Four decades since it was established in August 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) continues to draw both criticism and admiration. In the eyes of its harshest detractors, ASEAN is a futile venture in useless regionalism. To many of its supporters, the Association is the most successful instance of regional cooperation outside the European Union (EU). In between these judgments, numerous analysts have acknowledged ASEAN's shortcomings while also noting its strengths. In the aftermath of the 1997 economic crisis that swept parts of Southeast Asia, however, the balance tipped toward more and more vigorous criticisms. Critiques intensified even within the Association. Participants and observers alike began calling for ASEAN to strengthen its relevance by revitalizing or even reinventing itself.
The most important innovations that ASEAN has undertaken in response to such calls for change have been an ASEAN Security Community (ASC) and an ASEAN Charter. These projects have evolved at the intersection of all three of the themes of this book: security, democracy, and regionalism. Whether the ASC should include democracy alongside security as a main regional principle or goal has been a key topic for discussion ever since the idea of such a Community was first approved in October 2003. Applied to ASEAN as a whole, the same themes have animated debate in preparations for the Charter, since the organization first decided, in December 2005, that it needed to have one.
In view of ASEAN's aversion to taking stands that might imply passing judgment on the domestic political systems and practices of its member states, it is remarkable that the ASC Plan of Action includes and even emphasizes the promotion of democracy as a legitimate goal of the Association. The Charter also makes a reference to the need for ASEAN member states to adhere to democracy and to promote and protect human rights. This development raises important questions about the relationship between democracy and security in Southeast Asia. Can ASEAN promote democracy in the region? Even if it can, should it? And how would the promotion of democracy affect security in Southeast Asia? Would regional security be enhanced? Or would it be undermined?
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