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Is ASEAN Consensus A Blessing or Curse – or Both?

KUALA LUMPUR, Jul 9 (Reporting ASEAN) – More often than not, ASEAN consensus has been subject to intense public debate, among scholars and the general public alike. It routinely receives both praise and criticism, with arguments balancing its pros and cons. However, more often than not, ASEAN’s consensus style is dubbed as inefficient, ineffective and in the eyes of many, produces nothing much beyond the lowest common denominator in the decision-making process of the regional organization.

Consensus works in a simple manner: There is none in place if any one out of the 10 ASEAN member states objects to a proposal or idea.

How has this practice and norm been harmoniously subscribed to by ASEAN member states for the five decades since its creation on Aug. 8, 1967?

ASEAN’s consensus style has been credited for bringing and keeping ASEAN members united in regional cooperation in spite of the vast diversity among them – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam.

But in hindsight, the price of unity is likewise steep – given that ASEAN member states are still learning how to cooperate with each other and continue to grapple with their own myriad security and historical issues, as well as territorial disputes. As nation states (or at least a good number of them) that gained independence after freeing themselves from colonial shackles not too long ago, their embrace of the non-intervention principle to guard against infringements of national sovereignty seems to be a legitimate posture. In this sense, the value that ASEAN puts on consensus has been indispensable to its existence amid its unity in diversity.

But even though this norm is part of the reason for ASEAN’s survival over the last five decades, it may well be time for ASEAN today – in its mid-life – to reconcile its consensus norm with the new realities around it.

Take the South China Sea disputes. At the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila in April 2017, the Chinese government lobbied hard to avoid any mention of its land reclamation projects and militarization efforts, leading to a delay in the issuance of the usual statement. In the end, the region’s outward show of unity was reserved, but the incident also made clear to many that China’s influence is palpable, and all too real.

Not surprisingly, ASEAN received a huge backlash from this incident, including from critics who said that ASEAN centrality has been shaken by China – and facilitated by its own consensus norm. Some quarters are once again calling for the ‘ASEAN minus X’ principle to be applied in matters usually decided by consensus, instead of being restricted to the realm of economic matters.

Why do the region’s political elites and leaders still think, five decades later, that consensus is best and most pragmatic strategy for ASEAN’s long-term survival in the choppy waters of the international environment?

First, ASEAN member states view the consensus principle as serving well their need to stay within a dialogue-friendly environment, but also do so without having to worry about infringements into national sovereignty. This may also be making member states cautious about any new, drastic peace of regional integration. As ASEAN officials and diplomats often point out, ASEAN’s integration formula is different from that of the European Union.

Second, ASEAN sees consensus as being supportive of the diversity of the association’s member countries. Even though ASEAN talks of ‘unity in diversity’, the reality is that this often means ‘it’s fine to be different, as long as other member states do not impose anything unto another member and we can manage to agree in other fronts instead’. Also, ASEAN member states have enjoyed relative peace and stability since the end of the Cold War, and consensus is seen as being part of this formula.

Third, ASEAN members stick to consensus because of it prevents the ‘tyranny of one’ from taking place. The process of reaching consensus involves intensive dialogue, reasoning on matters of common interest, and mutual accommodation. Most importantly, the voices of smaller member states carry as much weight as the ‘bigger’ members among the 10 countries.

What, then, could be the way forward? The ‘ASEAN Minus X’ formula, which thus far allows for gradual and delayed participation in economic agreements, does not impede the consensual nature of discussions of the issue at hand. In the simplest terms, what it means is ‘if you’re ready, let’s go on board. But if you aren’t, you are allowed a window of preparation before being fully on board’.

The ASEAN Charter’s Article 21 provides the guidelines for using ‘ASEAN Minus X’ in the implementation of economic commitments, including in areas such as the execution of ASEAN Single Aviation Market. But using this formula for economic matters is totally different from making it work in the political-security arena. What would happen if four of 10 member states reach agreement on issues related to the South China Sea vis-à-vis China, whilst the others do not express support, even if they do not openly oppose these?

But for now, member states find it pragmatic to keep alive the practice of consensus-building – one that for them has successfully bound together a group of diverse member states and has accounted for much of the peace dividend they have enjoyed over the decades. But as ASEAN proceeds with deeper integration as a Community, one wonders how long its member states can put off re-adjusting its ways of working that served it in the past. (END/Edited by Johanna Son)

(*Nik Luqman is a post-graduate student at the National University of Malaysia. He blogs regularly at www.diplomatiques.wordpress.com.)

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