Lessons in cooperation from ASEAN for India and South Asia

By Rajat M. Nag     26/1/2018
1967 was hardly a time of great bonhomie in Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Singapore had separated from each other in a rather acrimonious split just a couple of years earlier. Indonesia and Malaysia had had a three year long strained relationship – Konfrontasi (1963-66) – fuelled by President Sukarno’s strong reservations about the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1961.
Thailand suspected Malaysia of aiding and abetting Muslim insurgents in the southern part of the country. Philippines and Malaysia had yet to resolve their territorial disputes over the state of Sabah (the North Borneo dispute).
Mistrust and dissension, to varying degrees, rather than cohesion marked the mutual relationships of the five countries. The global and regional environment was equally unsettling. It was neither more peaceful nor conducive to international cooperation.
Rising cold war rivalries marked the relationships between the two super powers, the US and the Soviet Union. The Vietnam War was escalating rapidly. China was in the throes of a darkening Cultural Revolution. India was just emerging from two bruising wars, with China and with Pakistan.
It was hardly a propitious time for the five Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) to form a regional grouping to be called ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations).
Yet, almost implausibly, these countries came together, prompted not only by the potential benefits of cooperation but also serious concerns of spreading communism (the domino theory).
After a short few months of discussions and negotiations  (mostly informal) they proclaimed ASEAN as representing “the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity.”
Fast forward a quarter of a century. 1992 witnessed the formation of another sub regional grouping in Southeast Asia under equally unpromising circumstances as in 1967.
While the Paris Peace Accords had just been signed (in October 1991) marking the official end of the Cambodia Vietnam War (and the final end of the Indo China War), the relations between the two countries remained strained and the internal political situation in Cambodia had not stabilized. China and Vietnam continued their proxy hostilities by supporting opposing factions in Cambodia and Myanmar was increasingly isolated on the international scene as the military regime consolidated its grip on the country.
Yet even under these difficult and tenuous circumstances, but with the strong convening support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the recently warring countries of Cambodia and Vietnam joined Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and the Yunnan province of China to constitute the Greater Mekong Sub-regional Economic Cooperation Program (GMS) in 1992.
By 1999, all GMS member countries (except China) had also joined ASEAN thus linking all the countries in Southeast Asia into one regional grouping, though the GMS still continued thriving sub regional economic cooperation programme on its own.
Even the most ardent supporters of ASEAN and GMS would not claim that these two regional economic cooperation programs have been an unmitigated success story.
Many have criticized ASEAN as an endless talk shop, long on grandiose statements of intentions but short on delivery without any inbuilt mechanism of enforcing the group’s many agreements and treaties.
Yet, one cannot deny the achievements such as successfully negotiating an ASEAN Free Trade Area (in 1993) or an ASEAN Economic Community (in 2015). Intra regional trade and investments have increased rapidly, ASEAN has become an important production base by integrating itself with East Asia’s supply chain and production networks, prosperity in the region has increased and poverty reduced significantly.
The GMShas similarly been criticized as being slow and unwilling and unable to deal with major contentious issues such as water sharing issues or the effects of upstream hydropower developments on the Mekong River.
And, yet without a doubt, substantial benefits have accrued to the sub region in the form of say significantly greater transport, energy and digital connectivity with priority infrastructure projects worth over $12 billion having been undertaken over the past decade and several more under way.
An even greater measure of success of the ASEAN and the GMS  is the very fact that they have survived so long (50 and 25 years respectively) having started under less than auspicious circumstances.
Having been closely involved with several regional co-operation programs in Asia for over three decades, I have often marveled at how both ASEAN and GMS have steadily, if slowly and certainly not perfectly, progressed.
Leadership and statesmanship are obviously fundamental drivers to make any regional cooperation program work, and ASEAN and GMS were particularly fortunate to have had pragmatic and forward looking leaders who were able to think beyond the immediate and beyond their own short term national interest.
However, while we can obviously hope for enlightened leadership, I wish to focus on some general lessons which might be drawn from ASEAN and GMS, particularly the latter, which could be relevant for other regional cooperation programs to emulate.
Four broad observations come to mind:
First, the + 1 Principle: While the Southeast Asian culture of musyawarah and mufakat (consultation and consensus) drives both ASEAN and GMS, they are also very pragmatic.
They go to great lengths to consult and build a consensus wherever possible, but they also follow a +1 principle, where any one country may discuss and decide on a project or program with another (+1) if it only involves these two countries alone. This was a far reaching innovation first of the GMS program and later adopted by the ASEAN as well and has been particularly helpful in implementing bilateral or trilateral projects. Only the concerned countries need to discuss and agree on the various parameters of say, a hydroelectric or a transport project rather than having all member states involved.
Second: the power of the small. In ASEAN, Indonesia is by far the most populous member state (accounting for about 40% of the region’s population).
Philippines is a distant second (16 %) and Brunei the smallest (at less than even 0.1%). By size of the economy too, Indonesia is by far the largest more than double the next largest, Thailand. Yet, Indonesia does not dominate ASEAN and nor do the other large economies.
Smaller countries are given considerable latitude to move at their own pace as each successive step serves as useful confidence building measures. They are given time and space but without lowering standards for those who cannot initially meet them. This helps countries gradually rise at their own pace to higher standards and norms. Smaller countries are given prominent responsibilities to drive major region wide agendas and larger countries hold back.
Third: freedom from the burdens of the past. Member countries in the ASEAN and GMS in the not too distant past were at war with each other and, like many other countries in Asia and elsewhere in the world, share a long history of enmity and animosities amidst real and perceived slights and injuries. Yet they have been able to put aside the burdens of the past as they look into the future.
That has not meant that the past is forgotten, but they could be pragmatic and realistic as they looked to the future and negotiated the details of say, the Power Purchase Agreement on the next hydropower project, or the trade concessions they needed to make to each other to enhance the overall welfare of each.
Fourth: recognizing that regional cooperation is not a zero sum game and that all participants do not always benefit equally. To be sustainable, a meaningful regional cooperation project would have to be intrinsically fair.
A trade deal or an energy sharing programme or an economic corridor project connecting two or more neighbours would have to be beneficial for all, but it needs maturity and statesmanship to recognize that not all partners would benefit equally.
Asymmetry of benefits and costs are a natural feature of any regional cooperation program but it need not, indeed must not be seen as a zero sum game.
Larger countries often have to be more generous (but not patronising) to make a regional cooperation program work and both in ASEAN and GMS, time and again, such an understanding and accommodation have been on display.
It is no secret that regional cooperation programs in South Asia, particularly SAARC, have not worked too well.
The politics and historical burdens of India and Pakistan and the governance modalities of SAARC have been significant impediments.
But Southeast Asia too has seen major conflicts and war only till very recently. Yet their cooperation has been sustained and they have reaped the peace dividend inherent in any cooperation program.
It is encouraging however, that under India’s active pursuit of its ‘Act East Policy’, other sub-regional cooperation programmes looking eastwards, both within South Asia and beyond, are doing considerably better.
The point is that as India enhances its engagement with Southeast Asia, some of these observations on what made the ASEAN and GMS programmes work might be worth reflecting on the eve of their 25th summit in New Delhi to enhance and harness the peace, social and economic dividends.