Institutional Theory and Southeast Asia: The Case of ASEAN

By Narine, Shaun | World Affairs, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Institutional Theory and Southeast Asia: The Case of ASEAN


Narine, Shaun, World Affairs


In 1967, five Southeast Asian states created the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN took shape as a grouping of anti-Communist states within the context of the cold war. The decline of the cold war and the concomitant loss of ASEAN's major political focus--such as its opposition to Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia--raised speculation in many quarters that ASEAN might not survive in the post-cold war world. However, in a rather abrupt turnaround, ASEAN has gone from being an institution with a doubtful future to a vibrant and extremely active one. Since 1991, it has developed and implemented initiatives in the areas of regional security and economics; it has also expanded its membership, adding three new members since 1995. From the perspective of established international relations theories, it is unclear why ASEAN has undergone this transformation and what it hopes to accomplish.

The primary objective of this article is to use the dominant theories of international institutions to explore the reasons for the transformation of ASEAN in the post-cold war period. I use neorealist, neoliberal institutionalist, and constructivist theories in an attempt to explain this most recent stage of ASEAN's development. In the end, I find that none of these theories adequately accounts for ASEAN's efforts at transformation. However, the metatheoretical framework of constructivist theory does offer some key insights into the social relationships of the emerging Southeast Asia. Using constructivist principles, I argue that the ASEAN states believe that their international political influence is enhanced by being part of ASEAN. Expansion of the organization, however, has been greatly assisted by a crisis in the identities and interests of the major regional powers operating in Southeast Asia. This crisis has provided ASEAN with opportunities to try to expand its own influence through political means.

This article is divided into four sections. First, I provide a brief overview of ASEAN's history, before explaining more recent organizational developments. Next, I discuss the dominant theoretical approaches to international institutions in mainstream international relations. These theories are neorealism, neoliberal institutionalism, and constructivism. Finally, I compare the expectations and explanations of these theories for the development of institutions to the realities of ASEAN.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ASEAN

ASEAN was created in 1967. Its founding members were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The states of the region had just gone through a three-year period of Konfrontasi (confrontation) during which Indonesia had politically (and, on occasion, militarily) challenged the legitimacy of the Malaysian state and, by extension, Singapore. The Philippines, locked in a territorial dispute with Malaysia, also questioned its legitimacy. Konfrontasi ended with a change of government in Indonesia, but it left lingering tensions and uncertainties within the region.(1)

ASEAN was created with three interrelated objectives: to alleviate intra-ASEAN tensions, to reduce the regional influence of external actors, and to promote the socioeconomic development of its member states as a further hedge against Communist insurgency. During its first eight years, ASEAN implemented very few concrete organizational initiatives, though this period may have been necessary to build the interpersonal contacts that would later prove essential for institutional growth.(2) However, in 1975, the reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule galvanized ASEAN's members into trying to strengthen the organization. The Bali Conference of 1976 was the first meeting of the ASEAN heads of government. At that meeting, the ASEAN states signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), a document that articulated ASEAN's understanding of the principles governing state conduct and relations in the region.

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