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What Kind of Agent is ASEAN?

16 Aug 2023

What Kind of Agent is ASEAN?

16 Aug 2023


This paper seeks to examine whether the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) functions as an actor, a forum, or a resource for its member states. Given that organizations can function differently across different thematic areas, this paper focuses primarily on economic facets and briefly discusses human rights objectives; these two policy areas are the most important in contemporary ASEAN politics. The research objectives were met by drawing on official documents, declarations, and stated missions of ASEAN and analyses extended in academic literature. The research finds that ASEAN functions as a forum. Its non-interference principles, institutional structure, and lack of enforcement mechanisms limit its functions as an actor and resource. ASEAN also heavily depends on China and international banks to meet its financial and development goals. Thus, ASEAN is almost entirely a forum, has limited resourcefulness, and is certainly not an actor of its own accord.


On 8 August 1967, five countries Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailandestablished the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN today has ten member states, including Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Despite its official formation in 1967, ASEAN was previously a more embryonic organization—the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA)—comprising only Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand (Khoman, 1992). Its principles also stem from a series of other historical periods, not just an agreement in 1967. ASEAN’s guiding principles are largely based on the Bandung Conference of 1955 (Rajaratnam, 1992). The core objectives among states at the Bandung Conference included economic and cultural cooperation, protecting human rights and self-determination, peaceful coexistence, and non-interference in sovereign affairs (United States Government, n.d.).

ASEAN’s principles form the ‘ASEAN Way.’ This comprises the non-interference principle, consensus-building for decision-making, and adhering to international norms and cultural plurality. Its development and evolution in the southeast Orient produce stark differences from operations of international organizations in the West (Ergenc, 2020). Nevertheless, some claim that ASEAN may be “the most successful inter-governmental organization in the developing world today” (Association of Southeast Asian Nations, n.d.(b), para. 1). It may be interesting to evaluate such claims to expand our knowledge around ASEAN.

However, what ‘success’ should mean for ASEAN is a normative question. Alternatively, analyzing the kind of international agency of ASEAN still helps understand the organization better. Therefore, this paper investigates whether ASEAN functions as an actor, a forum, or a resource in achieving organizational and member states’ interests and objectives.

In doing so, this paper uses the ‘obligations,’ ‘compliance,’ and ‘enforcement’ framework to understand the functioning of ASEAN and the ‘actor,’ ‘forum,’ or ‘resource’ categorizations provided by Hurd (2021) for analysis.

ASEAN’s obligations and goals

ASEAN’s obligations can be first understood from its founding documents—the 1967 inaugural declaration and the 2008 ASEAN Charter. Founding treaties elucidate an organization’s commitments, powers, and activities (Hurd, 2021). ASEAN’s primary mandate is oriented toward peaceful, cultural, and economic relations (Ergenc, 2020). Military affairs were deliberately excluded to prevent complications (Khoman, 1992). Its charter outlines its mandate to “maintain and enhance peace, security, and stability and further strengthen peace-oriented values in the region,” “ensure that the peoples and member states of ASEAN live … in a just, democratic, and harmonious environment,” and “create a single market and production base which is prosperous” (ASEAN Charter, Art. 1(1), 1(4), 1(5)). To that end, member states are obliged to “take all necessary measures” and align domestic legislation in pursuit of meeting the charter’s objectives (ASEAN Charter, Art. 5(2)).

ASEAN’s obligations are broad-ranging and vague, which is typical of regional organizations when compared to field-specific international organizations. The former strive to integrate local political economies, while the latter are usually focused on a substantive issue (Hurd, 2021); for example, the World Trade Organization focuses solely on international trade and the International Monetary Fund largely focuses on matters of international economics. Coupled with the principles of the ASEAN Way, it appears that the organization strives to function as a forum and resource. Its member-states would not support ASEAN functioning as an actor, given their emphasis on non-interference. Moreover, since ASEAN Summits are comprised of heads of states (ASEAN Summit, n.d.(a)), its resolutions are states’ resolutions, making states the real actors even if ASEAN is the actor at face value. In addition, the bloc’s governing body cannot take decisive action on substantive matters without states’ consent. Nevertheless, ASEAN was hailed for fostering effective cooperation in earlier years (Rajaratnam, 1992; Nischalke, 2000). However, contemporary shifts may challenge these acclamations, too.

ASEAN’s subsequent declarations, practices, customs, partnerships, and evolving agreements are important to understand its obligations and goals. Initially, military affairs were deliberately excluded from ASEAN’s considerations. However, ASEAN has discussed and published declarations regarding security affairs in the South China Sea more often than it intended in its founding period (Khoman, 1992). It has also often reaffirmed respect for human rights. This has been more prominent in recent years with the case of Myanmar and joint statements with the European Union (Kipgen, 2012; Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 2022). Extending its initial objectives, contemporary visions such as ASEAN Connectivity 2025 (APMC) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) better explain the organization’s contemporary objectives. Under this plan, ASEAN has diverse ambitions to connect its member countries economically and through physical infrastructure (Mueller, 2020). Its mission to advance connectivity goes beyond ASEAN, having secured strong partnerships with China and other Asia-Pacific countries, significantly bolstering its economic goals and scope beyond its ten members (“ASEAN-China Joint Statement…”, 2021; Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 2020).

