ASEAN SHARED-IDENTITY DILEMMA : Understanding the Futility of ASEAN Shared Identity through Practice Theory and Relationalism

ASEAN has hoped to develop its regionalism in such a way that the European Union has actually done its member states. Consequently, a model for development informally adopted by ASEAN is similar to of the European Union. ASEAN is therefore thought to be a general interstate cooperation that will go through a customs union, which will develop to be an economic community, an economic union, and, optimistically and ultimately, a political union. However, a recent constraint in the role model of ASEAN, the European Union, namely the British exit, is a big blow to the model of regionalism that is the most popular symbol, which stimulates a new way of thinking on integration.

Though the implication of the British exit to ASEAN is not immediate, it implies the future failure that will loom ASEAN as I will argue in this paper. The European model of integration and regionalism is no other than an “institutionalisation of racism” (Lee, 2016: 7). Under the concept of one identity, the European Union ignores what is not “European values”. This leads to an understanding of neo-colonialism by modern Europe – something Spivak (2008) terms Eurocentrism disguised as cosmopolitanism. Judging by the critical outcome of Eurocentric one identity of the European Union that is also institutionalised into a set of perquisites that must be met by future member states, it is clear how a one-identity concept can be a potential tool, acknowledged or otherwise, to practise neo-colonialism.

ASEAN’s conception of one identity as a basis for further integration is something that I term a “historic hypocrisy”. In this paper, I argue that the whole conception of one identity has failed from the very beginning because it does not go hand-in-hand with the spirit of (critical) post-colonialism. In this matter, I argue using Spivak’s anti-Asianism as the ground framework, which this paper will develop into a rejection of synthetic homogenous identity of ASEAN due to the spirit of critical post-colonialism. Next, I explain a new perspective on integration that borrows “practice theory” and “relationalism”. Practice theory, explained and elaborated in the second part, will find that ASEAN’s identity is constructed through practices and not otherwise; relationalism will conclude that actors, including ASEAN, are self-propelling and thus ASEAN identity does not precede actions or conducts. Finally, I conclude that the future of ASEAN identity is hopeless if and only if a shared, enforcing identity is imposed. Rather, I find that ASEAN chooses to be not-so-much integrated to keep the relations amongst member states together.

Spivak Anti-Asianism and Its Extention towards ASEAN

It is arguable if one dares to say that ASEAN is a stagnant political project by ten states that do not actually want to cooperate with each other in any mode of cooperation: bilaterally, multilaterally, transnationally, or sub-governmentally. One of the main causes of this lack of spirit of integration by the member states is the non-interference of them into the domestic affairs of others. This is widely believed amongst many scholars studying ASEAN and its member states and its affairs extensively. The non-interference principle is widely argued to be the underlying factor that causes most regional problems and disharmony within the region. Arendhorst (2009) maintains that the main reason why ASEAN fails – and continues to fail – to solve the human rights violations problems in Myanmar, though a human rights working body namely the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights or AICHR has been formally established, is because the working process is obstructed by the principle of human rights. Another research concludes that ASEAN’s non-interference principle has been irrelevant since the beginning of Cold War, because the member states of ASEAN did interfere with several social issues, including the containment of communism, which is a domestic issue (Jones, 2010).

However, it is too shallow to suppose that the principle of non-interference is the main problem that hinders proper ASEAN integration. Referring back to Jones’s (2010) work, in which he argues that the ASEAN member states did interfere with others’ domestic affairs and overstep the very principle, he implies subtly that even though member states have once passed by the principle, ASEAN regionalism is still lacking integration. If the overstepping of the principle had been effective and sustainable, there would not have been any need for the member states to worry about the cost of interventionism. However, recent legal instruments still cautiously impose and emphasise the non-interference principle in a stand-alone article. The most recent, ASEAN Convention against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, puts the non-interference principle in article four. Even though the non-interference principle has been put strongly in the ASEAN Charter, the fact that it is also written in legal instruments indicates that ASEAN holds the principle dearly.

Aware now of the argument that it is not the non-interference principle that hampers ASEAN from further EU-like integration, a questions arises: What, then, is the cause of the integration inertia? Equipping historical rereading, Spivak argues that Asia refuses to have a shared unnatural identity due to its longstanding history of being oppressed by the West (2008; Lee, 2016: 8). Subsequently, following post-colonialist logic, it would be colonialization all over again if there were a forcedly universal value over Asia because that is what the colonialists did to Asia years ago. In a more narrow scope of ASEAN, such a line of logic can without hindrance be applied. All member states of ASEAN except Thailand are post-colonial states, meaning that they experienced to varying extents colonialism.

