Theorizing ASEAN: a work-in-progress (OR CAN ONE THEORIZE ASEAN WITHOUT THEORIZING SOUTHEAST ASIA?)
Amado M. Mendoza, Jr., Ph.D. Department of Political Science University of the Philippines
5 February 2015
Chiang-Mai University, Thailand
It appears that many theorists have such diverse characterizations of the regional organization that it cannot faulted if an outsider or a neophyte thinks they are describing different entities.
MIN-HYUNG KIM (2011) FOR INSTANCE, proposes a theory that the (underlying) STRATEGIC PREFERENCES (such as significant increase in intra-ASEAN trade and investment, a much stronger pressure from domestic businesses for deeper integration, or external shocks that threaten thre region’s economic growth–in short forces and pressures generated by widening and deepening globalization, aka also read as integration and participation in the global capitalist division of labor) of the ASEAN members, SHOULD BE a KEY VARIABLE in explaining the ASEAN integration process (also read as ASEAN economic community building) over the last 4 decades.
ASEAN integration would not have progressed without the remarkable developments in factors (see above) that affect the underlying preferences of ASEAN states.
Meanwhile and elsewhere (meaning 10 years earlier), DAVID MARTIN JONES and MICHAEL L.R. SMITH (2001) wonders if “there is a Sovietology of South-East Asian studies”? Could the former Soviet Union and post-Cold War SEA have anything in common? With such leading questions, the duo argued for a YES answer and in the process refers to strange animals such ASEANology (attributed to a so-called Singapore school populated by scholars like Chan Heng Chee, Jon Quah and K.S. Sandhu and their so-called Western admirers such as Thomas Bellows, R.S. Milne, Diane Mauzy, Philippe Regnier and Raj Vasil) and ASEANthink (a discourse “generated internally within the region by Southeast Asian scholar-bureaucrats who presented ASEAN as the basis of a new regional identity and dispensation”.
The duo did not hide their disdain and contempt for what is perceived as HUBRIS and quoted VACLAV HAVEL in their prologue: “You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and places in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”
A parting shot: ASEANology was more Sovietological (read as more flawed) than Sovietology!
For one, ASEANology does not suffer a similar “onerous” information-gathering regime like Sovietology.
Why? In quick succession: re the relation of the scholar and the state: “bureaucratization of academia”; subordination of academe to the requirements of nation-building in SEA projects–“similar to the experience of Soviet academics under the rubric of the “party line” plus the coercive and cooptive role of outside academics; SEA academic managerialism coinciding with bruearucratization of research in American, British and Australian environs.
I had at first difficulty understanding Jones and Smith’s argument but as years went by, I slowly began to appreciate the quality of the same. Like Sovietology, ASEANology is afflicted with failings despite differences between the two ‘ologies’.
My own thoughts on theorZing ASEAN; theorizing SEA is necessary but not sufficient : unlike EU with supranational governance and institutional architectures, the ASEAN does not have such even as the Charter has been adopted.
The Europeans appear to be more ready to compromise on the ‘benefits’ of national/state sovereignty while Southeast Asians are not prepared to do so.
There is an obvious difference in historical and conceptual trajectories between the SEA and Europe with consequences for differential regional institution building projects. Before the modern period, Europe was one, was one Church. The waning of the Church’s overweening influence led to the fragmentation of the Church and the eventual emergence of distinct and competing nation-state identities, loyalties, and institutional infrastructure.
War–international war–is the key crucible for nation-state building projects and catalyst for such international divisions and competition. War was in fact the default behavior since 1648; since Westphalaia, that is.
However, Europe has come full circle after the Second World War. It is becoming whole again, one again–a European house.
In contrast, Southeast Asia has never been one.
In the pre-colonial period, Chinese (Celestial or middle-kingdom) hegemony (read as suzerainity) was of a different (different from Persian and Roman, for instance) type and did not unify the region, its potentates and its peoples.
Prior to the Chinese, the Indians had their chance but it was not enough.
These hegemonies were quite different too–China’s was tributary while India never aspired for territorial control ala the Romans. The modality of Indian hegomonic attempts was ideational, theological, philosophical, non-instrumental.
What was sought to be controlled or influenced were minds instead of territory, sub-ordinates, and peoples.
At most, the Chinese were content with mere acknowledgement as a benevolent superior. Han China was the Celestial kingdom and was enough; barbarian lands and peoples simply needed to realize they’re gaijin or inferior.
In contrast, civilized Rome wanted to civilize the barbarians (coopting in one way and in some instances and places (pace Alexander/Sikander/Iskandra/Sikandra) but largely through the sword–the hegemony of control rather than the Gramscian project of convincing the sub-ordinate that indeed, super-ordinates must hold sway over them.
In sum, all these political ‘business models’ were quite different from Western hegemonic projects born out of competitive nation-state (or empire) -building) projects.
