ASEAN Summit, issued in Bali on 17 November 2011.

[11] The author’s interviews with ASEAN Secretariat staff during a working visit as part of the team from the ASEAN Studies Centre, 21-22 March 2016.  The team met the CPR in a working lunch on 21 March 2016.

[12] Established in February 1955 with H.Q. in Bangkok, the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was a US-led anti-communist alliance among Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the UK, and the US.  SEATO did not have a role in the Vietnam War, because the national security of the Philippines and Thailand was not directly threatened.   It was disbanded in June 1977.  In 2003, both the Philippines and Thailand were accorded the status of Major Non-NATO Ally of the US.  Singapore has declined to accept this formal MNNA status and chosen instead to treat the US as its “security partner” under a bilateral defence cooperation agreement.

[13] Thailand’s Dr. Thanat Khoman, the last of the Five Founding Fathers of ASEAN, passed away on 3 March 2016 at the age of 102.

[14] The ASEAN Coordinating Council (the ACC, is consisted of  the 10 ASEAN Foreign Ministers) has set up a working group to consider all implications of admitting Timor-Leste into ASEAN.  Two studies on economic and political implications have been undertaken and submitted to the ACC’s working group.  The author teamed up with Dr. Leonard Sebastian of the RSIS  did the study on political implications in 2015. Another study (by ISIS-Malaysia) on social implications is underway.

[15] The Treaty now has 32 High Contracting Parties: 10 ASEAN Member States, 10 Dialogue Partners of ASEAN (Australia, Canada, China, the EU, India, Japan, the RoK, New Zealand, Russia, and the US), Bangladesh, Brazil, the DPRK, France, Mongolia, Norway, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea,  Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste,  Turkey, and the UK.)

[16] ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM) has been recognized as an ASEAN body under the APSC pillar.  Its prime mover is Thailand’s  Office of Atoms for Peace (OAP).  Cambodia’s Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy participates in ASEANTOM’s activities.

[17] The Philippines was the first in Southeast Asia to build a nuclear power plant, in Bataan about 100 kms west of Manila.  But corruption litigation and subsequent  discovery of serious earthquake risk led to  government decisions not to operate the nuclear power plant.  Now it is open for tourists as about 40 million peso is needed annually to maintain the mothballed plant.   In the wake of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in March 2011, Viet Nam has decided to postpone until at least 2019 the start of the construction of its first two nuclear power plants in Ninh Thuan province.   In the meantime, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand all are seriously looking into the possibility of building nuclear power plants.

[18] Article 2, Paragraph 2 (b).

[19] ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea, issued in Phnom Penh on 20 July 2012.

[20] In ASEAN, Cambodia, which signed UNCLOS on 1 July 1983,  is the only country which has not ratified UNCLOS.

[21] The author was present at the ARF meeting as a member of  the delegation of the ASEAN Secretariat.

[22] See Chinese MFA spokesperson Hua Chunying’s remarks on 23 March 2016 at www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399

[23] See the White House’s Fact Sheet: Advancing the Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific, dated 16 November 2015, at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/11/16

[24] See a news report published in Today (of Singapore), 17 March 2016, Page 12.   In the same report, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated in a press conference in Beijing that China was “comfortable” with US presence in the South China Sea and can engage the US in cooperation with the US in Asia-Pacific and “manage well our differences.”

[25] See details of the report at www.news.usni.org

[26] See marks of John Kerry at the website of the US State Department, www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2013/12/17

[27] See details of disputed areas in the Spratlys at the website of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, at www.amti.csis.org

[28] Viet Nam reported about incidents within its EEZ involving disruptions of oil exploration activities by Chinese armed ships.  The Philippines reported the encroachment of Chinese navy ships in Scarborough Shoals, which is 120 nautical miles  west of Luzon Island and well within the Philippines’s claim of 200-nautical-mile  EEZ.

[29] Timor-Leste, which gained independence in May 2002 and became the newest independent nation in Southeast Asia,   is now actively preparing for the ASEAN membership in the hope of joining ASEAN within the next five years.



[30] See details in the Declaration of ASEAN Concord II (Bali Concord II) on the ASEAN Secretariat’s website.

[31] The VAP is being superseded by three separate Blueprints for each of the three Community pillars.  The Blueprint for the ASEAN Economic Community was already adopted by ASEAN Leaders during the Thirteenth  Summit in Singapore.  The Blueprints for the other two pillars are expected to be ready for consideration by ASEAN Leaders in the Fourteenth Summit in Bangkok, scheduled for 15-18 December 2008.

[32] The Bush Administration in April 2008 appointed Mr. Scot Marciel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia, as the first U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN.  The USA became the first Dialogue Partner of ASEAN to have done so.

[33] Brunei Darussalam on 15 February 2008; Malaysia and Laos on 20 February 2008; Viet Nam on 19 March 2008; and Cambodia on 18 April 2008.

[34] ASEAN Foreign Ministers agreed during their retreat in Singapore on 20 February 2008 to the appointment of the Permanent Representatives by 1 January 2009; and to recruit the two additional DSGs to take office by 1 November 2008.


[35] Many good ideas that can be further considered include, for example :  ASEAN citizenship; ASEAN economic and social consultative council; ASEAN court of justice; ASEAN parliament; ASEAN ombudsmen;  some steady flows of income for ASEAN; ASEAN anti-corruption convention; ASEAN human rights convention; etc.

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