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The 2011 Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk[1] report refocused the debate[2] on the role of regional institutions in global governance.  According to the report “This rise of regionalism is exacerbated by the inability of global institutions to adequately address challenges, but it also arises from an environment where nations acknowledge that there may not be sufficient response capability at an international level. There is general agreement that the unbridled pursuit of individual national interests would produce suboptimal results; in order to provide some leadership that extends beyond the national stage, there is a growing reliance on regionalism to stopgap this shortage of effective global decision-making”.

How will Southeast Asian regionalism fit in this emergent scenario given that there is no consensus on its role in shaping regional developments? [3]  The general view among realists, the dominant theoretical school, is that ASEAN has not been effective, unable to resolve conflicts and crises or even enforce its own decisions.   They believe that ASEAN is a talk-shop, focussed on process rather than progress.[4]   This view is challenged by the constructivists who argue that ASEAN has been instrumental to regional peace and stability by facilitating an environment that reduced sources of conflict through socialization and ideational (identity and norms building) processes.[5]  However a slightly different perspective emerges when ASEAN regionalism is viewed as a process of transition from the “old” to “new” regionalism.   It is perhaps instructive to recall the distinction between these processes.  Both regionalization and regionalism lead to regional integration.  Regionalization takes place beyond the state and is an informal and bottom-up process that encompasses market-driven activities, civil society activism and people-to-people interaction.  It includes the role of small businesses, multinationals, civil society organisations and spontaneous movement of people such as tourists, students and labour.  Regionalism on the other hand takes place within the realm of the state and refers to formal and coordinated action by states and elites based on ideas and visions to create a particular identity. [6]    The distinction between “old” and “new” regionalism, however, lies in the plurality of actors.  “Old regionalism” involves only the state and its institutions whereas “new regionalism” is “more pluralist and inclusive of different actors, institutional forms, combinations of actors and development experiences beyond Europe; is more interdisciplinary and multilevel in its analysis; is more likely to give consideration to ideas and identity claims, including the conscious, not just functional, actions of elites in the construction of regions”. [7]  ASEAN began its life as part of the “old” regionalism which was more concerned with sovereignty protection and preservation of the state (regime) in the highly polarized Cold War geopolitical environment.     However, today it is in transition to “new” regionalism.  Its declared intention to create the ASEAN Community[8]  is a recognition that regional integration need to go beyond state-centric concerns and include regional issues such as terrorism, transnational crime, natural hazards and financial crises.     In this context this paper argues that the reference to the “ASEAN region” is not only a means to project regional identity but also to pursue collective action.

The term “ASEAN region” has been used since the early days of ASEAN. An early usage of this term is in the 1976 Declaration of ASEAN Concord[9] which states that “Member states shall take cooperative action in their national and regional development programmes, utilizing as far as possible the resources available in the ASEAN region”. Today this term is also found on government[10] websites.  In both cases it could be argued that the term serves as a short form for geographical Southeast Asia.  Doubtlessly this term has served a similar function in many other instances as well.   However its employment in recent ASEAN documents is more interesting.  The ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework[11] document for example, links food security in the “ASEAN region” to the “welfare of the peoples at the centre of the ASEAN Community” in a way that seems to suggest that the members of the ASEAN Community consider the territorial space that they inhabit as the “ASEAN region”.    To move forward we need to conceptualise the “ASEAN region” and investigate its relationship with regional integration.

In this context this paper offers three sets of arguments.  First, it tries to show that the “ASEAN region” is a constructed identity that exists mainly in the minds of regional elites and as such it cannot be conceptualised in the same way in which traditional scholarship defines “regionness”. As it is a human construct the paper suggests that the ASEAN region is an “imagined region”.

Secondly, the paper locates the ASEAN region as the locus of the ASEAN Community. It also argues that the membership of the latter is greater than the sum total of the citizens of ASEAN member states because it also includes other entities and players that contribute to this constructed identity.

Finally, it posits that the “imaginedness” of a region is inversely proportional to its ability to undertake collective action and associates ASEAN’s perceived inability to act as a manager of regional affairs to its “imaginedness”.

