LSE SEAC Public Lecture: ASEAN as an Actor in International Fora, by Prof. Jürgen Rüland

To celebrate ASEAN’s fiftieth birthday, the LSE South East Asia Centre organised a series of talks on the organisation, inviting key academics as their keynote speakers. On 6 Nov, they hosted Prof. Jürgen Rüland, Professor of political science in the Department of Political Science at the University of Freiburg and chairperson of the University of Freiburg Southeast Asia Research Cluster. Prof. Rüland’s presentation was on ASEAN as an actor in international fora. The presentation was a component of the larger project, Integration through Law, on the role of ASEAN at the international level. The latter had never been studied by scholars through the lens of international organisations, which is where Prof.  Rüland wished to contribute towards. The talk gave valuable insight both on the organisation’s dynamics within and its role in the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. After attending the event, the LSESU ASEAN Society got in contact with Prof. Rüland to ask him follow-up questions on the topic, and he kindly accepted our request. Below are his answers.

1) What are possible benefits for increased ASEAN cohesiveness in international organisations? For instance, were there historical instances where cohesiveness in the UN or WTO produced positive outcomes?

Greater cohesion in global fora and international relations would definitely strengthen ASEAN’s bargaining power. Especially for small countries, it is essential to create “voice opportunity,” that is, the support of like-minded states in international negotiations. In votes, coherent regional organizations can act as a voting bloc which may extract from others reciprocal behaviour, material rewards and concessions in bargaining processes.

For ASEAN the virtue of coherence became clearly visible in the 1980s when the then six member countries successfully mobilized the international community against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Also in the Uruguay Round of Trade negotiations (1986-1994) ASEAN acted in a relatively cohesive way and was thus able to ward off so-called “extraneous issues” like the nexus of trade with environmental and social standards, issues championed mainly by Western industrialized countries.

2) Conversely, have there been instances of penalties between ASEAN members when they defect in international fora?

Defection or lack of support weaken member countries in the pursuit of their interests. For instance, lacklustre support was pivotal that an ASEAN candidate for the post of the UN Secretary General, the former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, failed in his election bid. Lack of support is also evident for ASEAN member countries Vietnam and the Philippines in their maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea, which eases Chinese attempts to legitimize its assertive policies in the region. Defections may also have a damaging effect on ASEAN’s image and stature as a regional organization, when it appears as a grouping that is unable to effectively coordinate its policies.

3) To what extent can ASEAN’s cognitive prior be shaped by normative changes at the member-state level?

Changes in ASEAN’s cognitive prior and its conservative reliance of sovereignty based norms can hardly be triggered by individual countries. Even the democratization of the region’s largest country, Indonesia, had only a limited effect on ASEAN as a regional organization as the ASEAN Charter debates suggest. Changes at the member country level must thus take place simultaneously in more than one country. Moreover, changes primarily occur at critical junctures, usually crises or external shocks by which extant expectations associated with an institutional arrangement are no longer tenable and replaced by institutions shaped by alternative ideas.

4) What should future research on ASEAN be looking at to further our understanding of its role, influence and interests in international fora?

Research on ASEAN is prolific, especially on its role as an institution builder and manager of order in the East and Southeast Asian region. Yet – unlike the European Union – studies on the cohesion and actorness of ASEAN in global fora such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the G20, the climate change and non-proliferation regimes are utterly lacking. Hence, theory-guided comparative empirical research is urgently needed on these global fora in order to increase our understanding of how ASEAN other regional organizations of the global South operate at the global level of the emerging, yet highly fragmented system of global governance.

The LSESU ASEAN Society would like to thank Dr. Rüland for graciously accepting our request to answer these follow-up questions from the members of our society, and for his critical viewpoints on ASEAN’s role in the international fora. We wish him all the best in his research.

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