Will ASEAN be like the EU?!

March 19, 2007

When we briefly touched on ASEAN in our class last Tuesday, it was one of the very rare occasions that we seemed to have consensus, that ASEAN was almost a waste of time, always “talk the talk and never walk the walk”, and could hardly do any good. However, some scholars, including our Dr. Hu, suggest that we should not discard ASEAN too lightly. Yes, it hardly arrived at any binding commitments, not to mention treaty, among its member states; it did provide a forum for discussion at different levels of governments. Yes, ASEAN never decide by vote and they arrived at decisions by consensus. However, decision by consensus sometimes is even more useful than treaties, as some argued that trust did not come by treaty but by relations. By focusing on common interest and putting aside disputes, countries found a platform to improve mutual understanding. In terms of value, ASEAN embraces patience, mutual respect and non-interference.

Interesting that there are talks in the Cebu annual summit meeting this year that ASEAN should begin to evolve and integrate further following the EU pattern. That means ASEAN is moving away from the ASEAN way.(http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=8619)

It is easy to come to the conclusion that ASEAN is ASEAN and it is hard to conceive that Asian countries would be willing to surrender its sovereignty to evolve into an Eastern EU. Yet, from a liberal point of view, there must be benefits and advantages for ASEAN to further integrate. It would be interesting for us to discuss what these advantages are and how they can outweigh the realist view of national interest for the ASEAN countries?

On the other hand, EU will later this month, mark its 50th anniversary. As the Economist sums up, its early years were spectacularly successful, bringing peace and prosperity on a scale unimaginable in Europe’s history. Yet now that peace is taken for granted, there is little enthusiasm for projects such as enlargement and the single market. Europeans are, once again, preoccupied by national interests. Can EU Constitution be revived in the Berlin meeting now that the group has more than 27 member states instead of 15 or 6. Or should EU talk less and focus on economic reform to resolve its mid-life crisis? What can ASEAN learn from EU’s experience? At the end of the day, would realism prove to be the most relevant theory in analyzing international affairs and liberals are only living in an unreal world?

Daisy Ku and Philip Poon


20 Responses to “Will ASEAN be like the EU?!”

  1. Iris Chan Says:

    I tend to agree with the notion that ASEAN is successful in serving as a platform for ASEAN countries to, at the very least, meet up and discuss things concerning them, forming their own regional circle to strive for their own benefits as well as aligning alliances in defending hegemonic influence in the region. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but ponder the underlying cause for all these actions are merely out of the own interest of individual nations. Like what Daisy mentioned in the class, I also have difficulty in putting myself in a Liberalist’s shoes because I am holding a cynical view and believe that just cause and moral are the perfect disguise for pursuing one nation’s interest in international stage. Even there is no substantial interest out there, wouldn’t it be nice to build up a heroic image in internaitonal scene to impress your potential alliance? The success of the international organizations are the result of collective actions of individual nations who are willing to be bound by certain rules of game. It should be remotely related to the effectiveness of the structure of these international organizations. Perhaps I am being landslidingly bias here, but isn’t that power game is the essence of politics?

  2. ralphchow Says:

    I also agree that ASEAN provides a useful platform for the members to enhance confidence building, though we cannot be too ambitious to expect any major decisions will be made in an effective manner. Nevertheless, it is drawing interest from major countries in North Asia such as China, Japan and S. Korea to team up with them, for instance, the China ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA or 10+1) will become effective in 2010. Under international pressure, ASEAN also attempts to have interference into human right issues in its member countries like Burma. The role of ASEAN is therefore expected to expand further albeit at a slow pace due to the nature of its decision making process. Afterall, it is the only multilateral institution in Asia that can be expected to have the capability of balancing the economic and political impact from EU and the NAFTA in the foreseeable future.

  3. G. Daniel Says:

    Power cannot be the only driving force of politics or military security would be the paramount benchmark in International Relations. During the Cold War ideology was a major driving or organizing force of politics. In the renew globalization era economy is an unmistakeable force in International Relations. The growing importance of non-state actors in International Relations, be it terrorism or NGOs, signals the multilayer character of politics. IR and domestic politics feed each others, thus people well-being is a major driving force in politics, even if it is the less visible one.

    This also explains partly the mid-life crisis of Europe. Peace is secured, economic and political cooperation is now a well established modus operandi in Europe. Europe is now mature enough for people to discuss the terms and political direction of the European project. A large chunk of the EU population has been living under ‘communism’ for most of their lives. This political model involved a high state involvement in economics affairs as well as a notion of social protection net. The idea of social net is also well established in Western Europe, even the UK has a trimmed version. People well-being has always been the underlying federating principle of the European project, but now the mean to achieve it is out in the open for discussion and it will have an impact on the EU foreign policy (or lack of).