Locating the “ASEAN region”

The dominant body of scholarship on the study of regions defines “regionness’ by demonstrating the geographical, cultural, geopolitical and economic linkages among the states that form a region.[12]  Although the “regionness”[13] of Southeast Asia has generally been well established, this approach doesn’t satisfactorily explain the “ASEAN region”, a concept born out of ASEAN regionalism which in turn is a response to Cold War politics.   Regionalism also played an important role in the construction of collective identities as they served as a frontline defence against the threat and challenges posed by the rapid globalization after the end of the Cold War.  Given the role of regionalism in the construction of regional identities which are ultimately human constructs[14], international relations (IR) scholars in particular have been critical of the traditional approach in the study of regions.  Therefore this paper argues that the “ASEAN region” should be understood as a “deliberate construction of the region, undertaken by the states, societies and peoples inhabiting it”.[15]

In order to do so it is necessary to establish the connection between “community”, “nation”, “state” and “region”.    Ernest Renan[16] famously asked “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (What is a nation?) in a lecture at Sorbonne in 1882.  According to him, a nation is a large community of people with a common heritage defined by a shared cultural and historical background with attachments to certain symbols and traditions, who have agreed to stay together and be governed by mutual consent in the future.  Nationhood is generally thought to be defined by cultural, geographical, political and historical attributes. A nation-state combines these attributes as well as political legitimacy in the form of constitution or laws, government and institutions of governance. However, the existence of a community need not necessarily connote a nation.  In fact pure nations and nation-states are rare in today’s world since colonisation and globalisation have rendered most modern states ethnically and culturally heterogeneous. Therefore the citizens of a modern state also constitute a community.  This community is an “imagined community”[17] as it is impossible for its members to know everyone else in the community and yet they see themselves as part of the community and have certain loyalties to it.  The modern state is “imagined” not only in the Andersonian sense but also because nationalism permits its members to identify themselves as belonging to a community (the state) though they may not necessarily share a common socio-cultural and historical heritage with some other members of the same community (the state).

Coming back to ASEAN, its founding leaders settled on the term “nation” because the alternative appellations that were being considered were not acceptable for one reason or other.[18]  ASEAN was chosen because it sounded like “Asian”.   So the term “nation” in ASEAN is meant to be understood as referring to distinct and independent Asian states occupying a given territorial space in Southeast Asia rather than nations in the formal sense.   However, the lack of a common identity was perceived as a threat to collective security.  This preoccupation with a regional identity is evident in the Bali Concord which states “Member states shall vigorously develop an awareness of regional identity and exert all efforts to create a strong ASEAN community”.  However geography aside, there was hardly any foundation for a regional identity.   There was no distinct and recognisable ASEAN culture beyond certain shared cultural and linguistic similarities.   Intra-ASEAN economic interaction was similarly limited.[19] There was also no common political and historical narrative shared by its inhabitants.   This is not surprising since the member states deliberately underplayed their political and historical differences for concern that their divergent views would trap them into the very Cold War politics they were trying to escape from.

Therefore the driver of this “old” regionalism was the desire to shield the region from external threats through the construction of a common geopolitical identity over the territorial space occupied by its members where its indigenous code of conduct would apply.   This code of conduct which eventually became known as the ASEAN Way [20] included norms such as non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, pacific settlement of disputes and decision by consultation and consensus.  The ASEAN Declaration, Declaration of Zone of Peace Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), Southeast Asian Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) and Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) are essential building blocks of the geopolitical identity and code of conduct aimed at creating a cordon sanitaire to insulate its members from the Cold War ideological conflicts.[21]  It was only after securing its geopolitical identity and relaxation of regional tensions that ASEAN attempted to construct an economic identity by initially pursuing Preferential Trade Arrangements and later, the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and free trade area agreements with other countries.[22]  More recently, the decision to pursue an ASEAN Community provided further opportunity to strengthen these identities while laying the building blocks of a security[23] identity as well.   Since the ASEAN identity evolved over time it also means that the “ASEAN region” referred to in the 1976 Bali Concord is different from its contemporary usage.  It could change once again if new members are admitted into the grouping.[24]   Hence the “ASEAN region” is a constructed identity that largely owes its existence to regionalism pursued through political decisions, declarations and statements rather than community-led regionalization.  In other words it is an imagined region.

