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ASEAN Community 2015: Southeast Asia Between the United States and China

An ISIS Conference on 

ASEAN Community 2015: Southeast Asia Between the United States and China

Friday, 13 January 2012


Prof. Thitinan opened the day with an overview of the agenda.  The conference

was designed as two stand-alone panels, one considering ASEAN and another

discussing Myanmar.  Prof. Thitinan thanked the Canadian Embassy and the

Canada Fund for their support. 


Ms. Jennifer May, Political and Economic Counselor at the Canadian Embassy

offered opening remarks, noting that this year celebrates the 35th anniversary

of Canada’s relationship with ASEAN.  ASEAN has been called “the playground

of the superpowers,” and this conference will address the interaction between two

world powers.  Ms. May also remarked that, from the Canadian viewpoint, the change

coming in Myanmar will increase the international community’s willingness to engage

with ASEAN.  


Dr. Supachai Yavaprabhas, Dean of the Faculty of Political Science at ChulalongkornUniversity,

welcomed the participants and spoke briefly on education in ASEAN.  The region includes

approximately 6,000 universities and colleges, in number more than the

US and approximately as many as in the EU.  These are primarily private

universities and colleges, and their numbers are increasing rapidly, particularly in Vietnam

The systems vary between ASEAN countries, with Singapore and the Philippines

having more in common with the U.S. system while Malaysia’s system is becoming more

like the German system.  Building greater compatibility between these systems

will improve their ability to conduct educational exchanges across AESAN.  After

these remarks, Dr. Supachai introduced Prof. Dr. Surakiart, noting that Prof. Surakiart

was closely identified with the Chulalongkorn law school.  He closed by thanking the

Canadian Embassy for their strong support.


Prof. Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai’s keynote address discussed the local, regional and

global implications of integration within the three pillars of the ASEAN 2015 community.

Exogenous factors led ASEAN leaders to move up the goal of full community to 2015.

The former “ASEAN Vision 2020” had not been clear, even to the ASEAN foreign ministers. 

The greater economic integration called for by APEC following Sept 11, 2001, also spurred

ASEAN to integrate more quickly.  The consequent action plans were drafted in the ASEAN

way: step by step; and have subsequently been adopted. 


These changes will cause challenges at the local level.  Citizens, even university students

in the case of Thailand, lack any sense of ownership of ASEAN and do not participate in

the decision-making process. The direction of ASEAN and its activities are managed by

ministers and leaders without participation from ordinary people.  Secondly, people in

ASEAN lack experience working with foreigners who are not westerners, and exchanges

within ASEAN are quite limited in number compared with exchanges outside of ASEAN. 

Thirdly, given the non-adversarial nature of ASEAN relationships, ASEAN is characterized

by soft law and consensus.  With economic integration of ASEAN, it will need to be more

legalistic and adversarial in order to function.  Fourthly, ASEAN countries will need to take

care of those who cannot compete in these open markets and to increase competitiveness. 

Leaders will have to adjust their social policy to prepare for competition from ASEAN

nations, sector-by sector, to assist both those who cannot compete effectively and the numerous

migrant workers


In implementing ASEAN 2015, the way that the region interacts poses challenges as well.

ASEAN as a regional organization has no common external policies; unlike the EU, ASEAN

matters do not always come first.  98% of the meetings between ASEAN leaders are formal,

limiting policymakers’ ability to carry out informal discussions and hash out issues. 

There is no advance agreement on common policy before meetings such as ASEAN-EU

foreign ministers’ meetings, and ASEAN does not come to international meetings with

pre-arranged positions or with common priorities for the meeting.  Most coordination

is done informally and spontaneously.   While this flexibility may provide opportunities,

it may pose challenges as well.


Globally speaking, ASEAN is an extremely attractive organization, the “just about right

organization”.  It is thought of as “ASEAN Plus”; the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand,

Russia, and India in ASEAN-organized forums, provides an opportunity for ASEAN to link

rising Asia together.  It is attractive for all to join because it is of a good age, politically diverse,

has geographical significance and diversity, with varied and growing economies, and is a very

flexible organization.  ASEAN has been through atrocity and is now prepared to take a more

active role in peace and security.  Within ASEAN there are “different shades of democracy”,

and ASEAN has friends in many camps.  China, the U.S., Russia, and others rely on ASEAN

to engage internationally.  As the “Just About Right” organization, ASEAN’s challenge is to

remain in the driver’s seat and set the agenda for its international interaction.   


