Alfred Gerstl is a Lecturer at the Chair of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna. His research and publications focus on regional cooperation, crises and conflicts in Southeast Asia, the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the changing notion of security, in particular human security, and collaboration between Southeast and Northeast Asia.
Q: What are main differences and similarities between the EU and ASEAN? ASEAN is usually regarded to be the second most successful regional organization in the world. Do you agree with this?
A: It seems so especially if you compare ASEAN with other developing nations. In this regard, it is useful to note that all of ASEAN countries are developing nations except for Singapore; and Malaysia has the goal to become an industrialized nation by 2020 which seems quite likely. It is true that ASEAN is a very successful project if we look at the institutional level of cooperation and also comprehensiveness of policy areas. In this regard, ASEAN is the second most successful organization after the EU which, of course, is a criticism of other regional or sub-regional integration projects, especially in Africa (like the African Union, ECOWAS) or South America (e.g. MERCOSUR).
It may be surprising for the Europeans but the EU is regarded by Southeast Asians to have a very positive effect on European politics although the EU is not seen as a general role model which is also important bear in mind. As many Southeast Asian politicians and academics are aware of the previous troubles in Europe's past including wars against neighbours, the main argument is that the EU has brought the long-lasting peace to Europe. This is seen to be the main benefit to come from the integration. Thus, Southeast Asians are often less critical than many Europeans.
On the other hand, the main criticism is the democratic deficit. But as we don't have a Southeast Asian parliament and there are no plans to have such a parliament, this criticism goes in the direction which does not apply to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia really focus on deepening inter-governmental cooperation via ASEAN institutions.
Q: Those were main differences. Can you see any similarities?
A: I would say the main similarity is that the EU is perceived as a role model in the area of economic integration. For instance, the common European market, established in 1992, is a role model. I believe the integration in Southeast and East Asia in general is mainly an economic one. Because you need to develop your countries, a closer trade cooperation must have been achieved. Also, the idea of less barriers for investments including standards, norms, rules and possibly even a freer movement of people is the direction which elites want to follow. In all these areas, Southeast Asia can learn from the EU.
Q: You mentioned that ASEAN is lacking a parliamentary body, elections and there are no plans for establishing such institutions which points to an issue of the depth of regional identity. Would you say that there has been an emerging or deepening regional identity?
A: The topic is very interesting especially from an academic point of view. If you look at the origins of the regional integration process in Southeast Asia, it was a top-down process which started with politicians and sometimes academics.
It started in the late 1950s with the idea of Association of Southeast Asia. From 1961 to 1967, first practical steps were made and, interestingly, Sri Lanka was invited to join ASEAN in 1967 and India was keen to join Southeast Asia at the end of 1960s. But at this time there had already been a strong sense of Southeast Asia so India was rejected with the argument that it is not a part of Southeast Asia and the same then applied to Sri Lanka.
Q: Mentioning this, can we expect East Timor or perhaps Papua New Guinea to join ASEAN sooner or later?
A: East Timor definitely; although right now there have been some political tensions, for example Malaysia has been very critical recently. But I am sure that in the course of the next ten years, East Timor will become a member of ASEAN because it is the last country which obviously belongs to the region and is not a member of ASEAN.
Regarding East Papua's possible membership, it is a question my students ask me, but it is not easy to explain it. The most significant argument right now seems to be that it is ethnically too diverse. But obviously it could change if there is political will.
Q: Asking a question from the other perspective, can the EU learn something from ASEAN? You mentioned that the EU is a role model in economics but it may not be perceived so in other areas.
A: This is a good question. I am sure the EU could learn something, probably when it comes to pragmatism in cooperation. Sometimes, although not always, it works better if you don't have strict rules and you don't follow a majority voting rule but all members need to find a consensus on which all of them can agree. I would say this applies especially to high politics and the best example could be foreign and security policy. It doesn't make sense to have majority voting on these issues when you can have such strong countries like Germany or France saying “no” in the voting but then have to follow the majority.
Q: Let's move to the topic of the ASEAN Community which is said to be established in 2015. Can you explain its significance?
A: For a long time, it was not clear whether the date should be 1st January 2015 or 31st December 2015. It is going to be the latter date. Anyway, politicians as well as ASEAN representatives said that it is not about a fixed date – in the area of economics, 80% of all norms which should be implemented by the end of 2015 will be implemented by then. It is thought to be huge progress anyway. It will give ASEAN even more momentum, especially in the area of international development. Also, it will give boost to deeper integration. But there is no need to fulfil all the norms by 2015.
Q: But there are more dimensions of the ASEAN Community, aren't they?
A: Yes, there are the ASEAN Economic Community, ASEAN Political-Security Community, and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (i.e. a civil society dimension) which are planed to be established. It is for sure that the greatest progress have been and will be achieved in the economic dimension and everything else will be a surprise.
Q: From some point of view, it is difficult to understand the real purpose and importance of the ASEAN Community. It is often presented as a new milestone, but it is hard to identify what new elements it should introduce. Do you think it is going to be a significant turning point or it is rather a continuation of the current trends in ASEAN?
A: It is a continuation which is, however, an important moment for politicians and even more for people of the ASEAN countries. In 2008 (when the discussed ASEAN Charter came into force – editorial note), the ASEAN Charter was very important because it reformed ASEAN institutions. The Charter uses a three pillar approach when bureaucracy, senior officials meetings and ministers were each matched with one pillar. This work was directed towards achieving the ASEAN Community in 2015.
Q: Is it something which goes towards the EU-style of integration?
