The experience of the European Union (EU) is considered the most successful case of regional integration and has thus not only become a recurrent point of reference, but a perceived model for regional integration. This is due to its long history, broad scope and successful attempts to deepen and enlarge its level of integration, which has also created an opportunity for scholars to shift away from the universalist–regionalist debates over international organisations such as the United Nations to more theoretical discussions on regionalism and regionalisation. However, as the focus on comparative regional integration studies has increased in light of the so-called ‘second wave of regionalism,’ scholars have been hesitant in adopting EU studies and its theoretical efforts as a starting point to understand new attempts of regional integration outside Europe. Furthermore, while some African and Latin American regional institutions have embraced the EU experience, in Asia this experience is perceived rather as an ‘anti-model’ based on deeper integration that is deemed undesirable by many Asian states. This article provides a comparative study of regional integration in the EU and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to illustrate that while the EU’s experience can be instructive, it does not act as an effective template for regional integration in Southeast Asia. It is argued that the fundamental normative drivers of integration that underpin the EU experience are not applicable to ASEAN and that while the ASEAN Charter appears to emulate EU characteristics, it does so selectively, in ways that are appropriate to the region.
Even today, a strong Eurocentric bias underpins integration theory, practice and scholarly studies of regionalism. Regionalism, discussed here at the macro-level, is defined as ‘a limited number of states linked together by a geographical relationship and by a degree of mutual interdependence’. As Breslin et al. stated in their 2002 paper “regions in comparative perspective”, scholars ‘used the European experience as a basis for the production of generalizations about the prospects for regional integration elsewhere.’ This blanket-style application of the EU experience, characterised by the theoretically simplistic ‘Monnet model’ or the community method, gives rise to the n = 1 dilemma, in which European integration is cast as the primary case or ‘model’ of regional integration that has come to dominate contemporary studies on regionalism and regional integration. Examples of this can be found in liberal/institutionalist scholarly perspectives that focus on European generalizations and the identification of variations from these generalizations. According to Hurrrel’s 2002 paper: the regional dimensions of international relations theory, ‘the study of comparative regionalism has been hindered by so-called theories of regionalism which turn out to be little more than the translation of a particular set of European experiences into a more abstract theoretical language.’ Nonetheless, comparative work is crucial, particularly in light of the developments in Asian regionalism.
The emergence of regional institutions in East Asia, notably ASEAN, has challenged International Relations theories based on the European Union (EU) regarding the design and effects of regional institutions. This stems from the idea of the ‘ASEAN Way’ that various Asian elites claim provides a more distinctive and efficacious approach to regionalism in comparison to the EU due to its focus on organisational minimalism, consensus-based decision-making and the avoidance of legal instruments. This is in stark contrast to the EU’s focus on legalisation and hard institutionalisation. Through this culturally rooted approach, and backed by consistently high growth rates and relatively low levels of regional conflict, ASEAN has shown that soft institutionalisation can be a condition for successful regional integration. ASEAN’s distinctive approach to regional institution-building and its comparison to the EU thus deserve careful scrutiny.
While the EU and ASEAN appear today as the most prominent projects of regional integration, they arose from vastly different contexts and align themselves with different visions. Recognition of ASEAN’s distinctly different drivers and their normative underpinnings when compared to the EU may in fact counterbalance the western approach to regional integration. The EU was born out of both the perceived inadequacy of the state in post-war Europe and the need for a regional approach to various factors specific to the European continent. Faced with the pressures of demands for social welfare internally on the one hand and external security threats on the other, European states turned to each other for support, thus leading to alliances in the security and economic sectors. Alternatively, while the threat of war and the desire to establish a peaceful and stable region were factors relating to the formation of ASEAN, its ultimate purpose was to hedge against China in an attempt by ASEAN member states to secure themselves as much autonomy as possible and to stabilise the balance of power in the region.
This is not to say that the EU and ASEAN have nothing in common. Each aims to address issues of conflict, terrorism, debates of values and culture, and geopolitical challenges, while simultaneously seeking to intensify transactional linkage and interdependence. While both the EU and ASEAN appear to be faced with similar threats, the unique characteristics that define each region have led to vastly different institutions. The EU for example, despite having 28 member states, is considered to be rather homogeneous regarding race, religion and in particular historical experiences. All of its members are highly industrialised with advanced capitalist economies. Furthermore, the EU member states share a common political ideology based on democracy and the rule of law that underpin the Maastricht Treaty. East Asia in contrast, is intensely heterogeneous culturally, economically and politically. While Christianity dominates Europe, East Asia is largely a combination of Confucianism, Buddhism and Islam religions. ASEAN’s States vary between pseudo-democratic, totalitarian and communist states ruled largely by authoritarian type figures. Furthermore, there is no common economic ideology. These regional characteristics ultimately lead to four fundamental factors illustrating that the EU does not act as a model for regional integration in Southeast Asia. These factors include: reconciliation, shared democratic principles, collective acceptance of a policy agenda focused on facilitating closer cooperation, and a regional understanding of power dynamics.
