Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 June 2017
This paper is an effort to assess ASEAN's efforts at reform and their implications. Can these measures achieve the goal of rejuvenating the organization or are they aspirations that transcend ASEAN's structural and political capabilities? If the latter point, then what are the long-term prospects for ASEAN's regional relevance? This paper draws on Mohammed Ayoob's (1998) theory of ‘subaltern realism’ to examine ASEAN's development as a regional actor. Subaltern realism argues that concerns with nation-building are the most significant factors shaping the foreign policies of developing world states. This theory offers some key insights into ASEAN's evolution and limitations.
Drawing on subaltern realism (SR), the paper examines the content of the ASEAN Charter and ASEAN's goal of creating an ‘ASEAN Community’. Subaltern realism suggests that both of these efforts are at odds with the political realities of most ASEAN members. The analysis bears this out. The ASEAN Charter embodies norms and values that, in practice, are in contradiction. It juxtaposes a traditional ASEAN emphasis on non-intervention with commitments to human rights and democracy. There is little reason to think that most ASEAN states will respect these commitments. Similarly, creating an ASEAN Community is, at best, a long-term project and one that faces many practical limitations. From this argument, it may seem that ASEAN's days as a functional institution are limited. However, such a conclusion is premature. The second prong of the argument shows that while the strength of ASEAN's identity may be at issue, the unique qualities of the East Asian political environment in which ASEAN operates allow it a prominent and meaningful role in the regional architecture. The rivalries between China, Japan and the United States (US) — and, potentially, India and Russia — create a political space within which ASEAN may exercise significant regional influence. Whatever emerges, ASEAN will follow an atypical path of institutional development.
THE LIMITS OF ASEAN: THE PROBLEMS OF INSTITUTIONAL REFORM
The 1990s were a pivotal decade for ASEAN. The cessation of the Cold War ended ASEAN's confrontation with Vietnam over the latter's 1978 invasion and subsequent occupation of Cambodia — an event that gave ASEAN focus for more than a decade. ASEAN needed new purposes.