A: Sure, it is. It represents further institutionalization and formalization which is important. One of the points which was really important for ASEAN was that bureaucracy had been almost non-existent before. Now it is much easier to have an overview what is happening in particular areas. So, one of the main benefits is the optimization of bureaucracy.
Q: Will ASEAN have ambassadors to foreign countries?
A: I do not think so to be honest. For this, it would be crucial to have progress in the ASEAN Political-Security Community and I do not see a consensus in foreign policy areas. In this case, the European Union is a negative role model. As the EU is not able to find a consensus in foreign policy issues, e.g. think about the current Ukrainian crisis (the Ukrainian crisis which unfolded after the February 2014 overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych – editorial note) and approach towards Russia, it shows us how difficult and almost impossible it is to find a consensus.
ASEAN countries, due to their colonial history among other things, have different foreign policy relationships. For example, Singapore and Malaysia have excellent relations with Britain, other countries may find it easier to speak with France and so on. I'm not sure if there is an interest in particular countries to share their strategic (diplomatic) advantages with other ASEAN countries.
Q: This brings me to another issue. What is the level of relevance of ASEAN in Southeast Asia? How powerful is ASEAN to influence internal politics of its members and/or enforce specific norms or rules within the domestic environment of its members?
A: ASEAN is highly relevant in Southeast Asia but also in East Asia and in the broader region of Asia-Pacific as it has been very successful in involving all stakeholders. This has been the main strength of ASEAN. ASEAN is a dialogue partner; it has established dialogue mechanisms that involve big players like USA, China, Japan, India, and Australia. The EU is engaged as well but not to such extent.
Q: So, how powerful is ASEAN in influencing domestic politics of its members? The main position of ASEAN has been that of non-interference into internal affairs, but can we say that – for example in the connection with the ASEAN Community – ASEAN will move towards what is sometimes called flexible engagement?
A: One of the main global criticisms towards ASEAN, particularly from the USA and EU, related to how ASEAN mishandled the Burma/Myanmar crisis and was a kind of a wake-up call. But the only country which was really listening was Indonesia. Connected to this, we can say that Indonesia played a very positive role but it also has its own strategic interests to become both a more important and leading regional player (in ASEAN) and global player (especially in G20).
The promotion of human rights, democracy in Southeast Asia at the regional level implies that you have to go below this regional level to the country level. So far, there has not been much criticism going towards Jakarta's position in this regard. In Vietnam, they acknowledged the problem of corruption and started thinking of introducing some form of democratization from below that might help its economic development. So, I see some very positive trends.
Q: So, you are implying that ASEAN will become more involved in domestic issues. Do I understand it correctly?
A: Yes. At least behind closed doors, there have already been some discussions about certain (domestic – editorial note) problems and countries seem to be attentive. Myanmar is quite a good example about possible domestic changes. One its motives is to obtain economic investments from partners. They need electricity, transport corridors and so on, thus Myanmar needs to talk and listen to its (ASEAN – editorial note) partners.
Q: You mentioned ASEAN's centrality in the wider Asia-Pacific region. ASEAN obviously was and is in a central position as it a pivotal point that connects different institutions or initiatives. But right now, we can see China and the USA competing to create a free trade area in the region. Do you think, and no matter which free trade area vision will succeed, it can lead to decreasing ASEAN's role?
A: It can and ASEAN is very much aware of this. The worst case scenario would be a war or escalated confrontation between the USA and China when ASEAN countries could not be neutral. Particular countries would have to choose side and this would lead to a division in Southeast Asia which would be almost impossible to heal. I think ASEAN clearly needs to engage both sides and benefit from their engagement as much as possible.
Q: Which one of these two economic proposals is preferred by ASEAN countries? The American project of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which incorporates a wider range of countries or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which is rather an East Asian project?
A: The TPP is, of course, an American project which would lead to certain isolation of China whereas the RCEP is the project where ASEAN is more involved in. ASEAN prefers the RCEP project into which it has put some effort.
Q: At the global level, the RCEP is usually presented as China's project although China tries to present it as ASEAN's project which might be the actual case.
A: I think it is quite difficult to distinguish. ASEAN has (free trade – editorial note) agreements with China or Japan. In other words, I think it is a mixture between China's and ASEAN's initiatives. It especially makes sense within ASEAN+3 because ASEAN is closely connected with all of its partners in the region and ASEAN needs to find a common working scheme with them.
Q: In this case of the economic cooperation, ASEAN's interest seems to be converging with China's, not with the interest of the US.
A: The US is still important as a strategic partner, but the problem with the TPP is that it creates some divisions within ASEAN. Some countries (especially Vietnam) have an interest to cooperate with the USA more closely. Hence, it becomes a question of strategy, strategic interests and positions which are different in the region.
Q: Would the finalizing and establishment of the TPP mean a failure for ASEAN?
A: It might complicate the situation in ASEAN. However, there might be a different view which is that it would create a positive driving force for closer coordination and binding the USA.
Q: My last question is whether the TPP and RCEP can somehow merge together at the end of the day?
A: I think they could, but it largely depends on the USA and Japan and whether and how they understand the projects to accommodate China or strengthen their own positions in the region. So in fact, the whole situation brings nothing new: ASEAN needs to react to strategic positions of China and the USA to remain relevant.
Just to add a final note. In terms of trade, it becomes more important to bind Australia and India into a closer cooperation framework. This is in ASEAN's interest. India is a very strong player with its own motives, but also with a strong interest in pacifying the Asia-Pacific region. So overall, ASEAN's strategy has worked well, but I think it needs to deepen its own integration as well as its external cooperation in order to stay relevant.
Interviewer: Richard Turcsanyi