ASEAN in a Changing World

by Agata Ziętek (Volume editor) Grzegorz Gil (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 264 Pages


As the center of gravity in international relations pivots to Asia-Pacific, the ASEAN region is emerging as both an important player on the global stage and an arena of international competition that includes a power struggle between the U.S. and China. With ASEAN’s competitiveness on the rise, however, its unity is hardly certain. In a changing world, economic and political protectionism gains a foothold. The book synthesizes our knowledge about ASEAN, with a specific emphasis on hot-button issues ranging from its domestic dynamics to external relations. It also reflects an evolution in ASEAN studies, which have largely shifted from a purely economic approach to understanding the region to a security-oriented one. Collectively, this book conveys an unambiguous and urgent message: ASEAN matters.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • ASEAN in a Changing World. Introduction
  • Anticipating a New International Order
  • ASEAN: An Organization in the Making
  • Singapore’s Approaches toward ASEAN Integration
  • Merchandise Trade Development in ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Since the Asian Financial Crisis
  • The Code of Conduct in the South China Sea: ASEAN- China Cooperation
  • The Road to Destabilization? The Problem of Militarization in the South China Sea Region
  • From the Fukuda Doctrine to the Abe Doctrine: Japan’s Policy toward ASEAN under the Second Abe Cabinet
  • Confronting China’s and the United States’ ASEAN Policies
  • ASEAN and the EU: From Pupil to Strategic Partner?
  • The Asia- Pacific Community: An Australian Integration Project

←5 | 6→←6 | 7→

Agata W. Ziętek


Grzegorz Gil


Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin

ASEAN in a Changing World. Introduction


Southeast Asia is a unique region in many ways. Given its panoply of peoples, cultures, religions, and customs, it is the most diverse place on Earth in civilizational terms. From a geopolitical perspective, it retains both a mainland and maritime character while hosting diverse political systems and varying economic conditions. With so many dichotomies its integration is puzzling.

The region’s centuries-long exposure to foreign impacts shaped its regional kaleidoscope and stole its political stamina. However, such diversity and historical complexity did not prevent Southeast Asian polities from pursuing an integrationist project, as expressed in the Bangkok Declaration in 1967 at the height of the Cold War, when, in the words of Prime Minister of Thailand, one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), noted that the founding members “identified more with [the colonial powers] than ourselves of the region.”1 In 1967 it would have been difficult to find a more troubled region than Southeast Asia. As Southeast Asia represents the ‘Balkans of Asia,’ its divisions should lead to regional pessimism rather than triumphalism.2 In a way, ASEAN was born to fail, not to work. This partially explains why ASEAN’s founding members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – started with the premise of humility, in line with one Thai saying (“the fewer the plans, the fewer the disappointments”). Despite these shortcomings and occasional spite, since its inception, the grouping has grown both in quantity (from five to ten) and quality as a rare species of non-European regional success during the Cold War. Consequently, ASEAN has brought peace ←7 | 8→and prosperity to a region that has seen remarkable progress over the course of more than 50 years, with a population of more than 600 million people.

Fifty-three years from the birth of ASEAN, community-building efforts in Southeast Asia are ongoing, with the development of a three-pillar structure: the Political-Security Community, the Economic Community, and the Socio-Cultural Community. The Association has even developed the ‘ASEAN Way,’ which prioritizes informal and consensus-based decision-making over legally binding procedures outlined in treaties. This is its most intrinsic value added, which makes it a centerpiece of the region’s architecture – one whose many offspring include the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF, 1994), the Asia – Europe Meeting (AEM, 1996), ASEAN Plus Three (APT, 1997), the East Asia Summit (EAS, 2005), and the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership3).

The ‘ASEAN Way’ certainly has its weaknesses, as national leaders may try to advance short-term national interests without realizing that the prospects for success grow exponentially if interests are aligned and considered on a regional level. Nevertheless, we cannot exclude the possibility that the ‘ASEAN Way’ will become a more universal formula in international politics in the future – a formula that is not too intrusive but also remains productive enough to be replicated in more troubled regions (e.g., the Middle East). Thus, it is no surprise that Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng have called ASEAN a ‘miracle’4 whose characteristics include many civilizations (Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian) living in coexistence and experiencing notable economic growth. Finally, these developments have enabled the region to create an indispensable diplomatic platform that helps to bring global and regional powers together. In the past two decades, ASEAN has been accelerating its integration by adopting the ASEAN Charter in 2007 and establishing the ASEAN Community eight years later. However, it still needs to be given substance.