Panel 1: ASEAN Community 2015: Southeast Asia Between the United States, China and Beyond


The moderator, Dr. Sorajak Kasemsuwan, introduced the panelists and noted that the relationships

between ASEAN, China and the US have developed even over the past two months.  He requested

that each panelist speak for 20 minutes to leave time for Q&A.


Prof. Dr. Suchit Bunbongkarn noted that progress towards a stronger ASEAN community

has begun, including moving up the timeline for achievement of the community to 2015. 

The 3 pillars of peace, stability, and security are affirmed by all members, while democracy

is understood as a desire but not a priority.  Managing the interaction between ASEAN, the U.S.

and China is essential to achieving a real political and security community.  


Dr. Suchit argued that greater domestic understanding and acceptance of any change is also

necessary.  Ordinary citizens of ASEAN countries need to have ownership and understanding

of what this cooperation means, which is not yet the case in Thailand at least.  In Thailand,

as in many other states, domestic concerns are the government’s priority.  In contrast with

the European Union (EU), ASEAN will not act as a state above the South East Asian states,

and nationalism and each country’s sovereign concerns will remain each government’s priority. 

Also unlike the EU, ASEAN never had a precondition of democratic rule to join, so ASEAN

encompasses extreme political diversity.  


Dr. Suchit continued that ASEAN’s does have common broad international policy,

but it does not have specific action plans on given issues.  For example, while ASEAN

members affirm the need for free navigation, coming to agreement on how to address

disputes between Vietnam and China regarding the South China Sea is difficult.  With

China’s growing military might and the expansion of Chinese soft power, ASEAN members

cannot stay away from China but must decide how to deal with China’s increasing influence.

While the U.S. will continue to be the largest economic and military power, China will play

a close second.  Will this strength be used in the case of a crisis in East Asia?  While

Obama has made East Asia his first priority, this policy may change if there is a change in

U.S. leadership.


In summary, in 2015 and beyond, ASEAN will face a number of challenges:

1.      Can ASEAN be a driving force to maintain security?

2.      How will ASEAN face China?

3.      Will the U.S. consistently maintain its commitment to the region?

4.      If Southeast Asia cannot face security challenges as a single community,

what will happen?  Without common political agreement and policies, Dr. Suchit

argued that the ASEAN community will only be form, not substance and strength

unless ASEAN nations can achieve a common political agreement. 


Prof. Amitav Acharya spoke on ASEAN’s external role and positioning in the evolving

Asian security situation, recommending that participants read his paper on ASEAN 2030. 

China’s rise is the most important event in Southeast Asia, and will shape ASEAN’s future.  

The academic world has outlined three scenarios that may prevail in Asia following China’s rise. 

The first views Asia as similar to “Europe’s Past,” with the disruption to existing multi-polar

power through the rise of Germany leading to two continental wars.  However, Acharya found

this comparison ill founded, arguing that China will not upset the status quo of extensive

international trade because it has benefitted from it.  The second scenario argues that

China will behave like “America’s Past,” with China seeking to push all other powers

out of the region.  Acharya thinks this is not feasible for China, since U.S. can be considered

a resident power in Southeast Asia and India holds significant sway; nor is it feasible because

China’s neighbors will not accept its non-democratic ideology.  The third scenario is that

Asia’s future could be China’s own past, with China as the first among equals providing

common goods, such as security,  for Asia.  However, Acharya argues that the U.S.’s presence

will not allow China to assert such a significant power. 


ASEAN should not try to play China against the US, but should seek restraint in both

China and the U.S., neither accepting China’s primacy without Chinese restraint nor

allowing the U.S. to attempt to contain China.  Acharya argued that there has been a paradigm

shift over the past few years, with a move to regionalism, economic pluralism, and

democratic liberalism. Acharya did not see Chinese hegemony appearing in