An ASEAN integration based on a forcedly shared identity is a potential backfire. A shared identity is an internal form of neo-colonialism. Whereas Wendt (1992: 398) postulates that identity is where conducts are rooted, identity in the case of ASAEN is the root of the non-conducts of its member states. It means the project for an integrated ASEAN must go beyond the project for a single identity. This brings forwards a work by Jones (2004: 152–153), in which he stipulates that an ASEAN identity can be achieved through a cultural change of the citizens. However, a “cultural change” strongly proves that a natural identity is impossibility and that a shared identity of ASEAN has to be synthesised. Moreover, Jones (2004: 152) also requests ASEAN to go beyond “identity rooted in the past”. If what he means is a shared identity of shared experience of Western imperialism and colonialism, then a new shared identity not rooted in the past disavows the old identity, since an enforcement of new identity is a new form colonialism that is tried to be negated by ASEAN member states’ common past experience.

It is now clear that the core problem of ASEAN integration is not the non-interference principle but a far more structural one: a synthetic identity. As explained, a synthetic identity is dangerous for ASEAN post-colonialist integration because its nature of enforcement. In the next chapter, I will argue that the best way to form a natural identity amongst ASEAN member states is to let them be, analysing through the pinpoint perspective of practice theory and the paradigm of relationalism.

An ASEAN Natural Identity through Practices and Relations

A good explanation of ASEAN’s lack of progress in terms of integration and practice is mentioned in Jones and Smith’s (2007) work. They mention that ASEAN is a regional organisation that it is only “making process, not progress”. They argue that ASEAN has not accomplished any valuable achievement in the fields of economic integration, antiterrorism cooperation, and relations with China. It is concluded that ASEAN needs strong norms to have those field operated well and cooperatively as a region (Jones and Smith, 2007: 182–184). While it may be true that ASEAN has not achieved much, the method of assessment needs to be further scrutinised. How the gentlemen reaches such a conclusion is based, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, on an a priori understanding of what the definitions of the three fields are and how they should work under the flag of regionalism. Such a view is falsified by both practice theory and relationalism, which are explained in detail on the next paragraph.

An adoption of practice theory and relationalism into the realm of International Relations is relatively new but applicable, thanks to the work of McCourt (2016). In his most recent journal, he summarises both views under the banner of “New Constructivism” (McCourt, 2016: 480). Because constructivism is involved in this way of thinking, the end of this new methodology is norm, which furthermore produces identity. Consequently, practice theory stipulates that states’ conducts are based on “shared practical understandings” (Schatzki et. al., 2001: 3; McCourt, 2016: 478). Thus, the norms do not exist ex nihilo et a priori, but they appear following a series of “embodied, materially interwoven practices” (Schatzki et. al, 2001: 3; McCourt, 2016: 478). Put simply, norms that are followed by states are not those defined attributively and subjectively good or bad, but those established through practices. They create patterns that bind states together under shared understandings that have such inertia that make it difficult to be bypassed.

In complement, relationalism avows that there is nothing that exists before interactions. Relationalism rejects substantialism, a paradigm that, in Jackson and Nexon’s (1999: 291) words, “maintains that the ontological primitives of analysis are “things” or entities [. . .] [existing] before interaction”. Therefore, put simply, every value that happens to underlie any social interactions comes from, not before, social interactions. This also applies in International Relations. Values come from the relations between two or more states.

In application in the case of ASEAN identity, practice theory assumes the lack of integrity amongst ASEAN member states results from the shared understanding of how to conduct within the realm of ASEAN. As practice theory emphasises the importance of repetition of conducts, it is fair to say that the lack of integrity is rooted in the traditional non-interference principle. This can be further argued through two empirical examples regarding the reluctance of some member states to further integrate the region, the case of Singapore where it joins the Transpacific Partnership and the case of the Philippines who has decided to be submissive to China.

The case where Singapore diverts from ASEAN to join the Transpacific Partnership is regarded a big blow to ASEAN regionalism and integration. The economic advantage that Singapore gains from joining the TPP eclipses the importance ASEAN, which subsequently results in Singapore being reluctant in having economic interdependence with another ASEAN member states in the medium of ASEAN (Masykur, 2016). If one follows the logic of appropriateness, which is a priori norm-driven, Singapore should be thoughtful in this issue and should also prefer ASEAN over TPP. However, it does not apply here. Singapore does what it does because it wants to do so and no ASEAN member state can hamper Singapore from getting what it wants. Through repeated practices that form post-colonial values within ASEAN body, it is not a shared understanding to stop a state from exercising what is believed to be best for it. A shared understanding amongst the member states is that it cannot enforce a shared value of ASEAN-first because it would be a fashion of enforcement against will, which constitutes a form of neo-colonialism.

