Regional Institutions and Security Order in Asia

Regional Institutions and Security Order in Asia

Amitav Acharya

Department of Political Science

York University, Toronto, Canada


Asia Center, Harvard University

(Paper Prepared for the Second Workshop on Security Order in the Asia-Pacific, Bali, 30 April – 2May 2000)


Asia offers interesting opportunities for (re) assessing the conditions for institution-building and its impact on regional security order in international relations. It remains a relatively new arena for the study of regional institutionalisation, being the last continent (with the exception of Antarctica) to develop macro-regional political or economic cooperation. In the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia also provides a rare example of a security institution in which the weaker members (belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) provide leadership over the stronger ones, the ranks of which include all the most powerful states of the current international system. Asian leaders, especially the ASEAN members, have frequently asserted that their loose and informal “ASEAN Way” is a unique and, in the Asian context at least, more effective approach to institution-building than European-style multilateral interactions.

Why Asian institutions are “late” in their emergence and post-hegemonic in their construction, and why (or whether) they are distinctive in their mode of socialization are important puzzles, which should tempt scholars of institution-building. Yet, these questions remain under-studied and Asian institutionalism under-theorised in the academic literature on international relations. While this could reflect the persisting Euro-Atalanticism in institutionalist theory, attempts to study “Asian” or Asia Pacific institutionalisation can also be genuinely intimidating. A good part of the reason lies in the diverse, shifting and seemingly contradictory nature of institution-building efforts in Asia. During the early post-Second World War period, for example, some regionalist efforts were framed within a pan-Asian identity and pursued a security order without superpower meddling, while others looked favorably at security alliances backed by the US. During the Cold War, ASEAN sought to exclude great powers from regional security management, while in the post-Cold War era it seeks to engage them. Asian institutions also show differing levels of involvement in security issues. Two multilateral institutions, ASEAN and the ARF, are officially engaged in managing regional security affairs. In contrast, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) avoids direct involvement in regional security. In Northeast Asia, which does not have an equivalent of ASEAN or SAARC, multilateral approaches to security are being undertaken in an ad hoc and functionally-specific manner, with the two prominent examples being the Four-Party Talks (involving China, the US, and the two Koreas), and the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). Mindful of the such wide sub-regional differences between South Asia, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, most commentators and analysts have chosen to focus on single case studies of institution-building, rather than generalise about the Asian experience as a whole.

With these caveats, this paper seeks to attempt a comparative analysis of sub-regional and macro-regional efforts at institution-building in Asia. The discussion is divided into four parts. The first offers a brief historical narrative on the evolution of institution-building in Asia, both at macro-regional and sub-regional levels. This is followed by an analysis of the sources and determinants of institution-building. The third section examines the range of institutionalist strategies adopted or pursued by Asian institutions to manage regional security order. The final section makes an assessment of the impact and effectiveness of Asian institutions in dealing with security issues.

Normative Diffusion and Institutional Emulation in Asian Regionalism

The origins of Asian institution-building efforts can be traced to the immediate post-War period. This period saw a contest between two conceptions of regionalism. The first of these was linked to the region’s nationalist sentiments. It involved efforts by Asia’s nationalist leaders to develop a pan-Asian framework to hasten the end of colonialism and to articulate a common response to the dangers of the Cold War. This phase saw the hosting a at least three major “pan-Asian” conferences: the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in April 1947, the Baguio conference in the Philippines in May 1950, and the Colombo Powers Conference in April 1954. A fourth conference, held in Bandung in 1954, was Afro-Asian in scope, although it did reflect much of the same concerns of the three aforementioned meetings.

The relationship between nationalism and regionalism would a first appear to be paradoxical, but leading Asian nationalists, including India’s Nehru, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and Burma’s Aung San saw regionalism as an important instrument in advancing decolonisation. The New Delhi conference of 1947, for example, condemned the Dutch “police action” against Indonesia and offered crucial political support to Indonesian independence, while Ho Chi Minh sought to use Asian platforms for resisting the re-imposition of French rule over Indochina. Moreover, Asian nationalists turned to regionalism “in overcoming foreseeable divisive forces among the new states and maintain unity of action to create an influence in world affairs much larger than any of the new states individually could ever hope to achieve.”

The fact that India was seen as a natural part, and a leader, of pan-Asian efforts is often forgotten in contemporary debates about the scope of Asian (or Asia Pacific) regionalism. From the 1960s onwards, however, India’s involvement in Asian regionalism would diminish, due to distractions caused by domestic problems and its preoccupation with conflicts in the sub-continent. Overall, the pan-Asian efforts did “contribute to the development of a climate in which colonialism could no longer flourish”, but they failed to produce a regional institution to advance common economic, political and strategic goals. As one observer writes, “Schemes for an Asian federation began to be discussed by prominent Asians across the continent, but in a rarefied atmosphere of intellectualism in which no really practical suggestions could survive.”

The failure of early post-war attempts to create a pan-Asian institution was partly due to the failure had as much to do with the Cold War geopolitics as with cultural diversity, lack of collective identities and intra-Asian suspicions. The latter included a fear by the smaller Asian countries of being dominated by the large Asian powers such as India and China, and the disappointment of some nationalist leaders, especially Ho Chi Minh, in obtaining meaningful support from regionalist gatherings. Other factors that accounted for the end of pan-Asianism were lack of complimentarity among regional economies and the salience of economic nationalism in the wake of decolonisation; ideological differences among Asian countries linked to Cold War geopolitics; and the dependence of Asian countries on Western security guarantees in the absence of viable self-help capabilities. Some of these factors, including the lack of collective identities and intra-Asian suspicions remain relevant in explaining the difficulties in institution-building in later periods, which was also constrained by disparate economic systems and the historic rivalries between actors non involved in earlier pan-Asian efforts (especially the Northeast Asian nations).

The Cold War not only did frustrate early post-war efforts for an Asian regional group, it also shaped an alternative approach to regional order. This involved attempts by the US and its allies to develop a collective defense framework which found expression in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). But SEATO proved to be a particularly weak form of regionalism. It could claim membership of only two Southeast Asian countries, Thailand and the Philippines, both of whom were already linked to the US through bilateral defense treaties, thereby rendering a multilateral alliance somewhat redundant. SEATO was not backed by what the pro-US Southeast Asian countries would consider to be a credible American security commitment comparable to NATO. Moreover, a collective defense system geared to external military threat was not deemed very useful to states whose primary security concern was internal in nature. While SEATO remained moribund for much its existence, Soviet efforts to develop a collective security system in Asia (the so-called Brezhnev Plan for an Asian Collective Security System) fared even less well, thanks to widespread suspicions in the region of Soviet motivations and role. In addition, the British withdrawal from east of Suez announced in the late 1960s, the evolving superpower détente, and the Nixon Doctrine’s call on America’s Asian allies to assume the greater burden of their own defense further undermined the faith of Asian states in developing multilateral security institutions under the leadership and protection of outside great powers.

