Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author Mikaella Darum.

“One Vision. One Identity. One Community,” thus goes the ASEAN motto. A year from now, its member countries would further be interwoven in the regional project “ASEAN 2015.” These nations—the Philippine government in particular—have been reiterating the positive effects of such integration to their respective economies. A more fluid flow of resources, an influx of foreign industries and investments, an open economy that would push different sectors to be competitive in the international arena—these prospects of regional integration attest a community that has been leaning towards a trend that pervades the foreign policy of a majority of countries: that of regionalism. But will such trend be enough for realization of the motto above, especially in a regional organization infamously known for its “way”?

An illusion of unity

The EU, with the adoption of a single currency and harmonized market, is considered as the most advanced regional organization. Other famous regional organizations are the African Union (AU) of the Sub-Saharan Region, the Organization of American States (OAS), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Arab States, and of course, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The rationale for such integration encompasses a lot of factors. This ranges from the cultural aspect (a sense of regional identity) to the economic aspect (trade integration), and collective security (in case of terrorism and war). In other words, it is believed that peace, security, and development are more plausible if these nations would integrate themselves under a regional organization.

Such trend in the international arena is not surprising. With the advent of liberalism and globalization, it has been believed that nations are capable of sacrificing national interest to some extent in the virtue of a unified community despite cultural and socio-economic differences. It is then believe that these principles would still hold true in an organization which exists as a middle ground between the UN and a nation in itself.

But these principles have proven counter to reality. It is clear that until now, ASEAN continues to change the challenges of diversity. While the EU is made up of democratic and liberal governments, ASEAN is composed of both liberal and communist, and democratic and monarchic regimes. Territorial conflicts also come into the picture. In 2012, both the Philippines and Vietnam failed to persuade the ASEAN to issue an official statement on the issue of the Scarborough Shoal dispute against China. Cambodia, the chair at that time, has also been accused of siding with China. A year later, a stand-off resulting to hostilities broke out between Sultan Jamalul Kiram III’s forces and the Malaysian army prior to their claim over the island of Sabah. While the dormant status of these disputes may be considered a better result than the breakout of an actual war, the fact that these issues remain to be completely unsolved indicates failure in the part of the actors involved. This goes the same with the ASEAN, whose unity will continue to be threatened by the aforementioned cases of conflict. Furthermore, its continued use of the principle of non-interference has made the world critical of its ability to address and resolve these issues.

The “ASEAN Way”

Apart from being the title of the organization’s anthem, the “ASEAN Way” has been an infamous label to scholars of international politics. It pertains to the ASEAN’s exercise of the principle of non-interference and respect for territorial integrity in cases of conflict and dispute. This is tantamount to ASEAN’s condemnation of force as a method of conflict resolution. Accordingly, territorial integrity implies the sacredness of sovereignty as an element of the state; in no means should it be jeopardized in case of a conflict. Despite being aware of its flaws, the ASEAN believes that this principle has been instrumental in preventing the outbreak or aggravation of a war, particularly over territorial disputes. Instead of taking an aggressive stance such as OAS’ response to the Haiti conflict, ASEAN has opted for a non-confrontational style of diplomacy. Scholars such as Gou (2003) have acknowledged this method as a “viable strategy in conflict resolution”. Still, it could not be discredited that this “soft” style of action has thwarted the organization’s ability to execute a speedy response to conflicts which affect the people themselves. The best case of such setback is the East Timor conflict, in which ASEAN failed to prevent the Suharto government of Indonesia from committing human rights violations against the East Timorese people, including the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre.

To whose interests?

The aforementioned cases only prove that up until now, ASEAN is a regional organization struggling for unity. Much more than the problem of cultural differences is ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint action to address territorial disputes, which do not only result to a simple hostility between the nations involved but also to human rights violations such as the East Timor case. The principle of non-interference implies that member nations are still unable to sacrifice their interests for the sake of collective interest. This then raises the question: “To whose interests is the organization really catering to?” If these flaws continue, then ASEAN would be nothing but a regional organization formed for the national interests of its members. The collective sense of identity, cooperation, and economic development would be nothing but rhetoric that would never be put to action. Above all, its reluctance to issue an immediate and direct action could take a bigger toll for the people. It must be pointed out that the governments of the member nations are not the sole stakeholders of the decisions rendered by the ASEAN. The ones who take the direct effects of crisis such as territorial disputes are the people themselves. A united vision, identity, and community could only be achieved by an organization which recognizes the centrality of the people’s welfare.