Does ASEAN matter? Reconciling realist and constructivist approaches to regional security in Southeast Asia

Essay 2007 37 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: South Asia


Table of Contents

I. Introduction: Conceptualising ASEAN

II. ASEAN in theoretical perspective
2.1 ASEAN as a powerless imitation community:
The Neo-realist perspective
2.2 ASEAN as an “emergent security community”:
The Social Constructivist Perspective

III. ASEAN’s role in regional conflicts
3.1 ASEAN’s emerging role in intra-regional security in the
Cold War Context: The lessons from Konfrontasi
3.2 ASEAN’s role in extra-regional conflict management in the Cold War context: The Cambodian conflict
3.3 ASEAN’s intra-regional security role in the Post-Cold War
context: The South China Sea disputes

IV. Concluding Remarks

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction: Conceptualising ASEAN

One of the most salient facets of the Third great debate between positivist and post-positivist scholars in International Relations has been the conspicuous rise of social constructivism in the study of international security, ousting institutional liberalism as the most serious defier to balance-of-power realism since the end of the Cold War. Due to their often diametrically divergent theoretical apprehensions of principal agencies, constitutive structures and basic modes of the international security system, these approaches provide highly differing accounts of the decisive determinants for regional stability. Touching thereby the core issue of order in International Relations, this controversy has found its particular expression in the highly divergent conceptualisations of the character and role of institutions in general and multilateral regional security regimes in particular.

While constructivists emphasise their role as crucial platforms for inter-subjective interactions, able to change the self-perception of threats, interests and norms, neo-realists dismiss the power of multilateral security regimes, emphasising instead the need for strong balance-of-power alliances as best guarantors for peace within a persistently anarchic international “Self-Help” system.

Witnessing a long period of relative regional stability within a dual security framework, which combines an (implicit) regional security arrangement - the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - with bilateral great power alliances, Southeast Asia provides in this context a very fruitful case study for the empirical validation of both theoretical strands.

Not surprisingly, neo-realists and constructivists interpret the empirical evidence in very different ways, sketching - in line with their theoretical tenets - opposite concepts of ASEAN's mould, efficiency and role in Southeast Asia's security architecture. Contrary to the majority of realists, which perceive ASEAN merely as a powerless "imitation community" (Khoo 2004), constructivists associate the regime rather benevolently with a "nascent security community" (Acharya 2001).

Within the context of this controversial - if not inconsistent -conceptualisation of ASEAN within the field of International Relations, this study aims to explore the suitability of these currently dominant theoretical approaches to Southeast Asian security, obliged to explain both the region’s long period of inter-state peace after the implementation of ASEAN as well as the persisting dual structure of its wider security framework.

Thus, in order to draw a differentiated picture of the dynamic course of ASEAN's history, its possibilities and limits in regional security management, the structure of this essay is threefold. After a brief literature review, a first part expounds briefly the major tenets of neo-realist and constructivist approaches to regional security institutions in general and ASEAN in particular. A special focus will be given to the differing security concepts at the roots of ASEAN’s contentious conceptualisation. A second chapter delineates the organisation’s achievements and failures in regional security management, providing three case studies which aim to assess the Association’s role both in acute crisis as well as in latent tensions on extra- and intra- regional level.

While the first study aims to expound the reasons for ASEAN’s long inter-state peace after a period of violent Konfrontasi between Malaysia and Indonesia, the second study investigates ASEAN’s possibilities and limits to manage its regional security environment in the Cold War context, exploring ASEAN’s reaction to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia as a classical case study for its extra-regional involvement in the containment of Communism.

A third case study provides finally empirical evidence for ASEAN’s patterns of engagement in international conflict management in Post-Cold War times, focusing on ASEAN’s reaction to territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Each case study expounds the driving forces, interests and obstacles to an effective crisis management, contingent on the historical context. A third part concludes finally by analysing the suitability of the out sketched rationalist and constructivist approaches to ASEAN's role in Southeast Asia's security, arguing that only an eclectic, multi-dimensional approach is able to grasp the variety of its multiple facets.


The IR research literature on ASEAN and its role in Southeast Asia's security has a very heterogeneous character. Although a variety of cleavages appear also within the theoretical strands, most of the writings are shaped by the continuous debate between constructivist and neo-realist inspired scholars. Reflecting thereby the academic disputes between Waltz' structuralist apprehension of international anarchy (1979) and Wendt's constructivist reply ("Anarchy is what states make of it" 1992) on regional level, a broad variety of contemporary scholars of Southeast Asian security studies refer more or less explicitly to either one of them.

Further picking up Deutsch's concept of "security communities" (1957), Acharya investigates ASEAN's prospects and challenges of becoming a former (2001). Considered as one of the leading constructivists, Acharya stresses the importance of normative convergence amongst state elites, embodied in the informal ASEAN way of conflict management. Although he concludes that ASEAN's prospects have been better at the beginning of the 1990's than at the end of the decade, he sticks to the assessment of ASEAN as a "nascent security community." While Busse (1999), Kivimäki (2001), Jetly (2003), Severino (2004) and Haacke (2003 and 2005) make similar claims, highlighting the pacifying effects of the regional code of conduct around the norm of non-interference, Saravanamuttu (2005) point to the emerging contradictions of the ASEAN way, whose state-centrism represents an anachronistic and increasingly counter-productive mode, obstructing the construction of a genuine security community.