It is no accident that the rise of ASEAN paralleled the fading away of pan-Asianism and the decline of SEATO. This also explains the type of norms that played a central role in ASEAN. From the very outset, ASEAN not only espoused the principles of non-interference, pacific settlement of disputes, commonplace in global and regional bodies around the world, but also regional autonomy and “regional solutions to regional problems”. This latter slogan was rooted less in ASEAN’s confidence about its own resources and political will than in the disillusionment of its members with great power interests and policy preferences in maintaining regional order.

The establishment of ASEAN in 1967 with the initial participation of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, was a breakthrough in Asian, and not just Southeast Asian, efforts at regional institution-building. Many commentators on ASEAN ignore the important philosophical and normative link between Southeast Asian and pan-Asian regionalism. As I have shown elsewhere, many of the initial ideas and proposals for Southeast Asian regionalism, including those coming from Burma’s Aung San or Indonesia’s Sutan Sjahrir, were framed within an “Asian” regional cultural, political and economic context. For example, an immediate predecessor of ASEAN, the short-lived Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) established in 1961, was described by the Foreign Minister, Thanat Khoman, as being rooted in “Asian Culture and traditions (sic)” and in the idea of “Asian mutual co-operation”. While ASA’s membership was limited to three Southeast Asian states, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, its rationale was described in terms of the conviction that “Asian solidarity must be and will be forged by Asian hands”. Even after the establishment of ASEAN on 8 October 1967, President Marcos of the Philippines visited Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia in January 1968 to push for turning ASEAN into a collective defense system “for Asia’s sake” and “Asian self-reliance”, asserting thereby the “Asian-ness” of ASEAN. And Thailand’s Khoman described ASEAN as the “first…indigenous Asian organisation” to be “initiated within the community of nations of the area to help themselves.”

While ASEAN’s founders recognised the impracticality of Asia-wide institution-building, they professed similar aspirations and adopted fundamentally similar norms, including non-interference, regional self-reliance (autonomy), and non-alignment. And a little discussed fact about ASEAN’s origin today is the invitation extended to Sri Lanka to join the Association at its founding (before ASEAN, Malaysian leader Tunku Abdul Rahman wanted Indian participation in a Southeast Asian grouping). ASEAN’s Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality concept, which itself grew out of debates over a Malaysian proposal for Neutralisation of Southeast Asia, further attest to shared normative underpinnings of both frameworks in non-alignment.

For almost two decades, ASEAN remained the only regional organisation with a political and security role, however indirect and camouflaged (under the rubric of economic cooperation which was not being seriously pursued). In 1985, however, another sub-regional institution appeared on the horizon, this time in South Asia. SAARC’s professed goal was to improve the economic conditions of the region and it purposely excluded security issues from its agenda, largely due to Indian insistence. Unlike Indonesia in ASEAN, India remained a reluctant player within the grouping. Despite these differences, ASEAN did serve as an inspiration for SAARC. As Dash puts it, President Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh, the main inspiration behind SAARC, had been working since 1977 on “the idea of an ASEAN-like organization in South Asia”. And the organizational “structure of SAARC is largely based on the ASEAN model”. The basic norms of SAARC were the same as those of ASEAN (although the degree of compliance differed). SAARC’s exclusion of contentious bilateral issues from the multilateral agenda was similar to ASEAN’s approach, which left bilateral disputes to be handled bilaterally, rather than be brought to the agenda of ASEAN (a practice known in ASEANese as “sweeping conflicts under the carpet”)

While institution-building in South Asia remained low-key and constrained, ASEAN flourished in the 1980s as a result of its diplomacy in the Cambodia conflict and favorable domestic economic conditions. By the time the Cold War ended, the ASEAN model had acquired a great deal of international legitimacy and appeal. Asian policy-makers saw it as a suitable basis for constructing a larger Asia Pacific institutionalist framework. ASEAN itself was initially hesitant in getting involved in these larger Asia Pacific frameworks, mainly out of a fear of being dominated by the greater powers and diluting its regional identity. But this changed when it realised that involvement in wider regional institutions would give it an opportunity to project and validate its sub-regional model on a larger theatre and thereby secure greater influence for itself. Moreover, ASEAN members realised that a larger institutionalist framework within the “Asia Pacific” – itself a product of discourses surrounding the growing trans-pacific economic dynamism and linkages of the 1970s and 80s – was necessary to address problems caused by the growing security and economic interdependence between Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. A sub-regional framework, despite having secured international recognition, would not be a sufficient basis for addressing security concerns linked to the rise of China and the effects of economic globalisation. The outcome of ASEAN’s shifting approach was the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1984.

Although the ARF marks the advent of the first Asia-Pacific regional security institution, and the first to include India as a full member, one must note important differences between the ARF and the early pan-Asian proposals. The ARF lack the sense of nationalism and the anti-western neutralism which underpinned pan-Asian efforts. Moreover, the ARF seeks to include the major powers which would have been considered to be “outsiders” before by pan-Asian regionalists and ASEAN’s founders.

Despite differences in geopolitical circumstance and geographic scope, the ARF, and to a lesser extent APEC, has been normatively and institutionally founded on the ASEAN model. It has adopted ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation as its basic normative framework, and the “ASEAN Way” of flexible consensus and organizational minimalism. Moreover, ASEAN is given the “driver’s seat” of the ARF, and ASEAN members clearly expect the “outside powers” to accept ASEAN’s leadership of the forum and the norms and principles that are specified by ASEAN.

Northeast Asia has remained the only sub-region not to develop a formal multilateral institution. But some of its proto-institutional frameworks, such as the Four-Party Talks and the security dialogues conducted under the auspices of CSCAP North Pacific Group and Northeast Asian Cooperation Dialogue, have been influenced by the idea of cooperative security championed by ASEAN and the ARF. Like their Southeast Asian counterparts, Northeast Asian actors show a preference for dialogue-oriented and ad hoc approaches to cooperation, rather than conventional legalistic institutions. Moreover, North Korea has shown a greater preference for participating in ASEAN-led institutions, such as CSCAP and the ARF, than in exclusively Northeast Asian intergovernmental security forum or Second Track processes which it fears would be dominated by the US and its allies lead to its further isolation.

Analysts of institution-building in Asia frequently remind us about the obstacles created by the region’s cultural diversity. Yet, as the foregoing discussion suggests and Figure 1 illustrates, cultural diversity has not precluded normative diffusion and institutional emulation. The element of sharing of ideas and attempt to learn from each other’s approaches assume particular importance in view of sub-regional variations in institutionalisation resulting from differing material conditions, which will be highlighted in the following section.

Figure 1: Normative Diffusion and Institutional Emulation in Asian Regionalism

Some influence


Moderate influence


Strong Influence

Explaining Asian Institutionalism
Power, Interest and Material Forces:

In the literature of international relations, explanations of the origins of international (including regional) institutions have traditionally privileged material forces linked to the interplay of power and interest. Asia is no exception. Here, power- and interest-based perspectives have dominated explanations of the emergence of institutionalism in general and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in particular.