At the same time, with ASEAN’s competitiveness on the rise, its unity is not crystal clear. The changing world we live in poses challenges to regionalism as economic and political protectionism gains a foothold. The ‘authoritarian moment’ in politics, combined with climate change and COVID-19, represents a series of serious setbacks for regional integration.5 Consequently, ASEAN is at a turning ←8 | 9→point in both an internal and external sense. Unsurprisingly, the average score of ten ASEAN countries in the 2019 edition of the Democracy Index is symptomatic (4.99), with four of them (namely CLMV6) deemed “authoritarian regimes” and five labelled “flawed democracies.”7 In a way, the ‘ASEAN Miracle’ also seems to presuppose successful cooperation between contrasting types of regimes, as the issue of rule of law is absent or at best set aside in the regional agenda. Of course, such global rankings should be viewed with a degree of skepticism, as they interpret rather than explain reality. Furthermore, a detailed analysis (e.g., by the Center for Systemic Peace8) of the previous seven decades shows that the proportion of autocracies, anocracies, and democracies changes over time due to regional idiosyncrasies. However, the global crisis (or redefinition) of democracy is a big issue today. As ASEAN neighbors with China, which falls well short of being democratic, a former role model for the world of liberal democracy promotes isolationist slogans like “America First” and “Make America Great Again.”

As the center of gravity in international relations pivots to Asia, along with waning Western internationalism, Southeast Asia is once again emerging as an arena of international competition. In such a changing world, ASEAN’s centrality is vital for its member states, while negative externalities may undercut it. A hundred years after the open-door policy was first formulated by the White House, Southeast Asia is at the center of the interregional logistical scramble encapsulated in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the American Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP9), both of which build on the region’s demographic, economic, and geostrategic potential. Consequently, Southeast Asia (ASEAN) is being put on a collision course between the People’s Republic of China and the U.S. and their respective like-minded countries (including Australia, India, and Japan). ASEAN’s members are split, with some of them, such as Singapore, looking to the ←9 | 10→U.S., while others, such as Cambodia, reaching out to the PRC. We argue that the ASEAN region can serve as a litmus test for global primacy in the coming years.10

The year 2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community, and the 50th anniversary of the Bangkok Declaration, which established the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). EU integration has been a successful long-term project over many decades – the number of member states increased over the course of half a century from the initial grouping of six countries to 28 countries. However, 2016 became a watershed year in its history, as the United Kingdom held a referendum on continued EU membership and a narrow majority voted in favor of leaving the EU. For the first time in the history of EU integration, a majority within a member country had opted to relinquish EU membership, which shook the region and shocked the global community. Some said that this demonstrated the weakness of the EU itself. At the same time, thousands of miles away from Europe, we observe ASEAN as a rather dynamic and increasingly integrated group, partly inspired by the history of Europe’s integration. There is no doubt that ASEAN is currently less advanced than the EU in institutional terms; however, the growing group of ASEAN countries also stands tall as a regional integration success story. The near future will probably tell if ASEAN is able to maintain a low-profile institutional setting in the rising economic and political rivalry between the U.S. and China.

Both the EU and ASEAN serve as examples of regional integration processes. The latter is believed to be the only non-European integration success, while the former (the EEC and the EU) beats world records in advancing integration with supranational elements. This was the reason why the Department of International Relations and the Faculty of Political Science at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University (UMCS) in Lublin, Poland, decided to organize a conference titled EU – ASEAN: Models of Integration (September 18–20, 2017), which brought together academics and practitioners focused on integration processes in the EU and ASEAN. The conference started with a keynote speech by Professor Adam Daniel Rotfeld, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland, titled “Shaping a New Global Order.”

The conference began with a roundtable debate featuring the Ambassador of Japan to Poland, Shigeo Matsutomi, the Ambassador of Philippines to Poland, Patricia Ann V. Paez, representatives of the European Commission to Poland, representatives of the Asia-Pacific Department of the Ministry of ←10 | 11→Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, and several former Ambassadors of Poland: Tomasz Łukaszuk (Indonesia), Andrzej Jaroszyński (Australia), Xawery Burski (Malaysia, China), and Dr. Stanisław Kozłowski, former ministerial Counselor to Singapore. The roundtable was chaired by Professor Marek Pietraś, Deputy Dean of the UMCS Faculty of Political Science and Director of the International Relations Department.

