“The regional bloc has not been earning any credibility points in the world’s chancelleries and international institutions.”



The Philippines and nine other Southeast Asian nations are members of an association known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Twenty-seven nations between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Bothnia and the Belarus-Ukraine border are members of an entity known as the European Union (EU). ASEAN started out with six members and gradually four other regional countries came into the fold. The EU had 28 members until Britain’s exit (Brexit) in 2020.

Like the members of ASEAN, the EU’s members affixed their signatures to a document recognizing the concept of commonality of interest and accepting the obligation of cooperation and mutual assistance.

There, the similarity ends.

The dissimilarity revolves around the principle of involvement in the domestic affairs of other member-countries. At the outset, non-interference in other member-countries’ domestic affairs has been a central ASEAN principle. In contrast, EU, which brought together Germany (West Germany at the time), France, and Britain after centuries of enmity, was founded on the principles of integration and cohesion in all spheres of their relations with one another.

Developments in recent years within ASEAN and within the EU have demonstrated very clearly the comparative impact of ASEAN non-interference and EU cohesiveness on the conduct of these two groupings. The difference in impact has been enormous.

Before Brexit, the 28 EU nations, acting in unison and close consultation, were closely involved in the resolution of problems and crises affecting individual EU members – political instability in Italy and Spain, the Greek financial meltdown, challenges to democracy in Poland and Hungary, Russia’s threats against the Baltic states and, currently, the COVID-19 infection surges in a number of member-countries.

EU’s main preoccupation these days is the massing of Russian troops along the boundary of Ukraine, a country that has expressed interest in joining the EU. In all these instances all the EU members have displayed form interest in defending the integrity and maintaining the stability of the Union.

Consider in contrast, recent major developments affecting ASEAN member-countries.

On February 1, Myanmar’s military staged a coup – the latest in a long line of power grabs dating back to 1962 – and overthrew that country’s democratically elected government. Since then, more than 700 protesters against the coup have been gunned down by Myanmar’s soldiers, and several thousands have been detained or jailed, including the political opposition’s entire leadership. 

ASEAN’s reaction? A pious statement issued after an equally pious summit of ASEAN’s leaders. Prior to that, there was what the international community has branded as the Myanmar government’s genocide against the Muslim population of the northern state of Rakhine. 

News reports and footage showed killings who fled to neighboring Bangladesh. ASEAN’s reaction? Zero. ASEAN’s leaders have just looked the other way and have been pretending that the Rohingya problem does not exist.

All in the name of the concept of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other ASEAN members. Needless to say, ASEAN has not been earning any credibility points in the world’s chancelleries and international institutions.

But the item that tops the list of ASEAN gross inactions – the item that takes the proverbial cake – is ASEAN’s utter failure to speak up for this country in its undeclared war with China over Philippine maritime rights in the West Philippine Sea. When the Philippines won its Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) case against China in 2016, its nine ASEAN co-members could have come out with statements expressing full support and strong encouragement; but none of them did. The Philippines’ signal victory – the PCA ruling completely demolished China’s so-called “historical” claim over the entire South China Sea – was almost a non-event in the life of ASEAN.

Although all of the 27 other EU members had friendly ties with the United Kingdom (UK), they all rallied behind the EU and closed ranks against the Brexit terms demanded by the U.K. In contrast, not one of its nine co-members came out to openly express solidarity with the Philippines in its lonely struggle – and eventual victory – against increasingly abusive China. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar placed their ties to China over their treaty obligations to the Philippines.

Observing ASEAN’s actions — inactions is the more accurate word — in the Myanmar coup, the Rohingya genocide, and the West Philippines Sea episodes, the international community is bound to have reached the conclusion that ASEAN is ineffectual. Diminution of credibility inevitably follows ineffectuality.

ASEAN is an association, and it shows. The EU is a union, and that shows, too.

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Originally Published Manila News-Intelligencer: 2021-05-04 00:08:12

Bernila Andal

By Bernila Andal

Atenio de Manila University – Quezon City A Filipino, Catholic university that has a grade school, high school, undergraduate and graduate programs in the arts, law, management, sciences, education, medicine, and government fields.