Sovereignty and Democracy in ASEAN

This is my response to Conceptualizing the Domestic Impact of Europe by Tanja A. Börzel and Thomas Risse (2003).

Börzel and Risse address the fundamental question: ‘How do the member states influence the Europeanisation process, and how does the Europeanisation process influence them in return?’ The authors provide a comprehensive tool for understanding the dynamics behind how the national and regional actors react to the Europeanisation process. They conclude that actors would follow the ‘rationalist’ pathway or the ‘sociological’ pathway depending on how well defined their preferences are. Overall, Börzel and Risse observed an overarching pattern in the EU: a policy change often takes place “as an instrumental adaptation to reduce economic and political costs”, followed by “a more profound change of preferences and even collective identities”.

On the other hand, the subject of Börzel and Risse’s discussion offers meaningful implications for the regional integration process in ASEAN, particularly for the question, ‘how can the ASEAN Member States (AMS) come together like the EU member states?’ Although ASEAN began in a completely different historical background than the EU, the AMS are striving to establish a single market which guarantees four freedoms of movement for goods, services, skilled labour and capital, not identical but very similar to the EU. Indeed, the AMS have eliminated virtually all intra-ASEAN tariffs, with the trade volume growing nearly four-fold between 1995 and 2017, as shown below.

(Source: World Economic Forum)

However, the European experience shows that such a high level of regional integration is not possible without institutional and normative transformations. It is well-known that the EU stands for and operates by its values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. On the contrary, one would wonder whether ASEAN will be like the EU one day, with all the AMS still practising the ‘no interference’ policy and safeguarding their vastly diverse and yet largely authoritarian political systems. In fact, among the ten AMS, there are seven distinct political systems: absolute monarchy (Brunei), constitutional monarchy (Cambodia), federal constitutional monarchy (Malaysia), presidential republic (Indonesia & Philippines), parliamentary republic (Singapore), military junta (Myanmar & Thailand), and socialist republic (Laos & Vietnam).

With no significant normative transformations to be seen on the horizon, will the AMS continue on the “resource redistribution” pathway? If so, who are the dominant players with clearly defined preferences and lowest economic and political costs? Indonesia, with the highest share of population and GDP? Or, Singapore, with the highest HDI and GDP per capita? Will the AMS ever agree on supranational institutions and normative transformations? If so, who will dominate the scene then?

Surely ASEAN and the EU have different roots and even different levels of heterogeneity. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence indicating that ASEAN is pursuing EU-like market integration. Then, can ASEAN establish a genuine single market without installing supranational institutions (with the AMS conferring parts of their sovereignty to ASEAN) or taking on a normative personality (standing for common values) like the EU? The EU model, as it currently stands, demonstrates that supranational institutions and a normative character are compulsory requirements of an advanced regional integration project. Could ASEAN achieve market integration without walking the EU path?

Interestingly, ASEAN says it stands by democratic values and so do most of its member states (except for Brunei which is an absolute monarchy). However, ASEAN’s democracy index values are much lower than the EU’s, implying that AMS need to undergo fundamental changes in the way they perceive and practice democracy unless a new ideological model of regional integration can be achieved.

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