It is ASEAN rather than the EU that has become a vital platform for great-power competition in a changing world. In light of this, we decided to look inside ASEAN and examine some external powers’ strategies toward the region. In this vein, the book is both an artifact of the conference and an attempt to explore Asia’s growing role in the world.

Literature on ASEAN

A brief literature review on ASEAN reveals many volumes and studies on its origins, functions, intra-ASEAN relations, and finally the Association’s external relations. For decades, in comparative studies, ASEAN has been presented as a surprising non-European regional success given both the internal and external challenges it has faced.11 Scholars have underlined its distinctive culture of dialogue, which it inherited from the Indonesian musyawarah and mufakat (consultation and consensus) as the lowest common denominator that has effectively put the organization forward. Since then, the ‘ASEAN Way’ has even started to spill over to the Asia-Pacific region. The literature reflects the three-pillar structure of the organization, exploring its political-security, economic, and socio-cultural dimensions. An important part of this research treats ASEAN as a dependant variable, focusing on the “making of” the Association or approaches “toward” it. Major works have been generally published on the occasion of anniversaries celebrating ASEAN at 30, 40, and recently 50.12 This approach to ASEAN opens endless questions on its significance for members13, ←11 | 12→relations with ASEAN, its role in the region, and the prospects for regionalism in Southeast and East Asia.14

In the 1990s, as the ‘ASEAN Way’ started to emanate outside the region, the organization was perceived as a regional hub, which is the only viable multilateral structure in East Asia. Some prominent research looks at ASEAN through the lens of its informal institutions (such as APT and ARF) as a gap filler on the road to regionalism in the Asia-Pacific.15 In a way, ASEAN also seems to serve as an independent variable that helps to explain regional affairs in the broader sense. After 2000, numerous books have adopted this premise to report on ASEAN’s relations with the outside world.16 With an emerging Southeast Asia and the ‘ASEAN Miracle’ itself, Western scholars also started to take interest in the Association.17 A vast part of this body of research refers chiefly to trade-related issues and understands ASEAN as a ‘trade broker’ given the many free trade agreements it has made since 2000.18 Its thrifty diplomacy usually prioritizes trade and economic cooperation as the most promising (neutral) agenda given the complexity of intra- and interregional political affairs.19 But trade is often followed by political issues. As ASEAN is a centerpiece of multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific, the literature also discussed the impact of ←12 | 13→Chinese and the U.S. policy toward the region as a whole.20 Finally, Southeast Asia and ASEAN are present in security studies as a regional security complex and the core element of regional order, respectively.21 Some part of the literature also applies formal modeling and theories in the ASEAN context, aiming to better explain and (de)value the organization.22 However, it needs to be noted that the theoretical debate over ASEAN and Southeast Asian security did not start until the end of the Cold War.

ASEAN itself (or particular ASEAN countries) has also become a subject of regional studies for Polish researchers. Just a sample of these scholars includes Bogusława Drelich-Skulska, Łukasz Fijałkowski, Krzysztof Gawlikowski, Marcin Grabowski, Edward Haliżak, Adam Jelonek, Małgorzata Pietrasiak, Anna Grzywacz, Agata Ziętek, and Katarzyna Nawrot. Some of these scholars have been of special importance in the development of Asian studies in Poland.

Edward Haliżak, a political scientist and one of the initiators of Asia-Pacific studies in Poland, authored a number of titles on the regionalization processes that have taken place there. The most well-known of these are the volumes Stosunki międzynarodowe w regionie Azji i Pacyfiku [International Relations in the Asia-Pacific, Scholar: Warszawa 1999] and Wspólnota Pacyfiku a Wspólnota Wschodnio-Azjatycka [The Pacific Community versus the East Asian Community, Scholar: Warszawa 2006]. Bogusława Drelich-Skulska looks at ASEAN’s regionalism through an economic lens in several books. In Regionalizm ekonomiczny w Azji Wschodniej. Jedno spojrzenie – różne wymiary [Economic Regionalism in East Asia: One View – Different Dimensions, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Ekonomicznego: Wrocław 2012], she presents the integration process from a broad perspective and tries to find the answers to the following questions: How has Asian economic regionalism evolved? What factors had a dominant influence on the shape of the new regionalism in East Asia? And how did the development of regionalism in East Asia allow countries located in other regions of the world to draw positive lessons for themselves in the future? As ←13 | 14→the author focused on Asian values, which are influential in the advancement of economic cooperation, she also makes a substantive contribution to Asian studies in other publications such as Azja-Pacyfik. Obraz gospodarczy regionu [Asia-Pacific: An Economic Portrait of the Region, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Ekonomicznego: Wrocław 2007]. Katarzyna Nawrot also prefers this economic approach to regional integration in several publications, including Determinanty rozwoju gospodarczego państw ASEAN [Economic Determinants of Development in ASEAN, Scholar: Warszawa 2008]. Integration in Asia Pacific is also a subject of analysis for Marcin Grabowski, who presents an institutional approach in his book Rywalizacja czy integracja?: Procesy i organizacje integracyjne w regionie Azji i Pacyfiku na przełomie XX i XXI wieku [Cooperation or Competition: Integration Processes and Organizations in the Asia-Pacific at the Turn of 20th and 21st Centuries, Księgarnia Akademicka: Kraków 2015]. As he compares and contrasts two organizations – APEC and ASEAN – he also depicts these institutions against a larger framework of the increasing geopolitical rivalry between China and the U.S.

