Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Vietnam's ASEAN Membership Revisited: Golden Opportunity or Golden Cage?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Vietnam's ASEAN Membership Revisited: Golden Opportunity or Golden Cage?

Article excerpt

In early 1991 I conducted a series of interviews in Jakarta with senior government officials and scholars on their perception of Indonesia's role in ASEAN. This was the twilight period between the end of the Cold War and an emerging new international order that had yet to take shape. It was also the time of the second Gulf War which made most states in the world, especially Japan but also the ASEAN governments, aware of increasing degrees of international instability, their own vulnerability, and not least dependency on the United States for the safeguarding of order in the post--Cold War era. Positive developments had taken place, too. Vietnam had withdrawn from Cambodia and for the first time stable and fruitful intra-regional relations, even regional unity seemed to be an achievable goal in Southeast Asia. ASEAN had been instrumental in paving the way for a peaceful settlement of the Cambodian conflict and received a lot of credit for its efforts on the international stage. At the same time a new problem emerged from this situation. Many observers saw ASEAN as a single-issue-organization that lost its rallying point once Cambodia had been out of the limelight. While this perception had never been factually correct, it nevertheless deeply affected the organization, causing frustration and uncertainty over ASEAN's future, most prominently in Indonesia, then the group's informal primus inter pares. The search for direction could be sensed in the interviews, and some senior officials and analysts from academia spoke of ASEAN as a golden cage for Indonesia's foreign policy ambitions because, according to these views, the non-negotiable commitment to consensus-building prevented the largest member state from living up to its doctrine of a "free and independent" foreign policy in the turbulent and challenging aftermath of the Cold War. However, when ASEAN swiftly managed to establish itself as an even more respected figure on the chessboard of international relations, thanks to the announcement of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992 and particularly due to its role as the main architect of a new multilateralism never seen before in the history of the Asia-Pacific, the metaphor of the golden cage quickly disappeared from the vocabulary of policy-makers that had been whispered behind closed doors. Over the past 15 years, and only very shortly interrupted by self-doubts in the wake of the Asian crisis, there has been little if any reservation among the governments of Southeast Asia as to ASEAN's general suitability in terms of a most beneficial institutional framework for the pursuit of interests and strategies in the foreign relations of both individual member states and the region as a collective actor. Yet, the golden cage syndrome seems to have re-emerged recently, not necessarily in Indonesia (which is still predominantly occupied with domestic politics) but mainly in Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia where governments do not always feel constrained anymore by ASEAN as far as the conduct of their foreign affairs is concerned and have emancipated their foreign policies: for example, Singapore with regard to bilateral trade agreements and Malaysia and Thailand on the issue of relations with Myanmar. As a senior official in Singapore's Foreign Ministry puts it, "even though ASEAN will develop further and we will likely see a more legalistic approach to cooperation, it will not be enough for Singapore" (personal interview in Singapore, April 2006). This is in stark contrast to hopes expressed by Singaporean officials a decade earlier that ASEAN would move into the direction of far-reaching integration even in a European sense in line with Singapore's foreign policy and foreign economic policy ambitions (personal interviews in Singapore, May 1993). One of Singapore's highest-ranking foreign policy officials, Bilahari Kausikan, recently warned that ASEAN should never turn into a cage when he wrote, "we are inescapably and forever part of Southeast Asia. …

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