The EU prides itself on being a peaceful community established through reconciliation of previous interstate conflicts such as the Franco-German dispute over US post-war policy. Member states share a common concern for national security and achieve such security by reaching beyond state borders through the pooling of sovereignty. Many scholars agree that historical reconciliation between member states is an important factor and possibly even a pre-requisite to successful regional integration based on the EU experience. This provides the first fundamental contradiction to ASEAN. Historical conflicts in East Asia, largely evolving around territorial disputes during the process of decolonisation following World War II, Japanese Imperialism in the 1950 and the end of the Cold War, have come to shape and influence cooperation between Asian states, particular in the case of the ASEAN + 3 members. This historical influence is evident in the so-called “memory wars” that Morris-Suzuki claims in his 2014 paper remembrance, reconciliation and the East Asian memory wars, ‘are eloquent testimony to the power of the past to haunt the present and influence the course of domestic and international politics’. However, despite the lack of reconciliation, East Asia has experienced relative peace, with no wars having been fought between states since the 1990s. This is partly due to ASEAN’s focus on economic as opposed to political regional integration. ASEAN’s porous Free Trade Area, as opposed to the EU’s largely closed trading bloc, works to invite foreign investors from states such as the U.S. (i.e. the “announcement effect”), which at the same time, allows ASEAN to leave politically sensitive sectors (e.g. steel for Thailand and automotive for Malaysia) untouched. In addition, ASEAN’s power-balance approach against China has led to a rise in cooperation that has seen international relations theorists start to debate whether realist balancing is more salient in explaining regional stability than the liberal institutionalist approach adopted in the EU.
In the EU, democracy across the member states has played a primary role in shaping regional economic policy and facilitating regional integration. The proliferation of democracy in the EU allows for the pooling of sovereignty and supports its more intrusive design, as evident with the adoption of supranationalism. This is in stark contrast to ASEAN where sovereignty is jealously guarded by member states. Non-intervention is embedded into ASEAN policies such as the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality Declaration of November 1971. It could be argued that the pooling of sovereignty in Asia would actually hinder regional integration for the above reason. However, unlike those in the EU, Asian states vary significantly in their level of economic development. Many of the more authoritarian post- or still-communist member states have successfully opposed major relaxation of non-interference. There is a reluctance to engage in particular frameworks such as the East Asian Summit (EAS) that is represented by many of the more liberal democratic states in the region. Democratic or not, many ASEAN members believe that given their economic weakness compared to other neighbours, they would be losers in any trade liberalisation process.
This belief is still reflected today, as shown in the blueprint of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). The AEC is supported by Competition Policy and Law (CPL), which acts as a vehicle towards regional economic integration. However, the coverage of the CPL, as well as certain exemptions and exclusions in different state jurisdictions of ASEAN depending on socio-political and economic needs, reflects the right to sovereignty. It reflects the diversity of ASEAN and creates a unique approach to supporting states of varying economic development. The regional characteristics of ASEAN and its unique policy approach in the absence of democracy show that not only can the EU’s focus on democracy and the pooling of sovereignty not be used as a model for regional integration in Asia, but alternative policy approaches that support sovereignty in more heterogeneous regions are also possible.
The heterogeneous nature of ASEAN compared to the EU is reflected in the differing power dynamics between the two regions. While the US plays a part in both the EU and ASEAN in terms of economic policy and as a provider of security, the power balance between states is much more unequal in Asia through the presence of China and Japan. The hub-and-spoke relationship the U.S. has with ASEAN states through bilateral trade agreements reflects the insecurity ASEAN members feel as a result of China and Japan’s growing influence in the region. While the “tangled web” appearance of ASEAN’s architecture may be an illustration of economic cooperation rather than regional integration, ASEAN has become the central hub of regional integration efforts in Asia. This is largely due to the fact that the divisions between Japan and China have worked to neutralise each other. Both Japan and China understand that aggressive attempts to display regional ‘leadership’ would likely lead to their political isolation in the region. Both China and Japan believe that ASEAN can be trusted, which thus provokes cooperation by the much larger +3 members. In this sense, realist theories of power balancing better explain state cooperation in Asia than the liberalist theories that explain the EU’s integration experience.
Despite the differences between the EU and ASEAN’s regional integration experience thus far, it could be argued that the EU has still acted as a model for ASEAN due to the fact that the ASEAN Council of Permanent Representatives (CPR) established in 2007 was modelled on the EU’s Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER). However, the functions of these two bodies differ, as do their outputs. The ASEAN’s CPR places emphasis on the ‘ASEAN Way’ and thus does not have a legally binding nature like that of COREPER. The ASEAN CPR also maintains the principles of non-intervention, with policy decisions reached through consensus between the member states. ASEAN has selectively adopted EU-style institutions via normative emulation. ASEAN’s difficulties during the 1990s, such as the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, led them to worry about their reputation in the international community. In an attempt to maintain their image, they borrowed EU-style institutions simply due to the highly respected nature of the EU in the international community.
While the EU and ASEAN do share some similar characteristics, the fundamental normative drivers that define each region are significantly different. This is largely underpinned by historical differences that have come to influence and shape the regions in a way that makes the EU model incompatible with regional integration in Asia. Comparisons can be made between both the decision-making structures and the characteristics of COREPER and the ASEAN CPR, however this represents a selective adoption of EU methods that are adapted to suit ASEAN.