In contrast, Adam Jelonek has focused more on the social and cultural determinants of integration. In his publications, which are largely based on his personal experience as the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines (2010–2014), he discusses the situation in specific ASEAN countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia. His publications include Separatyzm, wielokulturowość i budowa państwa narodowego w Tajlandii [Separatism, Multiculturalism, and the Building of a Nation State in Thailand, WUJ: Kraków 2011], Dylematy konsocjonalizmu. Przypadek Malezji [Dilemmas of Consociationalism: A Case Study of Malaysia, Scholar: Warszawa 2004], and Historia Kambodży [The History of Cambodia, Trio: Warszawa 2008].

There is a group of Polish authors that focus their research on individual ASEAN countries rather than ASEAN itself. However, the latter is a critical focal point in such approaches since it provides a strong framing for much of the discussion. For example, Anna Grzywacz analyzes Singapore from this perspective in her recent book Polityka zagraniczna Singapuru w regionie Azji i Pacyfiku [Singapore’s Foreign Policy in the Asia-Pacific, Asian Century/Instytut Boyma: Warszawa 2019]. She shows how a small country like Singapore can effectively influence Southeast Asian relations and advance good relations with the U.S. and China at the same time. Małgorzata Pietrasiak looks at ASEAN’s integration process from the Vietnamese perspective in Środowiskowe wyznaczniki polityki zagranicznej Wietnamu w obliczu procesów integracji z gospodarka światową [Vietnam’s Foreign Policy Determinants in the Process of Global Economic Integration, Adam Marszałek: Toruń 2010]. In more recent ←14 | 15→publications, she has focused on the modern stage of Vietnamese-American relations and documented Vietnam’s great pragmatism toward the U.S. when the two countries decided to abandon hostilities and mutual accusations from the Indo-China Wars and develop diplomatic relations. Pietrasiak stipulates that the American presence in the Southeast Asian region is important to Vietnam because it can counterbalance China’s growing position.

A more regional and non-economic approach can be found in the works of Łukasz Fijałkowski, who analyzes ASEAN in terms of regional security in Regionalny wymiar bezpieczeństwa w Azji Południowo-Wschodniej. Normy – instytucje – ład regionalny [The Regional Dimension of Security in Southeast Asia: Norms, Institutions, and the Regional Order, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego: Wrocław 2010]. More recently, Fijałkowski, together with Jarosław Jarząbek, have studied the security dilemma and securitization in two ASEAN member countries, Indonesia and Singapore, in Dylematy bezpieczeństwa militarnego państw azjatyckich. Wewnętrzne uwarunkowania sekurytyzacji [The Military Security Dilemmas of Asian States: Internal Determinants of Securitization, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego: Warszawa 2018]. Regional security issues have also been the focus of work by Agata Ziętek, who analyzes the situation in the South China Sea (SCS) as a source of tensions in Southeast Asia (e.g., in “The South China Sea: A Place of Rivalry and Power Management.” TEKA of the Commission of Political Science and International Affairs 11(1), 2016). Ziętek frames her study in the realist theory of international relations and perceives the SCS as a hotbed of rivalry among ASEAN countries with the engagement of the U.S. and China as well as an arena of balancing between them. In this approach, the SCS is all but a theater that represents the fractures within ASEAN, as the region is very divided on territorial claims. While some countries prefer a strategy of joining forces with stronger actors (bandwagoning) – either the U.S. (Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia) or China (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar) – others try to remain neutral (Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore).

Though these publications only partially illustrate the state of research on ASEAN in Poland, they have planted the seed for more in-depth and comprehensive Asia-Pacific studies that reflect key trends in East Asia and international research on ASEAN.

