ONCE more, the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of a nation state is being called into question when Asean observes it. We have been down this way before without gaining anything from the experience.
The early 1990s was a fluid time for state policies and diplomatic language in South-East Asia. Cambodia was mired in civil war and on the verge of rupture; Myanmar was a thorn in regional diplomacy and another challenge for Asean.
As a frontline state, Thailand was anxious and felt Asean had to do something. As usual the key questions remained what exactly to do and how to do it.
A call from among the original five Asean countries for “constructive engagement” with Phnom Penh sought to engage Cambodia rather than to ostracise or alienate it. Asean wanted to stabilise Cambodia while avoiding any appearance of intervention.
However, the phrase failed to impress the rest of Asean so a rethink was needed. The new term became “constructive intervention”, which was to be constructive even if it might be interventionist.
That too failed to gain traction, so “constructive interaction” was tried. That didn’t get anywhere either so the phrase morphed into “flexible engagement”, which left diplomats somewhat tired of the wordplay.
Eventually “enhanced interaction” became the operational term, if only because Asean leaders had succumbed to fatigue. This phrase seemed perfect: it sounded right or at least not wrong, and left Asean free to do anything or nothing.
Ronald Reagan’s Washington had no such problem with the original “constructive engagement” as an euphemism for validating a policy of continued relations with apartheid South Africa. Such are the privileges of superpower status.
But for an Asean with no superpower pretensions, diplomatic language and diplomacy itself are often subjected to external approval. Reaching decisions by consensus is another universal principle that is often questioned when Asean practises it.
Soon, Asean would engage and interact with Cambodia and Myan-mar to the point of admitting them as members. The hope was to acclimatise them to regional norms, but so far Myanmar has remained an outlier.
Non-intervention and consensualism were not pioneered by Asean nor are they unique to it. They are established principles in international diplomacy and form the bedrock of modern statecraft.
Making decisions by consensus is practised by a range of important international institutions including the European Union and the United Nations Security Council. Yet the principle is hardly ever questioned even when it presents obstacles to the EU or the UNSC.
Non-intervention rests on the fundamental issue of mutual respect among sovereign nations. It is enshrined in the UN Charter and is a basic principle in major agreements such as the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence governing China-India relations.
Consensualism and non-intervention are among the foundational elements of Asean and will remain so. This is a region of myriad political and economic systems, saddled with unresolved territorial disputes and still indeterminate border demarcations.
If Asean has a problem with any of its principles or practices, it will resolve or amend it in its own way – whether or not Asean acknowledges the problem and whether others recognise the solution.
A larger problem may well be that so much about Asean has been determined for it by presumptuous, self-appointed outsiders locked into judgemental mode. For Asean itself, there have been fewer problems than advertised.
First, the Asean stricture on non-intervention refers to the internal affairs of a state. When social disruption threatens another country through cross-border mass migrations from political upheaval or genocide, the problem is internationalised and ceases to be the internal affair of one country.
Second, what is not acknowledged by Asean as intervention is not intervention for Asean. There may be “engagement” or “interaction” by Asean with a country in ways that need not officially constitute “intervention” – whatever others may think.
Third, Asean already has instruments to engage or interact with errant countries or to rein in challenging situations. These include the Troika system comprising using the current, immediate past and next secretaries-general to help mediate, and Asean’s dispute-settlement mechanism.
Although their utility can be improved, the purpose of these instruments is to seek redress that others may consider interventionist but Asean does not. Asean has always exercised the privilege of interpreting matters relating to it in ways it sees fit.
The organisation was born in the crucible of inter-state regional disturbances, from Indonesia’s policy of Konfrontasi (Confrontation) against Malaysia to the Philippines’ claim on Sabah, and will endure as a firewall against regional disintegration.
Asean has always had to navigate these realities within the limits of political possibilities, as determined by modern international conventions, an abiding regional consensus, and its own underlying imperatives.
If Asean today finds it necessary to act on a particular country or its government, such as Myanmar’s military junta, it will do so in the way it thinks best. But it will need to signal clearly that the action is on a situation forced by the government and not on the country itself.
The three caveats above also apply. Asean has only its record to consider, not the complaints of an outsider or an outlier.
What Asean does not consider problematic will not begin to be a problem for Asean. As Malaysia’s illustrious former foreign minister Tun Ghazali Shafie once put it, “Asean is a state of mind”.
Those who understand this, however intuitively and whether as Asean members or not, do better for themselves by being able to work better with Asean. Those who do not may not matter to Asean.
Asean may also be regarded as mind over matter: what it does not mind doing, or not doing, should not matter to others.
Bunn Nagara is a Malaysian political analyst and Honorary Research Fellow of the Perak Academy. The views expressed here are entirely his own.