Locus of the ASEAN Community

Foreign policy discourse intuitively assumes that the community that resides in this imagined region comprises citizens of the member states who will also be the members of the ASEAN Community.  Is this assumption correct?     If it was true it could be argued that an ASEAN Community existed from the very creation of ASEAN.    Since this is evidently not true, this paper argues that the ASEAN Community is more than the sum total of the ASEAN citizens.  But how do we identify the members of this ASEAN Community?  Clearly it includes the citizens of the member states.  As the “ASEAN region” is imagined it follows that the members should also include all agents of integration that could be collectively identified as “integrators”.  The integrators would include regional institutions such as the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), Council of ASEAN Ministers, institutional and bureaucratic structures as well as non-state agents of regionalization such as transnational sub-communities formed spontaneously through movement of tourists, labour and students, and agents of regionalization such as the growth triangles,[25] and entities associated with ASEAN[26] that reinforces a regional identify such as the regional business organisations, academic institutions, professional associations, think tanks and Track II bodies such as the ASEAN-Institutes of Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS) network and civil society organisations.  The web of interactions formed by these integrators, formal and informal as well as permanent and transient, shapes the identity of the ASEAN Community.   Identification with the region is also enhanced by shared symbols such as regional flag, currency, time, travel documents and other symbols that link them to the region. Through these interactions the members of the ASEAN Community are bound by a sense of regionalism and share certain identities, narratives and symbols that allows them to declare allegiance to that constructed region known as the “ASEAN region”.

Impact of imaginedness

Since the construction of a regional identity involves formal and informal processes it follows that “imaginedness” could be envisaged as a continuum between elite-led regionalism and grassroots-led regionalization.   A region whose identity is entirely constructed by elite-led processes can be said to be highly imagined.   On the other hand, a region where popular participation also contributes to the construction of the identity can be said to be a less imagined region.   In other words, the bigger the gap, the more imagined is the region and vise versa.   ”Imaginedness” (∆i) could be measured by the presence of integrators discussed earlier.  These would include regional NGOs, intra-regional movement of people and labour, presence of regional institutions of governance such as a regional parliament, courts, or regulatory bodies.  It also includes shared symbols such as flags, currency, common travel and identity documentation as well as intangibles such as a common time.   The greater the presence of these “integrators” (∑i), the less imagined would be the region and vise versa as shown in Figure 1.


 Fig.1 Relationship between the agents of regionalization and imaginedness of a region 

Given the higher chances of intra-regional travel and avenues for socio-political interaction, the community residing in a less imagined region would be expected to be more familiar with their region.  Consequently they would be expected to take greater interest in the affairs of their region and participate in the political processes open to them.    On the other hand, where there are fewer integrators the community could be expected to be less knowledgeable about their region and consequently less involved in its affairs.  What this means is that the elites who represent a less imagined region would have greater moral authority to push for collective action as they would have the legitimacy in the form of the explicit or tacit support of the people.   Such a region would also be expected to abide by its collective agreements.  Conversely, the elites of a highly imagined region would have less legitimacy to act on behalf of the region.  They may also have more incentives to defect from collective agreements or to be freeloaders to benefit from the public good derived from these collective agreements without contributing to it.    In such a scenario the elites may resort to further integration to constrain the recalcitrant members.  Such regionalism would generate fewer regional institutions and a less formal architecture.   Therefore the “imaginedness” of a region has important implications to the ability of the regions to participate in regional governance as shown in Figure 2.