Power-based explanations typically begin with consideration of US power and policy preferences. The most important example of this work is Donald Crone’s assertion that America’s “extreme hegemony” in post-War East Asia contributed to a preference for bilateralism in dealing with Asian countries since Washington saw multilateralism as a needless constraint on its preferences and behavior. Its Asian allies did not want multilateralism because it might have lessened their opportunities for free-riding. Without American interest and leadership, Asia could not develop strong and European-like economic and security institutions. It was the decline of US power in subsequent decades which created incentives for institutionalisation in the Asia Pacific as the Cold War neared its end.

Crone’s “modified realist” approach supplements the hegemonic stability theory by suggesting that the decline of the hegemon can be as important as its ascendancy in institution-building. But this view is at best a partial explanation. There is some evidence that the US was never fully committed to a primarily bilateral mode of cooperation in Asia in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Instead, it had tried, but failed, to establish a multilateral Asian security framework in the early 1940s and during 1950-51. Second, if the fear of being constrained is what drives a great power to avoid multilateralism, then why did the US endorse multilateralism in Europe or Latin America while rejecting it in Asia? After all, even in the aftermath of World War II, the power gap between the US and its European allies was smaller than that with respect to its Asian allies. In that case, the US should have had a greater fear of being constrained in dealing multilaterally with Europe than with Asia. Its doubtful that being involved in a regional multilateral institution in Asia would have really constrained independent decision-making in Washington any more than it did in Europe.

Interest-based perspectives explain the origins of Asian institutions in terms of the expected benefits of cooperation pursued through goal-oriented rational action. A good deal of such explanations has been concerned specifically with APEC, viewing it as a logical response to changing regional economic circumstances (especially rising interdependence). Dobson and Lee have viewed the emergence of APEC as a response to the “fundamental need” for a “structure of certainty” in managing Asia Pacific economic relations, while Elek has highlighted APEC’s potential in reducing economic transaction costs.Although APEC fits interest-based explanations more than security institutions, the need for security cooperation could also be explained in functional and utilitarian terms: as a conscious effort by regional actors to ensure that regional tensions do not undermine common prosperity. By mitigating the security dilemma, cooperative security institutions could prevent any disruption in the economic dynamism that had underpinned growth and prosperity while reinforcing the supposedly pacific effects of interdependence.

But like arguments linking US hegemonic decline with institution-building, viewing economic interdependence as a cause of the latter offers only a partial explanation. An important limitation of this view is that available evidence suggests lack of common economic interest or economic interdependence does not necessarily impede initial efforts at institution-building. To be sure, the pan-Asian regionalism was stymied by high economic nationalism and weak intra-regional economic linkage. But ASEAN did take off without an appreciable level of intra-regional trade (around 15-20% of total trade of ASEAN members, lower if one excludes entrepot trade involving Singapore). Even lower levels of intra-SAARC trade (2% of total SAARC trade in 1985) did not prevent its emergence. Another problem with the interdependence-institutionalisation linkage is that the Asian experience turns neo-functionalist “spill-over” logic (that “low politics” cooperation leads to “high politics” cooperation) on its head. In the case of both SAARC and ASEAN, economic considerations were secondary to political and strategic factors during early stages of institution-building. Political and strategic considerations were far more important as pre-conditions for economic cooperation. Thus, interdependence-based perspectives do not explain why and how ASEAN and SAARC emerged despite very low-levels of sub-regional economic linkages. Nor do they explain why there has been no sub-regional institution in Northeast Asia despite a relatively high degree of economic interaction between China, Taiwan, Japan, US and South Korea.

These observations lead us to an important point. Declining US hegemony and rising economic interdependence might have been important to the emergence of macro-regional institutions, such as APEC or the ARF, but they miss out on important material sources of sub regionalism in Asia. In analysing the latter, one must look for other forces. The following sections look at least three sources of ASEAN regionalism, and use them as the basis of assessing institution-building in South and Northeast Asia.

The first concerns domestic politics and economics, especially the degree of domestic political homogeneity and economic policy convergence among the actors. Katzenstein has highlighted the importance of domestic politics in shaping Asian regionalism by describing it as “non-Weberian” (lacking in strong legal-rational institutions and governance). But while this may explain why Asian cooperation remains under-institutionalised compared to Europe, it does not explain why some sub-regions have been more prone to regional cooperation than others. As Table 1 shows, domestic political homogeneity has been a key source of variation among Asian sub-regions when it comes to multilateral cooperation. A high degree of similarity in political systems was crucial to ASEAN’s formation. These included not only weak domestic structures, but also more importantly, a shared problem of regime legitimacy. ASEAN’s emergence coincided with the decline of postcolonial constitutional democracy in the region (Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore). In South Asia, in contrast, domestic political homogeneity has been low, and India’s democratic system has often served to divide, rather than unite the region. From time to time, Pakistan military leaders have perceived India’s democratic system to be a threat to their survival and this has meant engendering tensions with India and portraying India as a threat has been a tool of regime legitimation with negative consequences for South Asian institution-building. But the impact of divergent political structures in debilitating efforts at institutions building has been most pronounced in Northeast Asia, where regimes in North Korea and China have felt threatened by institution-building efforts espousing the norms of transparency and respect for human rights associated with Western type of institutions.

Table 1: Material Determinants of Institution-Building in Asian Sub-Regions

Southeast Asia South Asia Northeast Asia
Domestic Political Homogeneity and Economic Policy Convergence High. Shared authoritarianism (hard and soft) and developmentalism during ASEAN’s evolution. Becoming more diversified as a result of democratic transition in Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia, which has led to intra-mural differences over human rights protection and the non-interference doctrine. Shared commitment to “free market” systems (defined more in terms of openness to foreign capital than absence to state intervention). Moderate-Low. Fairly highly competitive mix of democracy and authoritarianism at SAARC’s birth. Indian democracy a long-standing source of regime insecurity in military-ruled Pakistan. Economic policy convergence marked by a “mixed” economy model moving in the 1990s towards greater liberalisation. Low. Highly competitive mix of communist and liberal-democratic systems. A mainly authoritarian sub-region until the 1980s, democratisation in Korea and Taiwan has become a source of regime insecurity in North Korea and China. Reliance on foreign capital historically lower than in Southeast Asia but higher than South Asia. All states except North Korea are market economies now.
Perception of Common Threat Consensus on internal threat, but divergence on external threat. Commonly perceived threat to regime survival from communist insurgency, and demands for political openness were important to ASEAN’s formation. But no consensus on external threat. Although Chinese and Vietnamese-backed communist subversion was a common concern in the initial years, there were intra-ASEAN differences over which of the two was more dangerous. Now, there is a shared concern with growth of Chinese power, but no common perception of China threat. Serious Divergence on both internal and external threat during initial years as well as now. Main external threat is seen to arise from other member nations. Ethnic separatism is the main domestic threat in the region, but the nature and source of this varies from country to country. Although terrorism (religious and political) has been on the SAARC agenda, India views Pakistan as the chief sponsor of terrorism directed against it and vice versa. Serious to moderate divergence on both internal and external threat. Like South Asia, the main external security concern arises from threats posed by other countries in the sub-region. But unlike South Asia, the pattern and overall intensity of intra-subregional perceptions have diminished with the end of the Cold War. US-Russia, Russia-Japan, and Japan-Russia rivalries have muted, while inter-Korean rivalry has remained unchanged and US-China rivalry has worsened (but not yet to the pre-1970s level).
Impact of Decline of External Protection Important Factor. The British “East of Suez” policy and the Nixon Doctrine were major influence on ASEAN’s formation. Post-Cold War concerns about US military presence contributed to ASEAN’s interest in ARF Unimportant before and now. No discernable impact on SAARC regionalism of the end of the Cold War leading to diminished external security support for India (from Soviet Union) and Pakistan (US) Unimportant before and somewhat important now and in the future. End of Soviet support for North Korea did not enhance its interest in sub-regional cooperation. But long-term uncertainties about US military presence and US-Japan alliance might have made multilateralism somewhat more desirable for Tokyo and Seoul.


