The New ASEAN Community In Mirror Of European Community – Analysis


By Niccolo Beduschi*

The recent 27th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Kuala Lumpur has announced the establishment of the ASEAN Community by the end of the year, marking the culmination of a decades-long effort to integrate the region. In the words of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, the ASEAN is “a body with one vision, and one identity; an association that will be reborn as One Community, ready to take its place on the world stage as a new force in the Asia-Pacific and beyond”.

The foundation of the ASEAN Community invites the comparison with the European Union, and in particular its mid-Community phase. However, the complex integrational paths within the EU and ASEAN up to date seems to be only superficially similar, with some hope of more substantial convergence in the future.

In structural terms, the ASEAN Community is actually comprised of three pillars, namely the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (that will not be explored in this article for reasons of its scarce depth), the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Each pillar has developed on the path of a specific ‘Blueprint’ from 2009 to 2015 and now in a renewed version from 2016 to 2025, as part of the general ASEAN Community Vision 2025.

Before the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, the European Union was itself divided along three pillars: the European Communities (of which the former European Economic Community is the most relevant element), the Common Foreign and Security Policy and Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters. In a creative effort, thematically, the Socio-Cultural and the economic dimension of the ASEAN can be transferred under the first pillar of the European Union, while the ASEAN Political-Security Community is divided in the last two pillars.

In a thematic approach, starting with the security community, it is possible to see how both the EU and ASEAN have started to develop early on in their history with security policy. However, while in Europe the so called Brussels Treaty of 1948 already sanctioned the principle of collective defence, ASEAN made in 1971 a mere declaration of neutrality, and one of amity in 1976. It is important to note that the Brussels treaty and its implications was not incorporated in the European Union until the Lisbon Treaty of 2007. Therefore, the EU and ASEAN did not, legally speaking, differ greatly in their ‘Community phase’ regarding collective defence.

On the other end, it can be argued that under the second pillar of the EU, the Common Foreign and Security Policy clause was considered implicit because of overlapping of the membership with NATO. The EU indeed moved further on in the scale of security integration. The EU established in 1999 a High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and quick deployment ‘battle groups’ of 60.000 troops. The Union could launch its first military operation, Operation Concordia, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, in December 2003 and to develop its capabilities the European Defence Agency was created in 2004.

The ASEAN is not expected to meet such integration by 2025. ASEAN devised its first Blueprint for the APSC for the 2009-2015 period based on “the principle of comprehensive security” through norm setting, conflict resolution and post-conflict peace building. The focus seemed to rest on intrastate and transnational security issues of which the most concrete manifestation are the 2013 military exercises in the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster, military medicine, counter-terrorism and maritime security. The 2016-2025 Blueprint adds little to previous with an ASEAN Plan of Action to Combat Transnational Crimes covering, inter alia, money laundering, sea piracy, cybercrime and trafficking with the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Maritime security is also enhanced with the specific mentions of the South China Sea and China in the framework of a doctrine of self-restraint. The lack of a collective defence agreement in the Southeast Asian region, including through proxy organizations, incapacitate the implementation of measures that amount to more than confidence building.

The most developed and central pillar of the ASEAN Community as well as for the European Union is the Economic Community with the flagship project of the Single Market. Beyond the resemblance in the titles, the choice of words differs at closer inspection. While the European and the ASEAN single markets agree in principle in the free flow of goods, services and capital, they differ when it comes to people. While the EU mentions simply ‘people’ as the first of the ‘four freedoms’ of its market, the ASEAN refers to ‘skilled labour’ in its official documents.

Although nine out of ten ASEAN Member-States citizens enjoy visa-free travel in the region and eight skills mobility oriented mutual recognition arrangements have been concluded in the region, this hardly compares to the total freedom of movement that citizens enjoys in the borderless Europe.

The differences run deeper in the nature of the two frameworks and two economic theories can help explain it. The first theory is the classical Balassa stage approach of economic integration where five sequential stages are devised: free trade area, custom union, common market, economic or monetary union and total economic integration with fiscal policy. While the EU, with the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community, provided for the creation of the first three steps of the Balassa model, the ASEAN moved seemingly directly from the first step to the third, ignoring the custom union step, which is not a goal in the ASEAN Economic Blueprint 2016-2025.

Without a custom union, a genuine common market cannot be created as a member-state like Thailand with an external tariff of 43.2 per cent would not allow external goods to flow in its market through another member-state like Singapore that has virtual no external tariff, bypassing the external tariff of the former. The second economic theory to understand the nature of the ASEAN single market is in the distinction between positive and negative integration where the former stand for the active transfer of powers to common institutions while the latter stand for the removal of barriers and discrimination in national economic rules.

In other words, it is the difference between removing rules and making rules, such agreeing on a common external tariff. Normally, both positive and negative integration are expected to fulfil a European-like integration, however, in the ASEAN case, the negative element can be predominantly witnessed which results is a shallow integration or mere trade liberalization.

The degree of institutionalisation of the two organisations is the key variable to explain most of the variations in terms of integration. Within ASEAN there is no Southeast Asian equivalent of a European Commission, nor of the Parliament or of the Court of Justice; supranational authorities to deal with decision making, law-making, enforcement and resolution of disputes. ASEAN has indeed a secretariat based in Jakarta, however its powers are mostly logistical and figurative with most of the Organization relaying on the ‘ASEAN way’ which emphasizes informality and consensus with the avoidance of binding agreements and regulatory frameworks as well as the principle of national sovereignty and non-interference.

In conclusion, the ASEAN and the European ways to build a community seem not to meet, yet. There is no single model for integration, and models are not pure, as the EU itself has a strong intergovernmental dimension, but ASEAN’s evolution have always been looking at the European experience. ASEAN is European in the words it uses, in its appeal to community building and values, including human rights with its ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. ASEAN increasingly stresses in its documents its move towards a rules-based Community while reinforcing the Secretariat and reiterating the centrality of ASEAN in international processes. The pace and the ambitions of the ASEAN Community building cannot be ignored, but the underlying problem of the mismatch between expectations and reality remains.

*The writer is a Researcher at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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