ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in South East Asia |

ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in South East Asia

20111130_LeeJones_05w170On 30 November 2011, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Centre on Asia and Globalisation hosted a lunchtime talk entitled “ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in South East Asia” by Dr Lee Jones, lecturer in International Politics at Queen Mary College, University of London. He has just completed a book of the same title, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan this month. 

Jones was in Singapore to do research on the South East Asian “haze” situation, and the city-state was one of his stops for a project on international economic sanctions.

“In many ways, South East Asia is the last bastion of absolute state sovereignty in a world that’s moved on,” Jones said, outlining various models and frameworks employed to understand the concepts of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘interference’. While the principle of absolute non-interference is enshrined quite unambiguously in the protocol of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the reality is more complex and subtle.

The literature on the subject, he argued, suffers from a few fundamental contradictions. On one hand is the official rhetoric that “reasserted the primacy of sovereignty and non-interference”. On the other was a consistent “downplaying of exceptions to the norm” by “minimising its scope and significance.”

“Nobody has really put together this evidence of exceptions or violations of sovereignty and looked for patterns in that evidence,” he said.

Jones identified three reasons for why this evidence is often disregarded. First, the evidence is “often uncomfortable and sensitive” especially in the context of the Cold War, when containment of a neighbour’s actions were key to reducing the state’s vulnerability to a domino effect, a strategy which involved “subversion and supporting separatist movements in neighbouring states, invasion and annexation.”

The second is that it reflects elite discourse. “ASEAN elites often say that we don’t interfere in each other’s affairs,” when in reality, they used it in a “loose and strategic” way, he said. ”And sometimes they might even believe that because they’re not challenged with the evidence.”

The third is that non-intervention is a “useful catch-all term” for all of ASEAN’s shortcomings. “If ASEAN can’t address human rights, for instance, they blame non-intervention. It’s just a useful term that analysts fall back on,” he said. “This is really problematic, since it prevents us from looking at the deeper causes for the weaknesses of regional governments.”

Jones said ASEAN states have intervened in the domestic affairs of other states while at the same time maintaining a strong rhetorical commitment to absolute sovereignty.

“The basic argument I want to make about sovereignty and non-interference is that we shouldn’t think about the concept of sovereignty or non-interference as a legal/political category or a norm, but as various technologies of rule that are used in both social and political conflicts and to manage them in particular directions.”

Since the outcome of any conflict is determined by the scope of the conflict, the most important pre-emptive move is to limit the scope of the conflict so the concept of non-intervention is less a principle and more a question of strategic application by the sitting power to manipulate a conflict to its benefit, he argued.

Citing the example of the prolonged political protests on the streets of Bangkok in April-May 2010, Jones dissected the definition to show how different interest groups (in this case, the protesting “red-shirts” and the incumbent government at the time) attempted to broaden or contain the scope and significance of the issue, and their stance towards the need for foreign intervention.

“Sovereignty and non-interference are always implicated in producing or reproducing particular forms of social, political or economic order, or trying to transform them,” he said. Understanding a state’s strategic response requires us to unpack conflicts and the issues in question, as well as appreciate that they would continually be shaped by historical and socio-political processes.

During the robust question-and-answer session, Jones made a provocative insight that “non-intervention” is at risk due to what he perceived as “the decline of the nation-state form” as political entities because of the internationalization of the world economy and the rise of supra-national authorities. Now, markets are ahead of governments, “and markets move but governments cannot respond,” citing his concern over the “soft coups” in Greece and Italy as dangerous precedents.


By Krish Raghav, a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the LKY School.


Dr Lee Jones, lecturer in International Politics at Queen Mary College, University of London

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

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