While, as noted earlier, economic interdependence and cooperation may not necessarily lead to cooperation on political and security issues, institution-building motivated by political and security concerns can be positively influenced by a convergence of domestic economic policy. Adherence to free market was once described as the “philosophical basis” of ASEAN by one of its founding fathers. What really ensured the acceptance of the “security with”, as opposed to “security against”, philosophy cooperative security approach behind the ARF was the basic convergence of economic approach of potential adversaries. Similarly, slowly converging economic policies contributed in no small measure to the growing interest among South Asian countries in regional cooperation. Conversely, the closed economy of North Korea has been a major impediment to sub-regional institution building in Northeast Asia, and any major shift in that situation would have to depend at least partly on domestic economic liberalization by Pyongyang.

Common threat perception has been an important source of variation in sub-regional institutionalisation in Asia. But no sub-region in Asia shows a convergence of external threat perceptions. Despite having taken a common stand against Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, ASEAN members continued to disagree about the source and intensity of external threats. While Singapore and Thailand saw Vietnam as the most serious threat to their security during much of the 1970s and 80s, Indonesia and Malaysia saw China as the most serious long-term threat and were even willing to accept Vietnam as a counterweight to China’s potential for regional hegemony. No common external threat lay behind the emergence of SAARC. Instead, external threats to SAARC members emanate primarily from other members of SAARC. Northeast Asia shows a similar pattern, while the ARF has no basis in the member’s shared threat perceptions.

The literature on regional security has long argued that internal security problems are the core issue in the national security problematic of Third World states. If shared threat perceptions is a catalyst of institution-building, then in the case of Third World countries, this is likely to be an internal, rather than external threat. The commonly-perceived danger of communist insurgency, ethnic separatism and other political challenges to regime survival was a powerful catalyst of ASEAN and defined its security role for much of its early years. ASEAN’s evolution suggests that a common “internal enemy” may be more important than commonly-perceived external threats in institution-building. But this has not been evident in other cases of institution-building in Asia. But regime security has been fundamental to explaining Bangladesh’s interest in SAARC in the 1980s and North Korea’s interest in KEDO and Four-Party Talks in the 1990s.

In building security institutions, states cooperate against uncertainty, rather than just threat. Thus, while SAARC’s origins was not inspired by a common threat, it did reflect a shared sense of uncertainty and perceived deterioration of the South Asian strategic environment in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December 1979. ASEAN’s decision to involve itself more directly in security matters and the evolution of the ARF took place against the backdrop of post-Cold War strategic uncertainty. Thus, while emphasis on common threat as the basis of security cooperation, a more important factor, often ignored in conventional theories, is the shared sense of strategic uncertainty.

For states incapable of self-help, strategic uncertainty is often the result of changes in the availability of external security guarantees. In Asia, this has been a crucial factor in triggering institution-building. ASEAN emerged from the ashes of SEATO not the least because the two key founding members, Thailand and the Philippines, were as much concerned about the domestic and regional costs of continued involvement in SAETO as about the continuation of US military presence in the region and its involvement in Indochina. Malaysia and Singapore found regionalism important in responding to the withdrawal of British forces from the region. The ARF’s origins lay partly in uncertainties about the US military presence in the region at a time of post Cold War demobilisation and cuts in defense spending. From an ASEAN perspective, the ARF was as much about engaging the US as China. To this extent, Crone’s emphasis on hegemonic decline as a trigger for institution-building in Asia is right, but it is not the only or even the most important factor.)

Norms and Collective Identity as Sources of Asian Institution-Building:

What role have norms and collective identities played in the origins of Asian institutions? This question has received scant attention on the literature on Asian institutions in the 1990s. Constructivist interpretations of European and trans-Atlantic regionalism now recognise the importance of shared values, ideas, and norms in institution-building. In the case of NATO, for example, Risse-Kappen has argued that “collective identities and norms of appropriate behavior”, especially those of republican liberalism, were crucial to its evolution and effectiveness. Comparing Europe with Asia, Katzenstein has stressed the influence of international norms in the development of APEC.To a considerable extent, APEC with its emphasis on “open regionalism” represents the regionalisation of GATT norms. International norms concerning security cooperation have been met with more resistance in Asia; while Asian leaders endorsed open regionalism, they have been less willing to accept the norms of transparency in the doctrine of “common security” (based on the CSCE/OSCE model) as well as the emerging global norms concerning human rights protection. But international security norms have influenced the development and character of regional institutions in Asia, whether or not Asian policy-makers admit it or not. As Table 1 shows, non-alignment and non-interference two particularly influential international norms in the early post Second World War period, were crucial in shaping ASEAN. The norm of non-interference has had a similar importance for SAARC. The impact of the norm of “common security” on the ARF is especially interesting, given the frequent assertions one finds in Asia about the inapplicability of European models to Asia. Yet, a close look at the doctrine of cooperative security, the philosophical basis of the ARF, will show important similarities with common security, especially in terms of a shared emphasis on confidence-building measures and inclusiveness.

But ASEAN’s initial resistance to the CSCE norms show that the diffusion global norms depend on compatibility with, and adaptation through, existing regional norms. The idea of cooperative security had to be filtered through the norms of socialisation developed by ASEAN. Conflict between regional and global norms can obstruct prospects for institution-building and undermine institutional efficacy. This will be clearer in a subsequent section which looks at ASEAN’s difficulties in responding to globalisation and the increasing salience of human rights norms that have eroded the salience of the non-interference doctrine at the global level.

Figure 2: The Impact of International Norms Asian Institutions

The influence of identity in shaping institution-building in Asia remains under-studied. Yet, a focus on identity helps explain the puzzle concerning the late development of Asian institutionalism. After reviewing US policy debates concerning Asia during the early post-war period, Hemmer and Katzenstein have argued that “ideas about collective identities” were important in explaining why Washington favored multilateralism in Europe and bilateralism in Asia. American policy-makers saw Europe as a more desirable arena for multilateral engagement because they recognised a greater sense of a transatlantic community than a transpacific one. “America’s perception of Europe as belonging to the same basic, and in some ways natural, political community as the United States spurred the United States to favour multilateral organizational forms in Europe”, while “the absence of this sense of a community in Asia and the belief that the Asian countries belonged to inferior political community led to a U.S. preference for bilateralism there.” From this perspective, it was the preponderance of American power (Crone’s “extreme hegemony”), but America’s conception of Europe as the “self” and Asia as the “other”, which explains why Washington seemed disinclined to develop a multilateral security order in Asia.