Fig.2 Relationship between a region’s ability to take collective action and its “imaginedness” 

Consequence of “imaginedness” on ASEAN’s ability to take collective action

ASEAN has frequently been criticised for being unable to effectively deal with Myanmar or resolve internal conflicts among its members. [27]     Even efforts to introduce some degree of relaxation of the principle of non-interference through ideas such as “flexible engagement” or creation of regional institutions were not accepted.     This is because of disagreement within the grouping by one or more leaders may block collective action and because of the desire to maintain cohesion, collective action is avoided.   For example it took ten years before the grouping agreed to create the ASEAN Secretariat and almost 44 years before the ASEAN flag was allowed to be flown alongside national flags at government buildings.  Member countries also maintain a strong control on the proliferation of regional NGOs and other bodies that carry the name ASEAN.

However there is growing evidence that this region is on a path of becoming less “imagined” albeit at a slow pace.   Since the Asian financial crisis and the emergence of transnational challenges such as the haze problem, the avian flu epidemic, and natural calamities, it became necessary for ASEAN to relax its sovereignty-protection instinct and consider providing public good as a way strengthen its constructed identity.  Because of the nature of these transnational challenges ASEAN has started to experiment with a new set of integration measures that required changes to its institutional structures, its working methods and rules and hence the need for a Charter. [28]  Yet at the same time the transition to “new regionalism” is still incomplete partly due to the admission of the newer CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) members.  The need to strike a balance between addressing these new challenges and yet accommodating the concerns of the newer members who are still grappling with consolidating their domestic identities, dictates the pace of integration and effectiveness of its collective action.    In fact ASEAN’s inability to take collective action catalyses further integration as the elites seek to advance regionalism by creating more mechanism and structures.[29]   ASEAN’s decision to include discussion on the regional architecture[30] at the first East Asia summit in 2005 is a reflection of this impulse.  Therefore it can be envisaged that at a certain point in time the “imaginedness” of the “ASEAN region” would have reduced to a level where the grouping would be able to act as a true manager of regional affairs.  The ineffectiveness of global institutions in regional governance could hasten this transition.

[1] Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk, Davos-Klosters, Switzerland 25-29 January 2012  http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GAC_GeopoliticalRisk_Report_2012.pdf

[2] See for example Mearsheimer, John. J.”The False Promise of International Institutions”, International Security, Vol. 19. No.3 (winter 1994-1995) pp.5-49; Keohane, Robert O. and Martin, Lisa L.”The Promise of Institutionalist Theory”, International Security, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Summer 1995) pp. 39-51; Kupchan, Charles A. and Kupchan, Clifford A. “ The promise of Collective Security”, International Security, Vol.20, No.1 (summer 1995) pp. 52-61; Ruggie, John Gerard, “ The False promise of Realism”, International Security, Vol.20, No.1 (summer 1995) pp. 62-70; Wendt, Alexander, “ Constructing International politics”,   International Security, Vol.20, No.1 (summer 1995) pp. 71-81;   Mearsheimer, John. J.” A Realist reply”, International Security, Vol. 20. No.1 (Summer 1995) pp.82-93

[3] See for example Amitav Acharya and Richard Stubbs, “Theorizing Southeast Asian Relations: an introduction”, The Pacific Review, Vol. 19 No 2 (June 2006) pp. 125-134; Sarah Eaton and Richard Stubbs, “Is ASEAN Powerful? Neo-realist versus constructivist approached to power in Southeast Asia”, The Pacific Review, Vol. 19 No. 2 (June 2006) pp. 135-155; Hiro Katsumata, “Establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum: constructing a “talking shop” or a ‘norm brewery’?’, The Pacific Review, Vol. 19 No.2 (June 2006) pp. 181-198;  Shaun Narine, “The English school and ASEAN”, The Pacific Review, Vol. 19. No. 2 (June 2006) pp. 199-218;  Tsuyoshi Kawasaki, “ Neither skepticism nor romanticism: the ASEAN Regional Forum as a solution for the Asia-Pacific assurance Game”, The Pacific Review, Vol. 19 No.2 (June 2006) pp.219-237; See Seng Tan, “ Rescuing constructivism from the constructivists: a critical reading of constructivist interventions in Southeast Asian  security”, The Pacific Review, Vol. 19 No.2 (June 2006) pp. 239-260