    However I would like to remind us that the 20 first years of the European project were very pragmatic in nature and mostly focus on strategic production of coal and steel. Maybe with the rise of an ASEAN elite and significant middle-class the politic of the region will move away from traditional security towards people well-being.

  4. Philip Poon Says:

    ummm….people’s well-being….that’s very interesting!

  5. Ivo Cerckel Says:

    As I said in message 12 at

    (If the link does not work go to
    At this hour, the first post contains my reactions:
    Interesting articles: modern central banking test, China problems, sovereign wealth funds and more)

    the fundamental difference between ASEAN and the EU is that

    ASEAN does
    not opt for stupid harmonisation like the EU
    but for recognition of each other’s standards.

    BusinessWeek – USAKUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia
    Cosmetics made in Association of Southeast Asian
    Nation member countries will be exempt from Malaysia’s registration requirement starting in 2008, a news report said Monday.


    Maybe, one day, we’ll see also Delaware-competition (so-called race for the bottom) in company law.
    The future looks bright outside of the EU and of the US. (The Greater Depression will startt next month in the US – see the references I posted in my other messages at the rybinski.eu link)

    Ivo Cerckel de Siquijor

  6. Jenny Says:

    I think Daniel has raised a good point on “well-being” here. In the political theory’s context, well-being means something which is “good” and worthwhile for countries to pursue. Nevertheless, what is “good” may not be “right”. For example, in order to “enhance” people’s well-being, the president has decided to start war against another country to obtain their oil resources. I am sure no one would disagree that this is not a just war. Hence, we can see that there is also a distinction between “good” and “right”.

    In a liberal context, we don’t just focus on how we could enhance people’s good living, but also concerns about the just and moral relation among states. Actually, these two concepts are often interrelated. In many cases, when we consider whether an international action is legitimate or not, a liberal argument is always more convincing and acceptable for all people in the world, not only for a particular nation. In the world with diverse values and cultures, a liberal approach definitely has its own merits in enhancing cooperation and trust among different countries. If everything is resorted to “power” at the end, it will be meaningless for us to distinguish right from wrong or good from bad. Realist should not be the only driving force in international relation and adopting a liberal approach may not be “unrealistic” at all.

  7. G. Daniel Says:

    Jenny’s comments can also be linked to this idea we were exploring yesterday of ‘common good’, ‘universal law’ and ‘universal truth’. Slave trading is a perfect example of how something can be judged good and morally just by a group/society (even the Catholic Church validated it) and be absolutely unacceptable only a few century latter.

    The universality of the enlightment is a secular version of the divine law. From an historical and sociological point of view all evidences points to the relativity and the social nature of concept of common good and its like.

    Interestingly Human Right discourse is very cautious with such universalist’s ideas and tends to use the concept of human dignity, which is always relative to people’s circumstances.

  8. HippoMay Says:

    I would have thought that the patterns of how ASEAN works is somehow a kind of “soft power” which might be different from what Nye suggested. Many people would have commented the “uselessness” of ASEAN, yet ASEAN is formed not to intervene the members’ states internal affairs but try to settle the disputes or differences in a peaceful manner and hope to gain effective cooperation among member states. It will be a bit unfair for saying ASEAN might seem “too liberal” and not being “realistic” enough. I do believe that relations and connections are built by “soft” means and that being too realistic is, yes, not a problem, but not the main concern or the aim of ASEAN.

    As many classmates have commented, having a single theory in a political system is almost next to impossible, and actually it doesn’t make sense to me as well. So I do not think ASEAN needs to “walk” more instead of “talk”…at the end of the day, EU’s main goal is to create a single market, and just my very humble opinion that it is very hard to achieve a common consensus. So will such goal deter EU from talking?

  9. Jessica Bellas Says:

    I thought I would try to send this posting in another direction…

    After reading the article entitled “ASEAN Pursues EU-Style Regional Integration” that was listed as suggested reading in the original post (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=8619), I am left to wonder how many of the issues identified in this article result from the culture in Asia. Please know that I am not trying to criticize Asian culture. I try to be one of the American expats who makes a genuine effort to learn about the Asian culture in a meaningful way. So, if I am completely off-base on my observations, I would be happy to be educated and/or corrected by my colleagues. I also apologize if my observations are overly simplistic. My intent is not to offend anyone.