Qua discourse, the ‘Southeast Asia’ concept is relatively new.
Colonial SEA was not under a single colonial master and so diversity continued despite centuries of colonialism.
The post-colonial states reiterated such diversity such that it really difficult to really what makes Southeast Asia more than a mere geographical label.
Some observers point to trivia(?) such as rice (and wet-rice agriculture) and fish sauce as the only common elements for the peoples in the so-called region.
In effect, Southeast Asia is an inside defined solely by a significant ‘outside’ other.
The ASEAN concept or brand has a newer provenance but is still largely a response to an outside other.
Sukarno and Bandung (to some extent, Burma/Myanmar) sought to develop a region distinct from and uncommitted during the Cold War even as other modern SEA states like the Philippines and Thailand and the putative Indochinese states (divided Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia/Kampuchea) aligned themselves in one way or the other.
After the Cold War’s end, the ASEAN morphed into a project which sought to bring together what was previously divided by the Cold War without changing the nature of the governmental/governance regimes of member-states.
ASEAN made for the uneasy co-existence of low-performing democracies (Philippines and Indonesia) and performing semi-democracies (Singapore and Malaysia), an absolute sultanate (Brunei) , occasional constitutional monarchies (Thailand and Cambodia), communist authoritarianisms slowly integrated into the global capitalist division of labor (Vietnam and the rest of Indochina), a military regime transitioning to democracy (Myanmar) with different degrees of regime legitimacy, strength, capacity and level of integration with world capitalism.
Aside from banal statements about diversity and attempts at unity and integration and being ‘accidental’ drivers-on-the seat, it is quite difficult to identify or use enduring leitmotifs that applies to the region despite the existence of an ASEAN organizational entity.
Thus one finds difficulty in identifying who or what an expert of Southeast Asia is–how can one be an expert of a unity supposedly in the making when one still struggles with determining what makes this unity one?
Should one develop particular expertises first as a matter of course towards the way to becoming a regional expert?
If so, how many SEA countries must one know so one can be a SEA expert?
In October last year in Stanford, the best I could do was to hypothesize about the region’s three democracies–Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand–and suggest that a ‘politics of hatred’ unifies (on a temporary basis) the politics of the three. Jokowi and his rivals (a blast from the Order Baru past), Aquino over his predecessor GMA, and the never ending contest between Thaksin and anti-Thaksin forces in Thailand.
Can I use the same metaphor for the other seven (eight including Timor Leste) states in the region?
It seems I can for Myanmar (but even for Myanmar, hatred is not sufficient as competitive cooperation seems to be the new norm amongst the Bamese).
But can’t it also cover the relations between the Bamese and the non-Bamese, specially the Rohingya people?
How about the Muslim Thais (nay, Patani) in Southern Thailand (nay, northern Malaysia)?
Will such sense of ephemeral one-ness end soon?
Through what process(es) or mechanism(s)?
Can globalization (read as continuous integration within global capitalism) do it?
Is globalization enough?
Needed perhaps but sufficient?
Specially given the contest between and among the so-called Washington consensus of John Williamson (and George Stiglitz’s PWC) and the Beijing consensus?
In the face of trouble in the EU house–PIGS and recently the Tsipiras challenge in Greece?
The civil war in the United States (1% vs. the rest) between Obama’s project and all fundamentalists, conservatives, etc. best concretized in the so-called Tea party?
Given that the Western hemisphere is no longer the US’ (read Monroe Doctrine) playground–what with the likes of Chavez, Evo Morales, Brazil (Lula and post-Lula), and more recently, the Pope Francis-mediated US-Cuba normalization?
Can one envision clearly what the end-state for ASEAN will be?
Can one really say that an EU-like situation will be the most likely outcome?
If one says no, what is the alternative envisioned future?
Or is the future plural rather than singular, mixed and diverse rather than homogeneous?
The challenge to us all: Is there a Southeast Asian expert in the house?
Or should the expert be a collective?
How ‘useful’ is a a-historical SEA/ASEAN theory?
Is there a room for ASEAN-skeptics and anti-skeptics of all stripes alike?
Is dreaming the ASEAN dream socially necessary?
How can dreaming be tempered and yet yield plausible possibilities?
Big-picture, big-data analysis, I believe is needed.
It cannot be done by a single academic, cannot be done by academic from a single country.
Qua collective good, a useful theory of ASEAN based on a theory of SEA contexted within a world theory can only be evolved, provided, developed by a (still inchoate) collective entity.
I hope the ASEAN University Network (AUN) working with the Plus Three, the newly established Community of East Asian Affairs (of which I am/was a founding member representing the University of the Philippines) and significant others in the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere can be that collective.
Thanks for listening to my meandering stream of consciousness. After I have answered your questions and responded to comments, please allow me too to continue my vacation (and honeymoon!).
Peace be with us!