[4] Jones, David Martin and Smith, M.L.R., “Making Process, Not Progress ASEAN and the Evolving East Asian regional Order”, International Security, Volume 32, Number 1, (Summer 2007), pp 148-184

[5] Amitav Acharya, “ Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order”, (Routledge, London, 2001)

[6] Ellen L. Frost, “Asia’s New Regionalism”, (Lynne Rienner Publishers, Colorado, 2008 pp. 14-16

[7] Alice D Ba, “ Regionalism’s multiple negotiations: ASEAN in East Asia”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2009) pp. 345-367

[8] Declaration of ASEAN Concord II (Bali Concord II) http://www.asean.org/15159.htm

[9] Declaration of ASEAN Concord, Indonesia, 24 February 1976  http://www.aseansec.org/5049.htm

[11]  The ASEAN Integrated Food Security (AIFS) Framework and Strategic Plan of Action on Food Security in the ASEAN Region http://www.aseansec.org/22338.pdf

[12] Sinderpal Singh, “Framing “South Asia”: Whose Imagined Region?”, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore, Working Paper No.9 (2001) pp.2-3

[13] For example see Ananda Rajah, “Southeast Asia: Comparatist Errors and the Construction of a Region” in Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Vol. 27, No.1, 1999 (Special Issues on Reconceptualising Southeast Asia) pp. 41-53

[14] Ananda Rajah pp 44

[15] Amitav Acharya, “Imagined Proximities: The Making and Unmaking of Southeast Asia as a Region”, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Volume 27 Number 1 (1999): 55-76

[16] Renan, Ernest. “What is a Nation?” in Eley, Geoff and Suny, Ronald Grigor, ed. 1996. Becoming National: A Reader (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) pp. 52-54

[17] See Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” (London: Verso, 1993) pp 5-7

[18] Ann Marie Murphy, From Conflict to Cooperation in Southeast Asia, 1961-1967: The Disputes Arising out of the Creation of Malaysia and the Establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Ph.D Dissertation, Columbia University, 2002) pp 343

[19] Intra-ASEAN trade in 1967 is estimated to be around 12-15% only http://www.unescap.org/tid/artnet/pub/wp2106.pdf

[20] Mely Caballero-Anthony, “Regional Security in Southeast Asia – Beyond the ASEAN Way” , (ISEAS Publications, Singapore, 2005) pp. 49-79

[21] Ann Marie Murphy, pp 5-10, 305-366

[22] ASEAN has Free Trade Agreements with Australia and New Zealand, China, India, Japan and ROK

[23] The Bali Concord II envisages the ASEAN Community comprising three pillars namely the ASEAN Political and Security Community, the ASEAN Economic Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community http://www.asean.org/15159.htm

[25] Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore Growth Triangle (IMS-GT), Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) and the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA).

[26] Entities associated with ASEAN http://www.asean.org/21864.htm

[27] See for example “ASEAN members should stop having themselves on” http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2008/12/02/asean-members-should-stop-having-themselves-on/; “Forcing help on Myanmar” http://www.economist.com/node/11412481; “ASEAN and the temple of doom” http://www.economist.com/node/11792512; “Southeast Asia Talks Leave Two Key Issues Unresolved” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/09/world/asia/09asean.html

[28] See for example Mely Caballero-Anthony, “The ASEAN Charter An Opportunity Missed or One that cannot be Missed”, Southeast Asia Affairs 2008, Edited by Daljit Singh and Tin Maung Maung Than, (ISEAS, Singapore, 2008)

[29]  See for example, Yoshimatsu, Hidetaka, “Collective Action Problems and Regional Integration in ASEAN”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2006), pp.115-140 and Tsuyoshi Kawasaki, “ Neither skepticism nor romanticism: the ASEAN Regional Forum as a solution for the Asia-Pacific assurance Game”, The Pacific Review, Vol. 19 No.2 (June 2006) pp.219-237

[30] Chairman’s Statement of the First East Asia Summit,  Kuala Lumpur, 14 December 2005   http://www.aseansec.org/23310.htm