Providing in this context different case studies, which aim to analyse ASEAN's involvement in extra- and intra-regional conflicts, Alagappa (1993) and Sharpe (2003) reach different conclusions. While the former highlights ASEAN's successful intervention in the Cambodian conflict, the latter denounces the organisation's failure to assure stability during the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995, claiming that unilateral interests take precedence over the will to uphold collective norms. Leifer, the leading neo-realist writer on Southeast Asian security, would have fully agreed with Sharpe's negative appreciation of ASEAN's contemporary peace-making capacities, claiming the whole "ASEAN peace process [as] a category mistake" (1999). Similar conclusions draw Jones/Smith (2002) and especially Khoo (2004), claiming further significant methodological flaws of constructivist approaches, seeing that these tend to privilege positive over (equally important) negative norms. Another criticism to constructivism expounds Narine (2006), arguing from an English School perspective, that ASEAN's regional identity is far too weak to explain intra-ASEAN cooperation. The organisation is deemed to represents instead a mere symbol for Southeast Asia's commitment to national sovereignty.

However, while most interpretative literature cleave to the realist/constructivist divide, Tan (2001 and 2006) provides two theoretical meta-perspectives, emphasizing conceptual shortcomings of both approaches. Other authors, like Peou (2002), Emerson (2005) and Eaton/Stubbs (2006) have yet chosen a comparative theoretical perspective, aiming to elucidate and bridge the varying existing controversies in ASEAN's analytical conceptualisation.

II. ASEAN in theoretical perspective

One of the most salient cleavages between the different theoretical strands of International Relations is the debate about the nature of international cooperation. Why do states cooperate with each other?

What are the underlying rationales and driving forces for them to engage in international institution-building? What role does institutions play, once implemented, in shaping state behaviour? Are they powerful forces for the realisation of common goods or just secondary variables, subjected to balance-of-power power considerations in an anarchical environment?

Seeing that neo-realists and constructivists provide a diametrically different account of the role of international institutions - especially in the sensitive security sphere - this section expounds briefly their major stances toward regional security institutions in general and ASEAN in particular, providing a special focus on the differing security concepts at the roots of ASEAN’s contentious conceptualisation.

2.1 ASEAN as a powerless imitation community:
The Neo-realist perspective

Drawing a very grim picture of world politics and the possibilities for international cooperation, neo-realists emphasise the enduring anarchical structure of the global world system, while pointing to the fact that no supra-state power can enforce international agreements or protect states’ legitimate interests.[1] Conceiving politics in the international system as a zero-sum game, in which ones state’s power gains are another state’s losses, rational states have to prioritise relative over absolute gains, limiting the materialization of the latter to the realm of low politics, mainly social and economic sectors, which do not directly affect the survival of the state.[2]

While the preoccupation with sovereignty under conditions of structural anarchy and the corresponding relative gains problem do not preclude the possibility of cooperation per se, the latter’s shape is largely seen as the outcome of specific politico-economic competition patterns and dynamics of external power configurations.[3] Pointing to the crucial role of hegemony to explain their underlying rationales, neo-realists conceive multilateral security regime building processes either as offensive attempts of great powers to institutionalise power advantages, while seeking to stabilise and legitimise their hegemonic order by reducing the arbitrary and indiscriminate exercise of power[4] or as defensive means of weaker states to accommodate or counter an actual or potential hegemonic power, such as ASEAN against communist Vietnam.[5]

However, as soon as these initial power configurations - and as a corollary the individual strategic considerations of states - change, multilateral security arrangements are expected to loose rapidly relevance, deemed to be only significant to the extent in which they protect and promote the immediate power and security interests of the dominant states.[6]

According to this negative apprehension of multilateral security institutions, unable to overcome prevailing patterns of anarchy and security competition in the global world system, ASEAN is apprehended as a prime example of a “powerless imitation community.[7] ” More concerned with process than problem solving, the Association is deemed to be incapable of providing stability in times of crisis[8]. Although not every neo-realist adheres to the notion of ASEAN as a mere “ineffectual talk shop,”[9] neo-realists tend to downplay the organisation’s significance for the wider Southeast Asian security architecture. While Leifer concedes indeed that ASEAN, as well as the ASEAN Regional Forum can modestly contribute to regional stability, its ultimate success depends upon the prior existence of a stable power balance.[10] Highly sceptical with regard to ASEAN’s future prospects, given the unreliable nature of security alliances, neo-realist emphasise its striking difficulties to adapt to the new challenges in the post-Cold War World.[11]


[1] Narine (1998), p.37

[2] Mearsheimer (1994), p.12

Notwithstanding, regarding the close relationship between economic wealth, political power and state security, relative gains are even deemed to prevail in the economic sphere - at least in the long run.

[3] Hurrel (1995),p.47

[4] Ikenberry (2003), p.534

[5] Hurrel (1995), p.50

[6] Steans/Pettiford (2001),p.35

[7] Jones/Smith (2002)

[8] Emmers (2003), p.29-30

[9] Storey (1999) URL: www.carlisle.army.mil/USAWC/Parameters/99winter/storey.htm

[10] Leifer (1996), p.57

[11] Khoo (2004), p.43


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Does ASEAN Reconciling Southeast Asia Regional




Title: Does ASEAN matter?  Reconciling realist and constructivist approaches to regional security in Southeast Asia