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Time for ASEAN minilateralism on Myanmar and territorial disputes in the South China Sea

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Manila – The great medieval historian Ibn Khaldun once observed that even the greatest of empires would collapse once they lose their internal cohesion (assabiyah). The process of decline, he argued in “The Muqaddimah,” can take place after only a few generations, especially when the ruling elite suffers from “psychological defeat.”

Once the paragon of successful regionalism in the postcolonial world, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is suffering from a similar process of decline and psychological defeat. Whereas once the region body was co-led by luminaries such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, the regional body is today dominated by a coterie of petulant despots and hapless diplomats.

Far from serving as the “engine” of pan-regional integration, ASEAN is nowadays a hotbed of indecision and internal divisions. To be fair, there are exceptions, most notably Indonesia, whose progressive leadership has tirelessly sought to steer ASEAN toward greater centrality in regional affairs.

But in the “consensus-based” club, there is just so much that a proactive member or two can do. It shouldn’t come as surprise, then, that ASEAN has failed to play any meaningfully constructive role on a whole host of regional crises, from the postcoup fallout in Myanmar to the festering disputes in the South China Sea.

If there is one thing that history teaches us, however, is that ASEAN is not a monolithic body. Time and again, the regional group has shown its ability to rise to the occasion and overcome the inherent dysfunctions of Asian-style multilateralism. And ASEAN is often at its best when it adopts “minilateralism,” namely flexible, ad hoc yet decisive intervention by core members on sensitive geopolitical issues.

The myth of noninterference

Today’s ASEAN leaders suffer from either collective amnesia or deliberate deception, if not a combination of both. Southeast Asian leaders repeatedly advance the myth that the principle of noninterference is sacrosanct — namely, no nation, whether it be part of ASEAN or not, should openly criticize or intervene in the........

© The Japan Times

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