ASEAN’s contemporary partnerships play an important role in understanding the bloc’s role as an actor, forum, or resource. Partnerships, such as APMC and RCEP, are both applauded and criticized by many. Some commentators fear partnerships involving non-ASEAN states could deteriorate its regionalism and make bargaining difficult for what is currently an institutionally weak and less-united ASEAN (Jose & Samudra, 2022). It has also longed to remain a neutral actor (Ergenc, 2020). ASEAN’s actions amidst recent partnerships force it to satisfy parties beyond its ten members. Consequently, it may be losing its neutrality amidst resource-dependency challenges and the involvement of non-member states to keep others on board and continue receiving funding (Mueller, 2020). On paper, the inclusion of more states, programs, and their associated funding mechanisms strengthens ASEAN’s position as a resource and forum. However, these categorizations can only be confidently asserted upon examining its compliance, enforcement, and actual resources.

ASEAN’s compliance and enforcement

Ensuring compliance is essential to an international organization’s role as an actor or resource. Compliance must also be understood with nuance by considering why and when states do not comply. There are both “dramatic” and “subtle” moments behind compliance and non-compliance (Hurd, 2021, p. 6). Subtilities are not explored in this paper as they would require a separate in-depth investigation. Nevertheless, they are interesting and important events that encourage further research. Instead, dramatic moments around ASEAN’s human rights principles are explored, given their contemporary relevance. ASEAN originally focused heavily on economic cooperation but emphasized respect for human rights in its Charter and the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (Kipgen, 2012; Petcharamesree, 2013). Yet ASEAN has encountered issues with enforcing these obligations.

In contrast, this may not be an issue of non-compliance because of how vague and flexible the ASEAN Charter is (Hurd, 2021). Nevertheless, identifiable norms of the ASEAN Way and contemporary human rights agreements and reinforcements are violated. Compliance issues are also identified through a partial stepping away from legal positivist means of interpretation and banking on an “internal discomfort” of having a gross violator of human rights in ASEAN go unpunished (Hurd, 2021, p. 302). Moreover, external actors have constantly pushed ASEAN to nudge member-states to better comply with human rights principles. Thus, it can be assumed that human rights violations are indeed cases of non-compliance, albeit the level may be incomparable to violations like defying a United Nations Security Council resolution.

Making rules has not guaranteed their compliance, and non-compliance should not be criticized on a surface level merely as a ‘wrongdoing’. In an international order where states still prioritize national interests, enforcement mechanisms are imperative to foster compliance (Wendt, 1992; Hurd, 2021). ASEAN simply lacks enforcement mechanisms (Kipgen, 2012). It is almost entirely an ad-hoc forum for government negotiations (Hurd, 2021). Its only enforcement mechanism is found in Art. 20(4) of the ASEAN Charter, which states that a summit “may” consider measures in response to “a serious breach of the charter or non-compliance”. Moreover, decision-making is done with consensus, which makes punishing “serious breaches” or other bold actions difficult (ASEAN Charter, Art. 20). These facets of consent connect with a broader concept around international organizations (IO)—the IO paradox—explored further subsequently.

ASEAN’s compliance and enforcement issues around human rights reflect the IO-paradox—the complex dynamic created by interactions between IOs and states, beginning with states’ sovereign decisions to forego some of their sovereignty to IOs. Regional organizations encourage regional integration and common principles, such as human rights, but also endorse national autonomy at levels greater than international organizations such as the UN, Security Council decisions specifically, the IMF, and the WTO. But human rights enforcement often necessarily entails intervention (Ergenc, 2020). Yet, ASEAN’s Human Rights Declaration (2012) wards off confrontation, questions, and criticisms, restricting enforcement mechanisms to cooperation among member-states and the use of ASEAN as a forum (Petcharamesree, 2013). The ASEAN Charter also endorses non-interference simultaneously with the reinforcement of human-rights (Art. 14). Thus, member-states’ commitments may be empty promises as there are no reasonable expectations nor means for ensuring compliance and punishing non-compliance (Hurd, 2021).

