The ASEAN Charter was signed in November 2007 against the backdrop of the Burma monks’ protests just two months ago, which were suppressed by the military junta. The ASEAN Charter was supposed to deepen the integration of ASEAN as an economic community and further unite its members; ironically the summit in November served to highlight the vast differences among its member states.
Even before the charter was signed, critics have slammed the ASEAN Charter as being nothing more useful than codifying existing norms. Though ASEAN intended it to achieve a European–style economic community by 2015, existing realities are unlikely to make that plan come true. The economies of Southeast Asia are extremely diverse, with developed Singapore on one end and impoverished Laos on the other side of the spectrum. In addition, narrow state interests ultimately prevail over regional goals. Southeast Asian states are unlikely to embrace economic integration unless the benefits exceed the costs of doing so. Their track record so far has been discouraging, judging from the number of failures in implementing joint economic projects, reducing tariffs, increasing trade etc.
Though the ASEAN Charter has established a permanent secretariat to monitor progress on economic integration and has also turned ASEAN into a legal body, there are no concrete consequences for states which disobey rules set by summits or agreements. States are given the right to opt out of economic commitments, and they are also allowed to rejoin the economic agreements, thus making the process of integration long and difficult.
The Burma issue particularly attracts international attention. The military junta has faced US and EU sanctions but has survived economically due to trading with its Southeast Asian neighbours as well as China, which is its most important partner. According to the “ASEAN Way”, member states do not interfere in one another’s domestic affairs, to safeguard each of their own sovereignty rights. Thus, despite receiving international condemnation, Burma’s next–door–neighbors have been both unable and unwilling to interfere in Burma. Economic sanctions are definitely out of the question — Burma supplies 20 percent of Thailand’s energy needs while Singapore and Malaysia compete for timber resources. Any attempt to marginalize Burma will likely lead to its drift towards China or India, which is undesirable since ASEAN believes that overt external influence in the region will disrupt its security and peace.
However, to measure ASEAN’s success regarding Burma according to international standards could be unfair, since ASEAN’s formation stemmed from interstate tensions in its early years. ASEAN, by using its consultation and consensus mechanism, has managed to bring a diverse region together in one united front to create strength from unity. At the same time, a primary motivation for the founding of ASEAN was to protect individual state interests by ensuring all states would not interfere in one another’s affairs. Hence ASEAN’s strongly–worded statement on Burma, that they were “appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used” and their demand for Burma to “immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators” was a breakthrough, since they actually conformed to regional interests instead of state interests.
ASEAN’s mild–mannered stance in Burma has been a source of friction in its ties with the US, which has from time to time imposed economic sanctions on the military junta. The Bush administration is also perceived to rank ASEAN as one of its lower priorities in foreign policy, though Southeast Asia is often considered the second front in the War on Terror after Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus relations between the US and ASEAN are seen as generally decreasing, despite the fact China’s rise has allowed it to gain more influence in the region.
In conclusion, Southeast Asia is a truly, unique region in the world. From being condemned to a region of perpetual conflicts, it has transformed into a community with vast economic potential. It has survived the Cold War intact and even expanded from five original members to including all ten of the Southeast Asian states (Timor Leste, the latest state in the region, is currently on ascension talks). It has kept the region peaceful and secure for decades, and no serious military conflict has ever broken out. In addition, ASEAN has engaged in several areas of cooperation, abet with limited success in economic cooperation. However, in political and socio–cultural cooperation, it has been highly successful. Despite its perceived flaws, it will remain relevant to the world as it moves at its own pace toward its goals.