    One of the things that I have observed during my brief residence here in Hong Kong is that change and decision making occurs incrementally. For many Westerners, myself included, this incremental change may seem very slow and can result in frustration. In addition, I have also been trying to learn about the social and cultural concepts of “saving face” and “social harmony.” I think that all of these concepts can apply to the analysis of ASEAN in the article as the article points out that there has indeed been incremental change in ASEAN, particularly in regards to firmer positions regarding Burma and North Korea. Perhaps the members of ASEAN are still concerned with maintaining harmony and are only comfortable with incremental change? Perhaps they are reluctant to make waves? Could this result from cultural norms?

    In addition, I have read many statements in the newspaper over the past year from officials in China explaining China’s policy of “non-interference.” It seems to me that China does not want to have its internal affairs examined by anyone, particularly the US, so it does not criticize the internal affairs of other countries. Western countries merely see this type of justification as an excuse to ignore the ethical behavior of other countries, namely human rights. Most notably, the US criticizes China for obtaining natural resources and bolstering the economies of some countries in Africa that have questionable human rights practices, such as Sudan. Anyway, with this in mind, I was not particularly surprised to read the following criticism of ASEAN in the article:

    “One of the criticisms that have been directed against ASEAN is that its noninterference policy prevents the group from criticizing, let alone sanctioning, countries like Myanmar for human- rights abuses.”

    Perhaps this reluctance to publicly criticize another nation results from Asian cultural norms?

    As someone who is new to living in Asia, these are some of the thoughts that I had as I read the article. Again, please keep in mind that I am still low on the learning curve regarding Asian culture and Asian politics so I really hope that I did not offend anyone. Keep in mind that I am usually the first one to criticize my own government in class so I am not trying to act as an “Ugly American” in my comments. I was so unhappy with my own government that I left the country so I am not trying to say that the Western way of doing things is the right way.

    I look forward to comments and feedbacks from others.


  10. Philip Poon Says:

    Hello Jessica, actually I enjoyed very much your sharings in class! It’s to the point, frank and humorous. With regard to your comment, I think in a way, your observation is right, that mojority of Asians tend to be non-confronting. Back to IR theory, I suppose it’s part of the “Asian Value” that was much discussed in the IR field some years ago.
    As a Hong Kong chinese, I certainly would not regard your frank and fair observation “offensive”.
    However, looks like we are not discussing the chance of ASEAN possibility of further integration and had swifted to issues of “people’s well being”, “common good”, “saving face” and “social harmony”!
    As far as I am concerned, I do see a chance for ASEAN to start integrating, though at a very slow pace, in order to cope with the new world order and the new transantional problems and in order that they can be in a better position to handle collectively with the big powers.

  11. Kenneth Li Says:

    Unlike EU, ASEAN countries love to ‘talk and talk’. We all know that they hold a lot of summits at different levels, running a number of meeting, etc. Officials spend a lot of time to travel and talk but there is little ‘value-added’. ASEAN countries rarely resort to use constitutions to bind on fellow member states. ASEAN members know their own strengths and weaknesses. They know well that they would have no bargaining chips i their pocket if they act on their own. Thus, ASEAN was formed to protect and seek their mutual benefits/ interests. Ralph has correctly pointed out that they have a slow (and perhaps ‘ineffective’) decision making process. However, this is the way they do things. I believe ASEAN would continue to set their priority on economic gain as they see this as the most effective means to strengthen/ build up their own states. In this regard, EU should learn from them in this aspect!

  12. Iris Chan Says:

    I think Jessica’s observation regarding the setback of ASEAN’s operaton is very true. Again, I do not find your comments offensive. In contrary, I admire your distinctive analysis in sifting out the very reasons contributed to the ineffectiveness of ASEAN in resolving human security issues in the region.

    I also would like to echo Kenneth’s comment in pointing out the priority of individual member state remain in economic aspect. If you look at each individual member state, there is hardly a nation who has achieved profoundly in the issues like “human right”, universal value of moral and just as compared with the Western countries. If the member states themselves do not see the importance of improving their own human security issues, how could we expect a breakthrough regional wise?

  13. Jessica Bellas Says:

    I am glad to hear that I was not perceived as an Ugly American with my post and I am a bit relieved. However, based on Philip’s post, I am a bit worried that I did not convey my point very clearly. The point of my post was to say that perhaps some of the reasons that ASEAN might not be as integrated or effective as some would hope was as a direct result of the cultural factors that I mentioned. Of course, this would certainly not be the only reason but I wondered if it could be part of the reason. Just food for thought…..

  14. Philip Poon Says:

    Thank you for your clarification, Jessica!