Power politics may also disincentivize compliance. ASEAN is missing a hegemonic power that funds the organization largely and spearheads enforcement mechanisms of the organization or through its means, which makes compliance less likely. For example, the successful emergence of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is often partially credited to China’s leadership and substantial funding of the organization. The AIIB President, Jin Liqun, also stated in an interview that AIIB’s success is partially because of the active leadership role China is taking (CGTN, 2021). In addition, states that have stable bilateral relations with strong powers will not be compelled by the nudging of smaller powers, even if they are greater in quantity; e.g., Myanmar may be ignoring states’ calls to respect human rights because of its stable relations with China (Kipgen, 2012). This can also be found in ASEAN’s dealings around security in the South China Sea (Buszynski, 2003). Thus, ASEAN seems to be more of a forum than a resource and is not an actor.

ASEAN’s resourcefulness

In addition to charter and rules-based enforcement mechanisms, resourcefulness is important for ASEAN to achieve its more material goals and objectives. This is the final step in assessing if ASEAN is more than a forum. In its early stages, ASEAN was seen as a norm-builder, assisting its member states with state-building and unification among a scattered trade community. However, ASEAN’s contemporary functioning is highly criticized. Firstly, ASEAN’s thin bureaucratic structure reduces its resourcefulness and stifles achievements across policy areas (Ergenc, 2020). Secondly, the bloc’s contribution to achieving its contemporary APMC and RCEP plans must be understood better.

It appears that ASEAN struggles to maintain coherence and implementation of its agendas, lacks the centrality it envisions, is at odds with member states’ principles in some areas, and faces severe governance concerns (Mueller, 2020). In terms of funding, ASEAN relies heavily upon China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (“ASEAN-China Joint Statement…”, 2021). This partnership does not make ASEAN an actor, as it does not render ASEAN a unitary recipient of BRI projects; the projects are still bilaterally negotiated between China and recipient states. The prominence of bilateral negotiations shows that ASEAN has not, failed to, or lacks the power to negotiate collectively. It is a reflection of the lack of a united and stronger ASEAN bargaining front (Jetin, 2018). Thus, ASEAN’s resourcefulness remains limited.

Moreover, ASEAN’s partnerships, such as with China, are irreplaceable given that ASEAN does not have a strong treasury. The ASEAN Infrastructure Fund only has US$485.3 million in equity, while annual ASEAN states’ development requirements are US$60 billion collectively. Carrying out the APMC has largely depended on the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) extended annual infrastructure lending of $13 billion. However, this may instead reflect ASEAN’s success in developing synergy with other states to expand resources and achieve its objectives (Jetin, 2018). In contrast, this ‘synergy’ is mostly a criticism of ASEAN and this position is more accurate when taking power dynamics into account (Mueller, 2020). If most of ASEAN’s resources come from China, it reflects ASEAN’s non-resourcefulness and dependence. Moreover, ASEAN’s lacking unity among its member-states and low bargaining power means that the bilateral deals made are more beneficial for China. Essentially, ASEAN’s dependency and lack of bargaining force it to “engage with China on Beijing’s terms” (Mueller, 2020, p. 767).

ASEAN has been more of a resource for China than for ASEAN’s member states, as the bloc’s economic priorities provided trade, development, investment, and lending opportunities to China. Additionally, China’s interactions with ASEAN and its member states are not just about the economic opportunities it presents but also serves as a means of asserting soft power dominance to enhance its image, diplomatic relations, and regional cooperation against the West (Jose & Samudra, 2022). The array of regional and international power dynamics at play with China is large. An important brief consideration for this paper is the case of Japan. Although Japan is not among the ten member states of ASEAN, it is relevant because of the expansive scope of the MPAC and RCEP beyond ASEAN and Japan’s membership in the ASEAN+3 (alongside China and South Korea). Japan’s operations, military objectives, and funding for international projects and investments are often balancing acts against China. This makes increasing collaboration between ASEAN and Japan controversial as it impedes the bloc’s neutrality principles (Mueller, 2020). Overall, the many challenges and limitations ASEAN faces render it almost exclusively a forum in its current state.


This paper examines the foundational purposes of ASEAN and its contemporary functions to understand whether it serves as an actor, forum, or resource. It concludes that ASEAN functions primarily as a forum. An understanding of the contemporary role that ASEAN seeks to achieve is understood by referring to contemporary declarations, agreements, and partnerships, apart from its founding document and the new Charter. Such a review suggests that ASEAN is primarily an organization that aims to endorse economic, cultural, and human-rights cooperation by respecting principles of non-interference. However, this paradox of fostering regional objectives while respecting non-intervention principles disincentivizes compliance and makes enforcement near impossible on paper and impossible as observed in practice. ASEAN’s economic goals and resourcefulness amidst recent partnerships are also assessed. ASEAN’s dependency on funding from China and the ADB and other political dynamics regarding its neutrality principles highlight that ASEAN still functions mostly as a forum, even in times where its resourcefulness would have been greatly beneficial to its members. Shifting obligations and enforcement mechanisms, expanding its treasury, or developing a more united front with its members could enhance ASEAN’s role as a resource beyond just a forum. Key reforms could improve ASEAN’s regional governance, agency, and resourcefulness. 


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