from Asia Unbound

The Continuing Impotence of ASEAN

May 10, 2011

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ASEAN leaders walk after they held a retreat at the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta May 8, 2011.
ASEAN leaders walk after they held a retreat at the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta May 8, 2011. (Supri Supri/Courtesy Reuters)

This past week’s ASEAN Summit in Jakarta only further highlighted the organization’s continuing impotence at a time when the United States is reengaging with ASEAN and, Indonesia, returning to its role as regional power, is trying to make ASEAN work more effectively. The first U.S. ambassador to ASEAN has arrived, and Indonesian officials have become more involved in everything from Myanmar to the ongoing border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.

Yet the organization itself still lacks coherence, strong leadership, and speed, and it increasingly appears likely that it will never have these characteristics. Despite Indonesia’s best intentions, ASEAN mediation has produced few results in the Thai-Cambodian dispute, and the organization has not been able to resolve another lingering problem: Myanmar is in line to host the 2014 ASEAN summit, which would almost surely mean the U.S. president will not attend any meetings with ASEAN that year, since he or she will not want to appear to support Myanmar. Some of the more democratic members of ASEAN, including the Philippines and Indonesia, wanted Myanmar to relinquish this right, as it had in the past, but as usual with ASEAN, the organization could reach no consensus--ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan just endorsed Myanmar’s right to host --and so the likely result will be some kind of muddle.

ASEAN’s leadership abilities are only going to get weaker. Though Singapore’s recent election was a step forward for open politics in the city state, it did result in the loss of a seat for longtime foreign minister George Yeo, who has been a driving force for stronger ASEAN leadership and action. Moreover, in the next few years the organization will absorb Timor Leste as its eleventh member, a correct decision, given Timor’s tough history, but one that will only slow down policymaking even more.