If identity mattered in defining the post-war policy of the hegemonic power towards Asia, a more important question about institution-building in Asia concerns the presence or lack thereof of “collective identities or norms of appropriate behavior” within post-war Asia. Did the pan-Asian gatherings amount to an effort at collective identification? While at the 1947 Asian Relations Conference Nehru spoke eloquently of the “deeper urge of the mind and spirit of Asia which has persisted in spite of the isolationism which grew up during the years of European domination”, pan-Asianism was also rooted in prevailing nationalist sentiments, which were by nature competitive. Nehru (as the Indian Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore before him) found few believers in an Asian identity. This, combined with economic differences, cultural diversity and historical rivalries did contribute to the collapse of Pan-Asian efforts. It should also be noted that these efforts were labelled not just Asian, but also Afro-Asian (but never Asia Pacific).

The last point leads to another question: what were the shared norms, values and collective identities when Asia did finally begin to develop multilateral institutions in the late 1980s and 1990s? Could they be found in constructs such as “ASEAN Way” or “Asian Way”? These were clearly the outcome of decades of social construction within ASEAN, and second track processes led by the ASEAN-ISIS. By the late 1980s a considerable amount of socialisation had taken place within these groupings without the help of formal Asia-wide institutions. While these might not have produced a collective identity, there was a shared notion of functional identity and a quest for community. This functional identity explained the process-orientation of Asian institutions, demarcating them from EU and NATO. An article in the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1980 highlighted these differences by distinguishing between two conceptions of community, one that derives “primarily from ideas of structure, a geographic area, a system of interrelated economic activities and institutions, and a politically self-governing unit”, and another “which is a new conception of community, is devised principally from the idea of process…In this sense, a community is any process of social interaction that gives rise to a more intensive or more extensive attitude and practice of interdependence, cooperation, collaboration, and unification.”

While the lack of collective identity should not be seen as an adequate explanation of the late development of Asian institutionalism, it is important and provides a necessary corrective to simple materialist power- or interest-based explanations of Asian institution-building. Considerations of identity have been important not just to macro-regional institution-building in Asia, they have also been crucial in sub-regional contexts, where the success or failure of institution-building and institutional efficacy has reflected, and been influenced by, attempts at regional definition.

The formation of ASEAN was clearly accompanied by the projection of a Southeast Asian identity. ASEAN leaders were not only frustrated by Asia-wide initiatives or by the US-sponsored alliance framework, but they also saw an opportunity in ASEAN to acknowledge historical linkages among Southeast Asian states that had been disrupted by colonialism. Regionalism went hand in hand with efforts to affirm the regionness of Southeast Asia. ASEAN’s founders clearly recognised an existing common identity, but stressed the need for using a regional institution to develop it further. While the origins of Southeast Asia as a regional label owed to the war-time Southeast Asia Command established by Allied Forces under Mountbatten, and to the post-war Western scholarship debunking the prior view of Southeast Asia as a social and cultural extension of the most established Indian and Chinese civilizations, ASEAN elites sought to construct a regional identity from within through rule-based interactions and informal socialisation.

The origins of SAARC, on the other hand, displayed no such effort at identity-building. Western commentators have often drawn attention to South Asia’s lack of a regional identity; as Immanuel Wallerstein once observed: “South Asia is an invented abstraction”. But so was Southeast Asia, which was also of recent origin. Nira Wickramsinghe argues that South Asia’s claim to regional identity is tenuous despite having the Indian Ocean and the Himalayas as boundary markers. The Indian Ocean served more as a highway for the transmission of Indian civilization than to demarcate a regional space, while the Himalayas did not prevent political, linguistic, religious interactions that underpinned the concept of a “Hindustan” stretching westwards from northern India to Afghanistan and beyond. She describes South Asia as an “inter-regional area”, one which is closely linked, even after the advent of European colonialism, to Southeast Asia and the Middle East in terms of flows as much material things such as labour and commodities, as ideas and culture.

There has been little mention of “identity” in discussions about institution-building in Northeast Asia. This is striking, given that Northeast Asia appears to be a more culturally homogenous universe than Southeast Asia. While Southeast Asian regionalists derived its claim to regionness negatively by refuting the older conception of the region as a cultural appendage of China and India, the two neighbouring civilisations, Northeast Asia has been identified positively as the “Sinic culture area”. But Northeast Asia’s greater proximity to great power geopolitics has overwhelmed any regionalist impulses sourced in traditional cultural linkages. Reviewing Northeast Asian regionalism, including Track-I, Track-II and functionalist efforts (such as the Tumen River Cooperation), Gilbert Rozman argues that most of these efforts were designed to serve the “national interests” of the actors such as “helping each country reduce geographic inequality and boost a lagging and sensitive corner of its territory”, addressing the North Korean proliferation threat, and reducing Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese tensions. Although “influencing the emergence of a new, less nationalistic identity in a time of flux” has also been a motivating factor, and there has been some talk about a “Sea of Japan identity”, he found “no sign of growing regional identities.”

From the foregoing, one would conclude that differing emphasis on collective identity-building has been a key source of institutional variation within Asia. It would seem, however, that the relevant notion of identity here is actor-driven and “imagined”, rather than fixed and tradition-bound. It is derived not just from cultural and civilizational affinities (although these clearly matter), but, more importantly from a dynamic and self-conscious quest for cooperation by regional actors. As such, identity-building efforts have varied over time in response to changing material (including political, geo-strategic and economic) developments. Thus, “Asia” seemed to nationalist leaders to be a plausible basis to develop cooperation in the postcolonial context, “Southeast Asia” was more practical to the needs of the founders of ASEAN in the wake of the British and US withdrawals from the region, “Asia-Pacific” or “Asia Pacific” was more appropriate in capturing the economic dynamism and interdependence of the 1970s onwards. But an inter-subjective notion of identity also has been important in Asia; otherwise, it will be difficult to explain why, despite the appeal of the efficiency-driven construct “Asia Pacific”, an alternative and identity-driven conception of region has persisted through the 1990s, producing important tensions between institutionalist strategies towards the close of the decade. These tensions surfaced in 1990 when Malaysia proposed the idea of an East Asian Economic Grouping (renamed East Asian Economic Caucus) with an exclusively East Asian membership. The idea was met with considerable opposition from the US, which in turn led Japan, the presumed leader of EAEC, to refuse to endorse the concept. The fact that Malaysia, despite its domestic economic liberalisation and strong commitment to open regionalism could pursue the EAEC and thereby risk damage to its ties with the US further attests to the role identity in explaining why some institution-building strategies are preferred by states over others. Efforts since the Asian economic crisis to develop an Eastern Asian political and economic forum further attests to the resilience of identity-driven approaches to institution-building in Asia.

