Judith Akkerman is PhD student at Leiden University, The Netherlands.
This publication is based on the master thesis “Geopolitics and regionalism in a changing world. The case of ASEAN”
Since the end of the Second World War, the world has changed substantially. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the end of the bipolar world system, the (alleged) decline of the US hegemony and the adoption of new technologies have created shifts in the world order of which the future outlines are yet unclear.
As the seemingly fixed Cold War bipolar world order came under threat, weak states started to fall into conflict and ethnic rivalry. Weakened borders aggravated organized drug traffic, people-trafficking and terrorism, which impacted security dialogues throughout the world.
Regional leaders throughout the world sought for new structures in which they could manage shared interests, threats and opportunities. Marginalized economies that had been excluded from the world market, were increasingly seeing renewed opportunities in the collaboration with neighbouring countries. Different actors (like non-state actors and ideological groups) also progressively entered the vacuum that was left in global governance.
Regionalism (the collaboration of (usually) neighbouring states) since the 1990s has drastically changed compared to the Cold War regional cooperations, from being a merely security-driven organization, sponsored by nation-states, to dynamic and multidimensional integrations that deal with economy, culture, politics and social aspects. Today’s New Regionalism, a theory that has been elaborated by Hettne, is a process of construction and deconstruction by different players and changes according to the global processes. The strategic goal behind the initiatives is the establishing of a firm, coherent region that can collectively react to global pressures, tensions and challenges.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a perfect example of a fairly successful regional cooperation that responds to external pressures and common challenges. At its establishment in 1967, the reasons for cooperation came primarily from the outside. The US feared the spreading of communism to Southeast Asian countries and sponsored the creation of the association for stability reasons. After the Cold War however, ASEAN started to steer its own course. From within it further developed regional arrangements by expanding with Lao PDR, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar and adopting the ASEAN Free Trade Area to attract Foreign Direct Investment.
The Asian financial crisis that struck the region in 1997/98 made ASEAN increasingly aware of the importance of cooperation among members and non-members. One of the outcomes of the crisis was an Asian monetary policy that, despite its connection to the IMF, was a statement that Asia was enforcing their own financial framework for future crises and no longer wanted to depend on the US. Furthermore, ASEAN created bilateral agreements with China, Japan and South Korea (ASEAN+3), a framework that besides financial issues also includes deeper economic cooperation.
Other players in the region have not sat still as these transformations unfolded and a period of building other institutions and reinforcing other regionalisms, have up to today set the tone in the Asia-Pacific region. The primary regional cooperations that were set up were the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Other global forces that meet in the region are the United States, the European Union, China and Russia. The United States has promoted economic cooperation in the APEC, because it had no role in the ASEAN association. ASEAN is also a member of the APEC and has implemented its ‘open regionalism’ rhetoric, based on sovereignty, non interference and consensus in order to retain a certain degree of independence within the organization.
The SCO is a forum between China, Russia and five central Asian (oil rich) countries. This initiative is being closely watched and ASEAN has been trying to create a dialogue with the SCO, aware of the importance of its involvement in this cooperation.
Since 9/11, regionalism seems to have boosted once more in the region. The US discourse of the War against terror was also articulated in the APEC, forcing the members to take action towards their Muslim extremists’ population. ASEAN, not willing to awaken extreme responses in its population, acts with caution. In this new situation, ASEAN will have to assess its position that will not jeopardize the access to the US market, but neither grants a US influence in the association’s affairs. The war against terrorism is not fully backed by all countries, moreover, the reaction of the US during the Asian financial crisis has caused a lot of resentment and the unilateral world order that is advocated by the US is a much contested form in Asia, as in most other parts of the world.
Uncertainties about the shape of the world order have been an incentive to the ASEAN+3 framework (including ASEAN and China, Japan and South Korea). It may just be another sign for increased regionalism of the Southeast and East Asian region. In the words of Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a wider regionalism, under auspices of ASEAN is “an idea that would not go away.” (cited in Kim 2004: 18-19). It may be still too early to predict the exact outcomes of Asian regionalism and ASEAN’s role in it, but the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area has been a sign for increased integration. Even though China poses a challenge to the region and the world, it will most likely benefit the growth of ASEAN.
ASEAN is often referred to as the example of successful Third World Regional cooperation. It is remarkable that a region so diverse, ‘Unity in diversity’ has become a slogan in the region, has been able to agree on common issues within a regional governmental framework. It is also remarkable that ASEAN has put its stamp, norms and visions on organizations such as the APEC, the ASEAN-Europe Meeting (ASEM), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN+3 (APT). If ASEAN is able to keep hold of its role in the contested world order, US’ pursuit for unilateralism and advancing Chinese economy, remains to be seen. But the signs so far show that ASEAN is willing to start negotiations with the SCO, that it is interested in extending relations with the EU and through the ASEAN+3, it will continue to strengthen the relationships with its Eastern neighbours. ASEAN knows it does not provide an own regional hegemon within the organization and therefore it will seek relationships with its contenders, envisioning a new world order of multiregionalism and multipolar hegemonies of which ASEAN will possibly be part.
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- Dodds, Klaus. Global Geopolitics. A Critical Introduction. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2005.
- Hettne, B. Global Politics of Regionalism. Theory and Practice. Eds. M. Farrell, B. Hettne and L. van Langenhove. London: Pluto Press, 2005.
- Kim, Samuel S. “Regionalization and Regionalism in East Asia.” Journal of East Asian Studies 4.1 (2004): 39-68.