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Coping with crisis: Southeast Asian regionalism and the ideational constraints of reform

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The key argument of this article is that during serious crises and external shocks, societal actors do not necessarily follow the predictions of theories on ideational change. This literature argues that crises and external shocks spur ideational change as expectations associated with the old order are no longer met. A study of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) shows that the Asian financial crisis of 1997/1998 stimulated a reform debate but that this discourse did not facilitate paradigmatic changes in the region’s repository of cooperation norms. What at first sight appeared to be an accelerating Europeanization of Southeast Asian regionalism proved to be a process involving the retention of major elements of the region’s “cognitive prior.” New ideas of regional integration have at best been emulated or localized, but have not led to a thorough transformation of Southeast Asian cooperation norms. This must be attributed to the entrenched nature of the region’s cognitive prior epitomized by the worldviews of political decision-makers who regard the external world as essentially hostile. This belief has been reproduced many times in the political experiences of the region’s foreign policy elites—not least by the Asian Financial Crisis—thus confirming the ideational orthodoxy that national sovereignty provides the best protection for nation states. A deepening of regional integration is faced with major ideational obstacles under these conditions.

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  1. For a typical remark highlighting the seriousness of the Asian Financial Crisis, see Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda in the general debate of the UN Gneeal Assembly in 2002. Referring to the crisis and relating it to reforms of Southeast Asian regionalism, he said: “To forestall the recurrence of such a devastating crisis, we have taken bold steps toward regional integration.” See UN General Assembly, A/57/PV.14.

  2. There is also an abundance of press reports which link ASEAN’s post-financial crisis institutional reforms to the EU. From among the dozens of articles, see, inter alia, The Jakarta Post, 31 July 2007, 28 February 2009; The Bangkok Post, 20 November 2007; and The Jakarta Globe, 7 August 2009. See also Lin (2010: p. 836) and Wunderlich (2012: p. 663).

  3. For a critique of Jetschke (2009), see Wong (2012).

  4. See also Allison (2015).

  5. See, inter alia, Business Times (Singapore), 16 July 1993; Aggarwal and Koo (2005).

  6. For a description of these initiatives, see the ASEAN website

  7. The Straits Times, 26 November 2000 and 27 November 2000.

  8. A closer economic relationship was established between Singapore, Chile, and New Zealand in 2000.

  9. An envisaged arrangement including Singapore, Chile, New Zealand, the USA, and Australia.

  10. However, immediately after assuming office, newly elected US President Donald Trump canceled US participation in the TPP which makes it doubtful whether the agreement will ever become effective. See New York Times, 23 January 2017.

  11. See the remark on Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, cited in footnote 2.

  12. An article, which appeared in the Indonesian daily Kompas, even demanded “belajar dari EU,” “learning from the EU,” Kompas, 28 October 2008, p. 6.

  13. See also Newsweek, 6 August 1998, pp. 24–28.

  14. For discussions to this effect, see The Jakarta Post, 22 September 2006.

  15. According to ASEAN sources, only about 30% of the grouping’s decisions were implemented between 1967 and 2007. See Jusuf Wanandi in The Jakarta Post, 22 November 2007 and 25 July 2008. See also Universitas Indonesia scholar Evi Fitriani in Kompas, 27 October 2007.

  16. See the Thai speech in the UN General Assembly 2008, A/63/PV.5; see also, inter alia, The Jakarta Post, 8 August 2008 and 24 October 2008.

  17. See, inter alia, respective statement of Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, The Jakarta Post, 4 July 2007, 14 July 2007, and 5 March 2009. For similar remarks, see Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yodhoyono, The Jakarta Post, 20 August 2005.

  18. Koh, T; Woon, W; Tan, A and Chan, S-W “The ASEAN Charter,” PacNet 33A, PacNet Newsletter, available at (accessed 5 November 2011).

  19. A proposal made by Indonesian scholar Cornelis Luhulima, see The Jakarta Post, 27 January 2010.

  20. See Kompas, 1 December 2007, p. 5. Wong reported that according to Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo, the “Eminent Persons appointed by the ASEAN Leaders received excellent briefings on the European Union in Brussels which influenced them in the way they crafted their recommendations.” See Wong (2012).

  21. The Jakarta Post, 19 August 2008.

  22. See, for instance, Article 7 and 8 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

  23. Similar, Kwa (2002: p. 115).

  24. See also former Thai Foreign Minister Kasem S. Kasemsri’s comment that “it has been in the Thai consciousness that national survival constitutes the most important criterion for interstate relations” (Kasemsri 1989: p. 15). Further see the speeches of ASEAN representatives in the annual general debate in the UN General Assembly, where the vulnerablility and survival discourse is persistently rehearsed.

  25. See, inter alia, an opinion piece of Indonesian diplomat Siswo Pramono in The Jakarta Post, 4 March 2010.

  26. The Jakarta Post, 7 January 2011.

  27. The Jakarta Post, 2 January 2007.

  28. Foreign Minister Marty M. Natalegawa at the Annual Press Statement of the Foreign Minister, 7 January 2011, available at:, (accessed 17 January 2011).

  29. Suara Pembaruan, 5 March 2007, available at: ( (accessed 11 April 2008).

  30. Tempo Interaktif, 8 March 2005, 14 March 2005, and 3 September 2010.

  31. Tempo Interaktif, 8 March 2005.

  32. Detik News, 1 September 2010.

  33. For Thailand, see Chachavalpongpun (2010).

  34. See Mietzner (2011), Heiduk (2014), and Rüland et al. (2013).

  35. Rizal Sukma in The Jakarta Post, 30 June 2009.


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The Author thanks two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and Alec Crutchley for his careful proofreading of the text.

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Rüland, J. Coping with crisis: Southeast Asian regionalism and the ideational constraints of reform. Asia Eur J 16, 155–168 (2018).

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