The Variety of Institutionalist Strategies in Asia

Institutions can shape regional security order in a variety of ways. First, institutions are created for performing specific security roles, such as collective security, collective defense or cooperative security. Second, institutions can help reduce the impact of power asymmetries within a given region, and induce a more peaceful role for the dominant power/s vis-à-vis their neighbours. Third, institutions can prescribe and promote norms of conduct to regulate and potentially transform the behavior of their members. While there are a variety of other ways in which institutions can seek to manage regional order, the discussion below will focus on these three, which have been particularly relevant to the working of the institutions under investigation here.

Security multilateralism in its traditional form is often associated with collective security or collective defense. Although the first major application of the UN’s collective security approach occurred in the region (Korea in 1951), Asia has proven distinctively inhospitable to collective security or collective defense institutions, even of the truncated variety found in the Inter-American Defense System or the League of Arab States. As noted earlier, the ill-defined Brezhnev Plan for an Asian Collective Security System was rejected by most regional actors, including many non-aligned states which were allied to Moscow. The only proposal for a collective security system in Asia in the post-Cold War era has come from Taiwan’s former President Lee Teng Hui, and this, as might be expected, has fallen in deaf ears.

As with collective security, multilateral collective defense has failed to take roots in the region. Apart from the SEATO, the only other multilateral collective defense in Asia is the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA), established in the wake of the British withdrawal from Southeast Asia. Aimed at helping the transition of Singapore and Malaysia to a self-reliant defense posture with the help of Britain, Australia and New Zealand, the FPDA has had no real teeth. It has served more as a confidence-building measure between Singapore and Malaysia than as a collective defense instrument. The trilateral ANZUS Pact between Australia, New Zealand and the US was partly intended to collectively counter the communist threat in Asia, but its deterrent effect remained questionable and it was reduced to a bilateral arrangement after the US cut off defense ties with New Zealand punish its nuclear allergy.

The overwhelming pattern of defense relationships within Asia has been bilateral. But some of these have had a “multilateralist” impact, offering a measure of reassurance against strategic uncertainty and serving as confidence building measures. There are two main examples of defense bilateralism in Asia; the first represented by the “hub-and-spoke” pattern of US alliances, and the second found in the ASEAN style of “spider web” bilateralism. While the US alliances are more exclusionary, the US military strategy in the region built around them has sought to incorporate elements of cooperative security (termed “cooperative defense” by US Pacific Commanders), by using them to build defense ties with a whole range of countries. Moreover, their impact now is less threat-oriented than uncertainty-oriented. ASEAN’s spider-web bilateralism, consisting of intelligence-sharing, joint exercises and training activities evolved against trans-border insurgencies, but is now serving as an important confidence-building measure.

Asia has proven more receptive to a third type of security approach, which has acquired the popular label of cooperative security. Similar in orientation and purpose, if not method, to OSCE’s common security model, cooperative security is a softer form of security multilateralism. It lacks any enforcement mechanism, and relies entirely on confidence-building, preventive diplomacy, and conflict management and resolution, rather than the threat of punishment (collective security) or denial (collective defense). Compared to common security in Europe, cooperative security in Asia is less formalised and legalised, conforming to what some analysts have identified as the region’s distinctive strategic culture.

Among Asian institutions, the ARF most closely approximates the ideal of cooperative security. Ironically, despite its professed leadership of the ARF, ASEAN itself had not, until the end of the Cold War, embraced an important aspect of cooperative security, the principle of inclusiveness. Not only did ASEAN fail in its stated goal to bring Communist Indochina (as well as Burma) to its fold, but it purposely sought to deny all non-Southeast Asian powers any role in the management of regional order within its ZOPFAN framework. Yet, ASEAN did serve as a political confidence-building measure intra-murally and provided informal avenues for conflict prevention and management. Now, with the establishment of a “Troika” system, it has embraced a formal measure of preventive diplomacy. SAARC has done neither of these, except for a failed effort to deal with transnational terrorism, largely because of its decision to keep all bilateral issues outside of its agenda. But SAARC can be seen as a confidence-building measure over and above the limited bilateral measures agreed between India and Pakistan. Moreover, SAARC summits have helped to diffuse bilateral tensions on a number of occasions, especially in November 1986 when a meeting between the leaders of India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the 2nd SAARC summit meeting in Bangalore diffused of tensions over India’s troop exercises on the Indo-Pakistan border, and in 1987 when India-Sri Lanka talks during the SAARC Foreign Ministers of Meeting produced an important accord on the Tamil problem.

Table 2: Institutionalist Strategies in Asia

Collective Security No No No No No No
CollectiveDefense No Weak No. “Spider-Web” bilateralism No No. “Hub and Spoke” bilateralism No
Cooperative Security (CBMs, PD and Dispute-Settlement) Intended None Largely Informal and Bilateral Bilateral CBMs only Bilateral CBMs only Multilateral CBMs, PD but no DS yet

None of the three multilateral security approaches address problems caused by asymmetries of power among the participating states. In the case of collective security and collective defense, which depend essentially on military power instruments, they may even exacerbate them by giving the leading state disproportionate influence and authority, as the case of US in UN and NATO demonstrates. This affects their usefulness in a region like Asia, where power asymmetries are especially pronounced both within individual sub-regions and the region as a whole. Whether dominant powers are also “leaders” in multilateral institutions, in the sense of proposing their creation, defining their agenda and helping to implement/enforce their decisions is often crucial to institution-building and efficacy.

Most Asian institutions under investigation here show a bottom-up construction. This is evident in Bangladesh’s role in proposing SAARC, and the role of ASEAN (along with Australia and Canada) in the creation of ARF. While Indonesia was key to the formation of ASEAN, the initial ideas for a Southeast Asian grouping came from the smaller states, Malaysia and Thailand. Even the Four-Party Talks were proposed jointly by South Korea and the US. A common thread running through many of these efforts is an attempt by the weaker states to use institution-building to constrain or “rein-in” the dominant actor and to persuade it to engage in a feat of “self-binding”. Self-binding in this sense is a form of bargain, whereby the dominant actor agrees to exercise restraint in its dealing with the other members of the grouping while in return gaining support for its objectives and recognition of its leadership.

Pan-Asianism was essentially a top-down construction, with India and Indonesia playing a leading role in it, although, as noted the role of Burma and Vietnam must also be acknowledged. But it failed partly because, as noted earlier, the smaller states of Asia feared Indian and Chinese domination and no institutional bargaining that would have reassured the smaller states of Indian or Chinese restraint was forthcoming. The pattern of self-binding that is most conducive to institution-building was evident in ASEAN in which Indonesia’s role vis-à-vis its smaller neighbours has been compared to that of a “golden cage”. Without this self-binding by Suharto’s Indonesia, reversing Sukarno’s militant nationalism and territorial aggrandisement, the ASEAN dream would have been impossible to attain. The absence of such self-binding by India is a major reason for the weakness of SAARC. The reasons for this are two-fold. Indian policy-makers distrusted the motivations behind as a way of constraining India. Moreover, an active Indian role within SAARC would most likely have killed the organisation, in view of the suspicions of India that prevailed within the grouping. India did not volunteer a policy of diffuse reciprocity in dealing with its smaller neighbours, although the Gujral Doctrine of the 1990s did indicate a brief but significant departure from this practice, briefly rekindling hope for a more robust South Asian regionalism (the Gujral Doctrine, however, was not applied to Pakistan).

