Theorizing ASEAN Integration

Article excerpt

This article proposes a theory that the strategic preferences of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members should be a key variable in explaining the ASEAN integration process over the last four decades. ASEAN integration will not progress as rapidly and substantially as many of its leaders claim unless there are remarkable developments in factors that affect the underlying preferences of ASEAN states, such as a significant increase in intra-ASEAN trade and investment, a much stronger pressure from domestic businesses for deeper integration, or external shocks that threaten the region's economic growth. While the progressive path of European integration illustrates that an independent and strong supranational institution is necessary to handle the complex processes of regional integration, the strategic-preference theory of ASEAN integration presented here predicts that this will not be the top policy priority of its leaders in the near future. KEYWORDS: ASEAN integration, domestic politics, economic interdependence, international relations theories, strategic preferences.

THE ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS (ASEAN) WAS ESTABlished in 1967 by five countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore).1 Its main objective was to create a "prosperous and peaceful community of South-EastAsian Nations" (ASEAN Secretariat 1967). Yet, compared with the depth and speed of regional integration in other parts of the world,ASEAN's integration-by which I mean primarily economic integration-has been very slow. Until the early 1990s there was no significant development toward the goal of forming a Southeast Asian community. Why has ASEAN integration lagged behind other regions of the world for so long? And given ASEANmembers' resistance to European Union (EU)-style integration in favor of an informal and flexible approach, how are we to explain their relatively recent community-building initiatives to deepenASEAN integration-that is, agreements to form an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and anASEAN Economic Community (AEC)?

While the discussion aboutASEAN integration has grown both in scholarly work (see, for instance,Mattli 1999; Stubbs 2000; Nesadurai 2003, 2006; Tan 2004; Vandoren 2005; Beeson 2005; Yoshimatsu 2006; Fort and Webber 2006; Hew 2007; Jones and Smith 2007; Ravenhill 2008; Plummer 2009) and in policy circles (ASEAN Secretariat 2003; Severino 2003; Ong 2007, 2008), surprisingly few systematic attempts have been made to develop new theories about it. The main goal of this article is, therefore, to fill this gap by providing a theoretical account for the process of ASEAN integration.

The central thesis here is that extant accounts that simply apply key insights of general international relations theories toASEAN integration (e.g., Grieco 1997; Mattli 1999; Acharya 2006, 2007) are limited in explaining its process satisfactorily, since without taking into consideration the region-specific and country-specific contexts these accounts only highlight various systemic variables.As a result, they ignore the strategic preferences ofASEAN members that are critical to understanding political forces of regional integration. Even more recent accounts that emphasize the regional economy and domestic politics are incomplete. The former (e.g., Lincoln 2004; Ravenhill 2008; Plummer 2009) do not systematically analyze the dynamic interplay between the systemic and domestic variables drivingASEAN integration, whereas the latter (Stubbs 2000; Bowles and MacLean 1996; Nesadurai 2003) focus on only one case (i.e.,AFTA), rather than examining the ASEAN integration process as a whole.

I contend that ASEAN states' strategic preferences, which are contingent on both their domestic politics (in particular, ruling elites' concerns about sovereignty and domestic regime security) and their level of economic interdependence (i.e., the degree of intraregional trade and investment and the extraregional economic ties ofASEAN members), should be a key variable in explaining the protracted ASEAN integration process over the last four decades as well as ASEAN's recent agreements to deepen integration. …