  15. fannyl Says:

    I missed all your inspiring discussions in class but if i need to respond to the topic, I would say no, ASEAN will never be like EU.
    There are constructual, cultural and historical differences between EU and ASEAN. ASEAN is expanding, but we need to notice one big thing, that is the role of China. China is no doubt the virtual leader of ASEAN,but with the influence of other countries, ASEAN can never walk on its own course. Ironically, there is one common point of ASEAN members and participants of the East Asia Summit—economic benefits.I assume they may ask the same question, “what’s the catch?”. Economic attractiveness I think is the main concern at this stage.
    Do they ever touch on human right issue? not quite. Jessica is right, they pursue “non-interference” policy just because they don’t want to be interfered. ASEAN may “look” like EU, but in spirit? no.
    ASEAN also needs reform to get rid of the “talk talk talk” nature. I just read the comment of Singapore deputy PM from the wires, he says ASEAN need will to reform, to adopt a set of sweeping reforms to make ASEAN more disciplined and dynamic, moving more to a rules-based organization.
    In the cultural aspect, I think I don’t need to mention much. I smiled when I read Jessica’s comment about what she encountered in Hong Kong. You are right to the point, Jessica. ASEAN will never like EU, just like Hong Kong will never like New York, Hong Kong will never like London….

  16. Rachael Tsang Says:

    I would agree with Iris’ first post that ultimately, nations would only care about their interests. Why nations come together and “talk” because they are looking for benefits to protect and sustain their own selves in the region, from which reminded me what we once discussed in class – back then, is it just human beings’ selfishness to goad?

    ASEAN as a multi-national body, I would say, is still at a very elementary stage of formation, plus at the core, ASEAN is rather different from EU. A lot of countries inside EU are bounded by the currency they are commonly using, so I think they will practically do something at least in economic terms. While as for ASEAN, it seems they are paying more attention to their external relations with other North Asian countries than resolving problems within themselves. So, to me, I am not that optimistic with ASEAN becoming a simulated EU in Asia.

  17. Rachael Tsang Says:

    Yeah, Fanny! I am with you. ASEAN will never be like EU.

  18. Philip Poon Says:

    Looks like most of us are realists and do not believe that liberal arguments can convince realists ASEAN states to at least start integrating towards EU model.

  19. Adam Blinick Says:

    Great blog and follow-up conversation. I’d have to say–and perhaps this is just an inherent realist reading on my part–but that ASEAN is already half way to be coming like the EU. International instituations, including the EU, ASEAN, the UN, NATO, and NAFTA, seem to be great steps forward to realizing some sort of norms of behavior in the international community. Still, they cannot cover the differences that remain between member states, nor likely dissuade each other from straying from their respective institution’s core tenets. This is because often within the authoring of these institutions, member states are sure to include provisions which ensure that their soveriegnty is respected. That is why European countries make bilateral energy deals while the EU is trying to formulate a unified energy policy, or why ASEAN was relatively quite regarding the humanitarian crises in East Timor and Myanmar. That said, these institutions do have their value by simply creating a formal medium to enshrine values–be it economic, political, or social–that its members should strive to realize.

  20. helenszeto Says:

    ASEAN cannot copy the EU model right away. When we relate ASEAN with EU, there are a few variables needed to be considered.
    One, the starting motive. European integration was started all out of the WWII mess and the countries wanted to stick together just to avoid the nightmare happens again and to relieve faster economically. Now the ASEAN countries have their “Guanxi” mechanism working well which makes them win-win friends without war. Why bother then?
    Two, the culture. Union like EU is to stop balance of power mechanics. The concept of “balance of power” is very european itself. It is all about comparing, competition, suspicion and aggression over others, especially continental states. Always “me over you” or “you over me”.The term itself is so classic and long-constructed that it is easily taken for granted. But this is not necessarily the case in Asia. In Chinese history, China saw its neighborhood with Korea as “Lip-teeth” relationship, that neighboring countries are like the lips and teeth that they are interdependent against threats. And Sunzi, the most influential ancient war strategist in China, also said that the hightest level of victory is winning without fighting and casualties, just wits. At the end of the day, China should know very well from its history that invading other territories is costly to maintain order and does not necessarily bring national strength.
    Three, the power composition. The Asia continental states does not balance like the European ones. China obviously far dominates the other Asian counterparts, in an extent far more than France and Germany dominates European continent. The large contrast of power in Asia makes an union like EU practically difficult and diplomatically threatening for small sovereign states. Besides, China as the single big power on the continent actually helps stablize the region, similar to regional hegemony. No need for costly institutionalization.
    Four, political composition. The large variety of political regimes of Asian countries simply makes a politically-binded union a joke…

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