Table 3: Leadership in Asian Institutions


Dominant Power
India,Burma, Vietnam/ India, China US/US Thailand/
Bangladesh/ India South Korea/China, US Australia, Canada, ASEAN/China, US
Leadership Type or Pattern Ideational Hegemonic/
Consensual no leader? Concert-like Intellectual; Entrepreneurial
Degree of Self-binding by Dominant Actor/s Low Limited High Low(except Gujral Doctrine) Absent No (as yet)


The role of China within ARF begs an important comparison with both SAARC and ASEAN. In many ways, what China’s neighbours in the ARF hope is a relationship with Beijing closer to Indonesia’s role in ASEAN than to India’s in SAARC. To some extent, Chinese response to this quest to date has more similarities with India’s than Indonesia’s. China has not accepted the kind of restraint on its strategic policy on matters of sovereignty and territorial claims demanded by its neighbours. But China has embraced multilateralism within the ARF perhaps to a greater extent than India has within the SAARC framework. Chinese position within ARF resembles Indian position within SAARC in another respect. Indian policymakers, especially at the beginning of the SAARC process, were worried that “a regional organization might provide an opportunity for the smaller neighbours to regionalise all bilateral issues and to join with each other to “gang up” against India.” Chinese policy-makers have in the past expressed similar concerns about the ARF, although they have moved more quickly to overcome such concerns than India had in relation to SAARC. In the case of SAARC, a key irony is that while India’s smaller neighbours want to resist Indian domination, both economic and political, that may result from greater institutionalisation of SAARC, they also need India’s support to resist the unwarranted foreign (read Western) encroachment that comes with globalisation. This is not evident in the case of China’s Asian neighbours, except perhaps in Malaysia’s quest for an East Asian institution for which it is now more actively seeking Beijing’s support in view of Japan’s continued refusal to get seriously involved.

The third way in which institutions can affect security order concerns the role of norms. Institutions serve as a crucial medium for the diffusion and promotion of norms. In this sense, institutions themselves are important norm entrepreneurs. While Asian norm entrepreneurs in the past have been individual leaders (Nehru) or states acting bilaterally (one of the most important examples of this being the Sino-Indian Panchasila or the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence), none had played a role comparable to that of ASEAN whose norms, as noted earlier, have played an important role in the making of the ARF and shaping its agenda.

While Asian regional groupings have espoused similar norms to regulate inter-state relationships (non-interference, inclusiveness, and comprehensive security are now common to all the institutions under investigation here), the degree of norm compliance varies. Table 3 shows some of the key variations. Important but not surprising is the fact that SAARC, the most inclusive institution, is also the weakest; while ASEAN was quite effective (perhaps more so than now) at a time when it was least inclusive. (But ASEAN’s lack of inclusiveness before Vietnam became member in 1995 had as much to do with Hanoi’s hostility towards ASEAN, which it described as an imperialist tool, as with ASEAN’s own reservations about Hanoi’s participation). ASEAN’s decision to be fully inclusive by accepting all 10 countries of Southeast Asia into its fold has had a decidedly mixed impact. While ending a historic polarisation of Southeast Asia, it rendered ASEAN politically less cohesive and widened intra-mural economic disparities. The ARF has been fairly inclusive from the outset. But the continued exclusion of North Korea and Taiwan (the latter has no hope of joining it due to China’s opposition), parties to two of the most difficult trouble-spots in Asia, reduces the its relevance in managing regional security order over issues pertaining to Northeast Asia (although it is far from certain whether having them as members would make the ARF more effective). The lesson: inclusiveness in regional institutions is a double-edged sword; while it can be politically and economically burdensome, its absence lessens their relevance in managing security order.

Table 4: Variations in Norm Compliance


Norms Southeast Asia (ASEAN) South Asia(SAARC) Northeast Asia Asia-Pacific(ARF)
Inclusiveness Yes (after 1995) Yes Yes Yes (except North Korea, Taiwan)
Non-interference Strong Weak Moderate Yes
Non-use of force Strong Weak Moderate Yes (except Taiwan)
Territorial status-quo Strong Contested Contested Yes
Autonomy  Strong preference Preferred by India, opposed by Pakistan Absent Absent
ComprehensiveSecurity Strong Weak Weak Moderate


The doctrine of non-interference is unquestionably the core norm of Asian institutions and important to comparing Asia with other parts of the world. ASEAN credits it with keeping its intra-mural peace and advancing it towards a security community. China vigorously insists on it as the defining principle of the ARF. The problem with this norm is not lack of compliance, but too much compliance. But despite having been a foundational principle of institution-building in Asia, non-interference is now seen by some as a limiting factor in institutional efficacy. Strict respect for non-interference (demanded especially by China) explains the reluctance and inability of the ARF to advance its security agenda to areas such as peacekeeping, preventive diplomacy and conflict-resolution. Within ASEAN, debates have emerged whether too strict an adherence to this norm undermines its ability to deal effectively with regional conflicts, especially in Burma (where ASEAN pursued a now-discredited “constructive engagement’ policy that cost it a considerable amount of international goodwill and disrupted economic ties with the EU), Cambodia (where its failure to prevent the 1997 coup undermined the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement) and East Timor (where ASEAN was criticised for doing nothing to prevent the atrocities committed by Indonesian troops in 1999). In addition, the Thai Foreign Minister blamed ASEAN’s weak response to the regional economic downturn of 1997-99 on the doctrine of non-interference, which in his view limited regional economic transparency and prevented members from warning each other against corrupt economic practices that contributed to the crisis. The East Timor crisis of 1999 highlighted a growing disjunction between ASEAN and normative changes at the global level, marked by increasing acceptance by the UN and other regional organizations of collective humanitarian action in the domestic affairs of troubled states. The lesson: growing incongruence between global and regional norms can undermine the ability of regional institutions to manage security order, especially in responding to two of the central security challenges of the post-Cold War era: insecurities caused by economic globalisation and internal conflicts in weak states.

In general, regional norms in Asia remain more strongly wedded to the protection of Westphalian sovereignty than most other parts of the world. The Asian case can be contrasted with that of Latin America, where groups like OAS and MERCOSUR have followed the EU/OSCE practice of asking for a democratic political system as a membership criteria and providing mechanisms for multilateral mediation and intervention in the event of democratic breakdowns. No regional grouping in Asia has developed such norms concerning the protection of human rights and democracy. There is no Asian regional human rights body similar to those in Africa, Latin America or Europe.

ASEAN has since faced increasing demands for modifying its non-interference principle. A Thai initiative, called “flexible engagement”, seeks to allow ASEAN members to comment on each other’s domestic developments and policies and develop cooperative approaches to address them if such developments and policies had transnational consequences. But this proposal has been resisted by other ASEAN members, with the exception of the Philippines, partly out of concerns that any shift from non-interference would pose threats to regime security, especially in the region’s authoritarian states such as Burma and Vietnam. But ASEAN’s decision to develop some regional economic surveillance processes may reflect an initial move beyond non-interference.

