MH370: What’s up, ASEAN?

I haven’t had much to say about the MH370 tragedy. Several reasons. First, I’m generally afraid of flying so I don’t like to even think about air disasters. Second, I don’t have any thing penetrating or insightful to say about the fate of the lost plane, so any comments there would be simple speculation and rumor-mongering. Third, I’m actually not so interested in using this tragedy as a way to criticize the Malaysian government for how it has been handled. There are plenty of good reasons to criticize the current government, and such a mysterious case such as the MH370 disappearance would have proven frustrating for any government.

But here’s something that jumps out at me as important about the MH370 crisis, and something that’s perhaps not obvious to most observers: the complete irrelevance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

This is not just a tragedy affecting Malaysia and China, it is a regional emergency with safety and security implications for several ASEAN member states. And yet we have

  1. Unilateral search efforts, led by individual countries rather than by ASEAN as a group
  2. Failure of Thailand to report a potential radar sighting of the plane
  3. Failure of Indonesia to grant overflight privileges to parties searching in Indonesian waters

I could go on, but the point has been made, and you can also read Jessica Trisko Darden’s discussion at the Monkey Cage for more. Not only has ASEAN as an regional intergovernmental organization been remarkably absent in a crisis that clearly affects it, but the supposed knock-on benefits of having ASEAN as a regular forum that eases communication and collaboration among the members don’t seem to have materialized. Yes, there is an ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting every year, and it

aims to promote mutual trust and confidence through greater understanding of defence and security challenges as well as enhancement of transparency and openness

but when Thailand’s air force doesn’t feel the need to share information about unidentified aircraft in its air space in the context of a regional search for a missing passenger jet, something has gone wrong. There’s also a Transport Ministers Meeting every year, and plenty of other multilateral fora that are designed to avoid exactly what has happened to ASEAN during the MH370 crisis: failures of communication and an inability to coordinate when faced with rapidly changing events that affect multiple members. In fact, it was only on March 19, 11 days after the disappearance of the jet, that Foreign Ministers Surapong Tovichakchaikul and Anifah Haji Aman announced that they would meet to discuss a joint search for the missing plane.

Of course, I’m an ASEAN skeptic. There are others who think that ASEAN is more important, that the process of negotiating and meeting is creating something like an ASEAN identity or at least a set of shared understandings about common interests and behaviors (see e.g. Alice Ba and Amitav Acharya). Nothing about the MH370 crisis and ASEAN’s non-presence is inconsistent with what they’ve argued. But it does clearly underscore the limits of regionalism, and how far ASEAN has to go to fulfill its own mission.

Comment 1

  1. Pavle Radonic April 10, 2014

    G’day Thomas, not a comment on yr remarks here as such – though i do share some standpoints. Rather, yr name came up in a local Straits Times piece in SG on the INDON elections and i noticed yr area of interest. I am an Aust. literary writer living in SG 3 yrs and writing about it and the immed. region. I wondered whether some kinda publication @ Cornell or elsewhere you might be aware of was interested in my kind of writing? I blog at axialmelbourne.blogspot
    Best wishes, it’s a fascinating area
    Pavle Radonic

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