Need for ASEAN Reform has Never been Greater

ASEAN burst into life in 1967 with the creation of the Bangkok Declaration, which detailed the aims of the organization, to promote economic, social, cultural, and educational cooperation as well as regional peace and stability through an assemblance of justice, the rule of law, and the principles of the UN Charter. In a very real sense, for a region racked by conflict and strife at the time, the creation of ASEAN was a message of unity.

However, the message of harmony expressed more than 55 years ago has been replaced by an unhealthy clash of state interests, indecisiveness, and institutional paralysis—particularly in the shadow of a regional crisis. And with the rise of China, ASEAN member-states are deeply divided on a number of critical issues, and on balancing, hedging, or bandwagoning with Beijing to derive economic benefits by association with the world’s second largest economy. ASEAN, reeling from a string of political and diplomatic failures, is badly in need of reform.

Failure to Negotiate a Code of Conduct

Illustrative of this need are the long, drawn-out negotiations on a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea. Back in 2002, ASEAN states agreed to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) as a means of managing maritime tensions in the region. While not all member-states have disputes with China, such as Vietnam, there was at least a commitment to collectively managing their disputes. 

While the Declaration helped boost confidence in reducing tensions, efforts to negotiate a broader, enforceable Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea has been a failure. China’s bullying and intimidation have muddied the waters on maritime delimitation between those with claims, as set forth in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China, by its default behavior, is jeopardizing ASEAN centrality.

While the whole process hinged on the idea that building confidence among parties would be enough to manage disputes, China’s behavior has been nothing short of frustrating for some ASEAN states. Nothing has deterred China—despite negotiations—from creating and militarizing artificial islands and challenging the sovereignty of states to rightfully consume resources within their own Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). It has also ignored the UNCLOS ruling from 2016 that invalidated its own “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea.

Failed Leadership on a Regional Crisis

Divisions within ASEAN are a big part of the problem. Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship has largely been a failure, and there were fears that its tight relationship with China would help Beijing steer negotiations once again in China’s favor. Its previous chairmanship in 2012 provided enough anxiety, as other members such the Philippines accused Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen of colluding with China and preventing the body from reaching an agreement. Other states without disputes are nervous to sign an agreement that would compromise their bilateral relationships. Reform, therefore, is required if member-states with credible disputes are ever going to see a CoC emerge that provides some relief from Beijing’s relentless pressure. Seeking unity or requiring consensus on regional issues is paralyzing.

The crisis in Myanmar also exposed deep divisions within ASEAN that exemplify the need for reform. Following the February 1, 2021 coup d’état that overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, ASEAN developed the Five-Point Consensus (FPC) at a summit in Jakarta in April of the same year. After the FPC was agreed upon, the next task of diplomacy was to agree on whether to include or exclude the military junta from future gatherings, pending progress toward its stated goals.

And even as ASEAN members were leaning toward a condemnation of the February 1 coup, and managed to block participation by Gen. Min Aung Hlaing at the ASEAN Summit in October 2021, it took just one renegade member-state, again Cambodia, to give Myanmar the dose of legitimacy it needed by directly engaging the junta appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wunna Maung Lwin, back in December. Cambodia’s “cowboy diplomacy” was a disaster for ASEAN’s effort to contain the crisis. It undermined efforts by more aggressive members such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore to block all forms of participation by the junta, while more authoritarian states like Thailand, which has personal ties with the junta’s generals, remained largely silent or opposed the idea or sought to delay it.

Inaction thus, again, paralyzed ASEAN: The organization’s legitimacy and credibility are being undermined while the bloc flounders in trying to maintain or uphold long-held principles such as non-interference in the affairs of fellow member-states. Myanmar, one of their own, through the Tatmadaw, are murdering and committing grave atrocities on their own populations.

The Possibility for Reform

Reform possibilities remain limited, however there are some intriguing possibilities. ASEAN on rare occasions uses the “ASEAN Minus X” (A-X) formula on areas of economics, allowing two or more member-states the opportunity to move forward with the assumption that other member-states will follow at some point in the future. Outside of economics, the A-X has been used to create legally binding pacts such as the 2007 ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism (ACCT) and the 2015 ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons. In the ACCT case, it went into force after only six states had ratified it.  The A-X formula might also work in matters of diplomacy as well. A related idea is to let the original five members of ASEAN—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore—which are Southeast Asia’s largest economies, take the lead.

This, of course, would fly in the face of five decades of consensus-oriented unity, which could undermine ASEAN’s main principle of institutional cohesion. The ACCT’s ratification came at a difficult time for the Philippines which reeled under intense fighting on the island of Mindanao. The issue however, is whether this would work in highly sensitive areas of diplomacy, particularly in the context of Myanmar.

Another reform proposal is to upgrade the ASEAN Secretariat, which like in the case of many regional bodies such as SAARC and BIMSTEC, is weak. Donald Emmerson of Stanford University, more than ten years ago mentioned this point, arguing that an enlarged Secretariat in the hands of a more powerful Secretary-General, might convince some member-states to do away with the preeminence of sovereignty and move ASEAN closer toward greater “coherence” as a regional actor.

Weakened institutional infrastructure or secretariats have crippled other regional bodies, or have provided opportunities for other member-states to take a leadership role, as is the case with India and BIMSTEC. Indonesia, who assumes the role of ASEAN chair in 2023 and who is one of Southeast Asia’s largest economies, could assume a leadership role here. Yet this is a slow-moving, and unproven method, and could be stalled for years before member-states would succumb to a more powerful secretariat, perhaps in the mold of the European Union, where a dash of sovereignty is exchanged for greater institutional cohesion.


The reality for ASEAN is that it can no longer function efficiently enough in the political realm, considering member-state diversity of interests, and the powerful pressure put on weaker, more dependent members by China. While economic integration is more visible through the ASEAN Free Trade Area, facilitated by the ASEAN Economic Community, political integration is negligible. States function independently, and are less likely to see themselves operating as a centralized unit, which would come with potentially greater political clout. Myanmar may have sealed ASEAN’s declining credibility, although that remains to be seen with the UN Security Council still relying on it as a role player in the crisis. As a new year dawns, reform cannot come soon enough.