The doctrine of non-interference also imposes an important qualifier to the norm concerning non-use of force in Asia. While this is a declaratory norm of all Asian institutions, it does not extend to intra-state conflicts. This is most strikingly evident in China’s refusal to rule out forcible assimilation of Taiwan, which it considers to be a break-away province of China and hence a matter of domestic policy. In terms of its effect on inter-state conflicts, non-use of force is of course the core norm of pluralistic security communities, groups of states which have developed long term expectations of peaceful change and ruled out the use of force against each other. Southeast Asia is the only sub-region in Asia, which can claim this distinction (elsewhere, I have characterised ASEAN as a “nascent” security community); South Asia and Northeast Asia, and the Asian region as a whole is still a long way from developing this attribute.

Another significant variation in norm compliance in Asia concerns the sanctity of existing boundaries. A shared norm concerning the inviolability of postcolonial boundaries has been central to the success of other regional organisations (especially in Africa within the OAU framework). In Asia, one could find an important contrast between South Asia and Southeast Asia. (Northeast Asian cases where territorial status-quo is contested – Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, Spratlys and the Kurile Islands, among others – are the result not of colonial boundary-making but of ideological struggles and Cold War geopolitics, although Taiwan’s claim to independence is partly based on its status as a separate Japanese colony from early 1900s to the end of World War II). In South Asia, this norm is especially weak as evident in Pakistan’s refusal to accept Kashmir as a part of India and India’s 1971 intervention in East Pakistan being the only case of a successful break-up of postcolonial states until the Eritrea’s break-up from Ethiopia towards the end of the Cold War. In Southeast Asia, ASEAN since the end of Sukarno’s Konfrontasi (literally “Confrontation”), has shown remarkable support for this norm, evident in the refusal of its members to support secessionist movements in fellow member states, such as Islamic movements in the southern Philippines and southern Thailand. This was further attested in the recent case of Aceh, where ASEAN members strongly affirmed Indonesian territorial integrity, and Malaysia, despite its traditional ethnic ties with Aceh, refused to back the Muslim separatists there.

Another key declaratory norm in Asian regionalism, “regional solutions to regional problems” had a high symbolic appeal in post-colonial Southeast Asia. Regional self-reliance was a common, if rhetorical, slogan of nationalist leaders throughout the Third World. Asia was no exception and as noted pan-Asian proposals used this as a slogan not only to advance the decolonisation process but also to lessen their vulnerability to superpower intervention. After the collapse of pan-Asian concepts, Southeast Asian regionalists revived and pursued this norm, notably those in Malaysia and Indonesia. This was partly in response to the British withdrawal from the region and the US withdrawal from Vietnam. These developments convinced Southeast Asian leaders of the futility of relying on external security guarantees. Hence, regional self-reliance was seen as a pragmatic way of adjusting to the declining credibility and availability of external protection. Intra-ASEAN divisions over this doctrine were especially visible in the 1970s over the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality proposal, with Singapore and Thailand contesting Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s desire to minimise security links with the US. With the end of the Cold War, ASEAN seems to have abandoned this norm, adopting instead an approach that seeks the constructive involvement of outside powers in Southeast Asian affairs (This is seen in its sponsorship of the ARF). In the meantime, power asymmetries and lack of self-binding by the dominant power have made this norm highly contested in South Asia. While in Southeast Asia autonomy has meant ASEAN’s (and to a limited degree Indonesia’s) solutions to Southeast Asian problems, in South Asia regional autonomy has been seen by the smaller states as India’s solution to regional problems to the exclusion of all outsiders. Hence, Pakistan has openly solicited outside intervention in Kashmir, which India vehemently opposes. And SAARC has neither the mandate nor the institutional means to address common security problems.

Apart from their substantive regulatory norms such as non-interference, institutionalist strategies in Asia are shaped by a range of procedural norms, principles which govern socialisation and decision-making. The key example here is the so-called ASEAN Way, the practice of keeping cooperation consultative, rather than problem-solving. The ASEAN Way involves avoidance of formalistic and legalistic mechanisms, and a preference for consensus-building, in which process becomes more important than the product. As noted earlier, it has not only shaped intra-regional political and economic cooperation in Southeast Asia, but also the evolution and decision-making framework of SAARC and the ARF.

Miles Kahler has made an important distinction between institutionalisation and legalisation in Asia and argued that while ASEAN is well-institutionalized, it lags considerably in legalising itself. ASEAN conducts over 300 annual meetings on topics ranging from tourism to forest fires, but is yet to even once activate the High Council provided under the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with a view to facilitate dispute settlement. The reluctance to legalise is not unrelated to the salience of the non-interference doctrine. It allows member states to keep cooperation flexible and veto proposals and initiatives that are domestically sensitive and unacceptable.

But as with the non-interference doctrine, Asian institutions face increasing pressures for change. The Asian economic crisis has led to calls for more European-style formal institutions in Asia. ASEAN’s aversion to legalisation, most evident in its formative years when its founders shared warm inter-personal ties, has been slowly diluted. It is now setting up formal dispute-settlement bodies within the framework of the ASEAN Free Trade Area and the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty. Its “Troika” system for preventive diplomacy, mentioned earlier, is another such example. And formal instruments of confidence-building, if not preventive diplomacy and conflict-resolution, are making progress, albeit slow, in the ARF.

The Effects of Norms and Institutions on Security Order in Asia

International relations theory provides no definitive way of assessing what constitutes “success” and “effectiveness” in regional organizations. Understanding the effects of Asian institutions on state behavior and regional order depends very much on the analytical lens used.

Realists, who view institutions as a marginal force in world politics, judge institutional efficacy in terms of their ability to project power and enforce compliance. To the extent that institutions matter at all, only those, such as NATO, which have a capacity to use physical force to enforce compliance are worthy of notice. Neo-liberal theorists, who see institutions as having a definite potential to moderate anarchy, assess institutional roles in terms of their ability to provide mechanisms through which “the conflicting interests of different actors can reach a dynamic, cooperative equilibrium”. Such theories typically focus on how institutions lower transaction costs, facilitate information exchanges, reduce uncertainty and prevent cheating. Important variations of neo-liberal theory define institutional efficacy in terms of their impact as “utility modifiers” and “learning facilitators”, and their ability to “improve the contractual environment for cooperation”.

While neo-liberals hold that the power and appeal of institutions derive from the material benefits they offer to their members which cannot be otherwise obtained, sociological theories, including Constructivism, take a deeper view of cooperation. Institutions not only constrain state preferences and behavior (a negative view of cooperation) they also provide a much more positive and transformative basis of cooperation by socialising actors and developing a sense of collective interest and purpose. While rationalist theories focus on the regulative effect of norms, constructivism sees norms having a constitutive and transformative function. For neo-liberals, the standard institutionalist outcome is a regime in which interests and identities are neither wholly competitive nor wholly