Another example, the Philippines has decided to submit to China amidst the South China Sea dispute. It is seen to be a weakening of ASEAN as a region because a member state goes dissent from union (Tong, 2016). However, yet again, the rest of the member states do not do anything intervening in this matter.

From both examples, we see similarity between practice theory and the conception of norms by constructivism. The dissent that separates both is that the origin of the norms. Whereas constructivism believes that the norms precede the actions, practice theory believes that the actions create the norms through repetition and thus a shared understanding. Therefore, the underlying argument that overarches both cases is simple and unsophisticated: Singapore and the Philippines do what they do because it is what it is.

Both cases seem to reaffirm the fault of the non-interference principle as the main problem of the lack of integration in ASEAN. It seems contradictory to my argument above that states that blaming the principle of non-interference is too shallow. While it is true that the non-interference principle is the cause of non-integration of ASEAN, it would be irrelevant to tell that the solution should be the erasing of the principle. Member states of ASEAN choose to have the non-interference as shown by the application of the practice theory. Thus, a “constructive engagement” as suggested by Ramcharan (2000: 60) is inaccurate. Relationalism, in complement, seeks broader meaning in this matter since it is “to grasp the process through which such relations are aggregated and used to stabilise and reify some other relations as making up an entity or thing” (Sending et. al., 2015: 7). The principle of non-interference is a product of a broader value of post-colonialism, as mentioned above. However, it is to be remembered that the value does not come first; it is the product of many relations. Since the relations of member states of ASEAN have been dominated by the enforcement of European values through pre-ASEAN colonisation, a spirit of post-colonialism develops and is maintained through the everyday life of the member states.


Practice theory and relationalism go hand-in-hand in offering a new perspective on how ASEAN still retains its “self-destructive” principle of non-interference. While traditional perspective says that the principle of non-interference hinders ASEAN from achieving greater coordination and integration, this paper argues that non-interference is the product of the relations between member states of ASEAN. In other words, the lack of integration in ASEAN is not a negative outcome that is unwanted; it is, indeed, a wanted outcome to keep the relations between member states and amongst them together. Thus, ASEAN identity that begs for further integration is irrelevant.


Arendhorst, John. 2009. “The Dilemma of Non-Interference: Myanmar, Human Rights, and the ASEAN Charter”. Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights 8 (1): 1–21.

Jackson, Patrick T. & Daniel H. Nexon. 1999. “Relations Before States: Substance, Process and the Study of World Politics”. European Journal of International Relations 5 (3): 291–332.

Jones, David M. & Michael L. R. Smith. 2007. “Making Process, Not Progress: ASEAN and the Evolving East Asian Regional Order”. International Security 32 (1): 148–184.

Jones, Lee. 2010. “ASEAN’s unchanged melody? The theory and practice of ‘non-interference’ in Southeast Asia”. The Pacific Review 23 (4): 479–502.

Jones, Michael. “Forging an ASEAN Identity: The Challenge to Construct a Shared Destiny”. Contemporary Southeast Asia 26 (1): 140–154.

Lee, Moon-Young. 2016. “The Dynamism of Trans-Boundarisation: From the Perspective of Critical Regionalism”. Geopolitics.

Masykur, Shohib. 2016. “How TPP can disrupt ASEAN economic integration”, The Jakarta Post, 6 January. Accessed 1 November 2016.

McCourt, David M. 2016. “Practice Theory and Relationalism as the New Constructivism”. International Studies Quarterly 60 (3): 475–485.

Ramcharan, Robin. 2000. “ASEAN and Non-interference: A Principle Maintained”. Contemporary Southeast Asia 22 (1): 60–88.

Schatzki, Theodore, Karin K. Cetina & Eike von Savigny. 2001. The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London: Routledge.

Sending, Ole Jacob, Vincent Pouliot & Iver B. Neumann, eds. 2015. Diplomacy and the Making of World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spivak, Gayatri. 2008. Other Asias. Oxford: Blackwell.

Tong, Linh. 2016. “Seeking a Solution to the South China Sea Disputes”, The Diplomat, 21 July. Accessed 1 November 2016.

Wendt, Alexander. 1992. “Anarchy is what States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics”. International Organization 46 (2): 391–425.

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