Structure and content of this volume

The composition of this book is not accidental. The editors intend to structure it as a compilation of domestic dynamics with the externalities that stem from ←15 | 16→ASEAN. The book is not meant to constitute a lexicon on ASEAN; rather, its purpose is to present the empirics of ASEAN from different angles. Thus, the focus is on depicting specific and essential stories as a region that began to coalescence half a century ago continues to find its place in the changing international order. On the other hand, ASEAN seems to be a litmus test for changes in regional and world politics, from the Asian financial crisis to the latest rivalry between the U.S. and China.

The book is a synthesis of knowledge on ASEAN, with a specific accent on hot-button issues. The editors hope that this perspective can be of practical value in the pedagogical process, furthering the traction that Asian studies have gained in academia in recent years. Of course, ASEAN is an unfinished story riddled with imperfections. Its integrity is not sacrosanct; this book is an attempt to explore it with eleven chapters on ASEAN’s characteristics, its external relations, and contextual phenomena of vital importance for its future. We believe that this book also reflects the evolution of ASEAN studies, which have largely shifted from a purely economic and developmental approach to one signaling the Association’s impact on high politics. This includes geopolitical competition between world powers and the hypothetical balance-of-power role of ASEAN itself.

The opening chapter by Adam Daniel Rotfeld is an excerpt from his essay published in 2017.23 In a changing world, the author ventures to predict the essence of the new international order, arguing that it cannot be imposed and “should be formed in the process of the mutual adaptations.” What is more, the main purpose and sense of the new order is to manage change, not to maintain the status quo.24 As the pivot to Asia symbolizes such change, the challenge of “change management” will inevitably apply to East Asia and ASEAN as well.

Despite some evident success in the process of integration, ASEAN still faces important challenges. Marcin Grabowski focuses on the development of ASEAN in the context of its institutional design as well as the historical development of the organization. He bases his analysis on both neoliberal and constructivist IR theories, and draws on concepts connected with institutional design. His narrative is based on three approaches. First, as states play a dominant role in the formation of ASEAN as an institution, and they lack interest in reinforcing the organization (which they treat as a secondary goal), ←16 | 17→rendering ASEAN observably weak. Second, building a genuine ASEAN community requires an ASEAN identity, which is needed among both ASEAN elites and regular people, but is missing at both levels due to a lack of funds to broaden integration and cooperation programs. Third, as the institutionalization of ASEAN matters to both elites and people, strong institutions (in terms of money, mandates, and personnel) are crucial to further develop the organization itself and its identity, but this empowerment is secondary to member states’ policies.

Singapore has been one of the strongest members of ASEAN, as the initiator or supporter of many institutional and non-institutional initiatives and changes. Bolstering the development of the organization is a key goal of Singapore’s foreign policy. In the next chapter, Anna Grzywacz attempts to reconstruct Singapore’s approaches toward the ASEAN Community and its three pillars: the Political-Security Community (APC), the Economic Community (EC), and the Socio-Cultural Community (SCC). Her analysis of Singapore’s foreign policy toward the ASEAN Community’s pillars shows that Singapore presents three different approaches: (1) moderate (although restrained) support for the Political and Security Community; (2) active (and ambiguous) support for the Economic Community; and (3) passive support for the Socio-Cultural Community.

Paweł Pasierbiak’s chapter presents developments in merchandise trade in the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) format since the Asian financial crisis. He stipules that, despite the Asian financial crisis and its global counterpart, trade links among the APT countries have been strengthened between 1998 and 2016. The relative value of intra-trade to total APT trade shows the strength of intra-APT trade, which can pave the way for further economic integration, as noted by author, despite many political roadblocks. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea seem to be the most burning issue holding this process back.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
ASEAN integration international order militarization of Southeast Asia interregional competition regionalism in Asia-Pacific regional security
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 264 pp., 9 fig. b/w, 10 tables.

Biographical notes

Agata Ziętek (Volume editor) Grzegorz Gil (Volume editor)

Grzegorz Gil holds a PhD in Political Science. He graduated with a degree in International Relations from the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin. He is a Team Europe expert at the European Commission. His interests encompass a range of topics, from state-building and international security to the external relations of the EU. Agata Wiktoria Ziętek is professor of political science and international relations and the Director of Doctoral School of Social Sciences at the Maria Curie Skłodowska University. Her research interest focus on Asia-Pacific, East Asia and lately on contemporary situation in South China Sea.


Title: ASEAN in a Changing World
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