Understanding the Complexity of Overlapping Regionalism in Southeast Asia and its Impact on ASEAN’s Centrality

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  • Author Jhoanna Rosales
  • Published July 2, 2023
  • Word count 1,599


Southeast Asia is a diverse region with multiple overlapping regional organizations, each with its own set of objectives and priorities. The challenges of overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia are complex and multifaceted, requiring careful analysis and nuanced understanding.

Analyzing the region’s overlapping regionalism is important as it provides insights into the complex web of diplomatic and economic relationships among the countries in Southeast Asia. This article is believed to be relevant today, as Southeast Asia continues to be a crucial hub of economic growth, trade, and geopolitical competition.

By studying this article, one can gain an understanding of the dynamics and complexities of overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia and develop insights into how ASEAN, with its norm of “ASEAN Centrality”, remains the central organization in the region despite the emergence of other regional organizations.

Keywords: Southeast Asia; overlapping regionalism; diplomatic and economic relationship; ASEAN Centrality;

I. Introduction

This article delves on how overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia creates complexities in regional governance. Discussion is also focus on how overlapping areas of responsibility impacts the important norm in the region, the “ASEAN’s centrality”.

What is overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia?

Overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia refers to the existence of multiple regional arrangements or organizations in the region that often share common objectives, member countries, or activities. This phenomenon has led to the emergence of a complex web of regionalism in Southeast Asia, where countries can participate in various regional groupings at the same time, creating potential conflicts or competition between different organizations . Examples of overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia include the ASEAN, ASEAN Plus Three (APT), and the East Asia Summit (EAS), among others.

Historical Context

At the end of the Second World War, early efforts towards Southeast Asian regionalism emerged from Southeast Asian nations seeking to achieve peace and stability, economic development and policies of self-reliance . Western governments too were pursuing their policies on regional cooperation for similar outcomes . In 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had been established as a means of promoting regional cooperation and stability (See Figure 2), but over time other regional platforms emerged, often with different membership and priorities. For example, in 1989, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was established to promote economic cooperation and trade liberalization across the wider Asia-Pacific region. ASEAN members such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are also members of APEC. This and other different platforms often have overlapping membership and agendas, creating challenges and opportunities for the Southeast Asian nations.

Analyzing through the Lens of Constructivism

Discussion is focused in answering the questions: What are the complexities and challenges of overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia, and how can ASEAN maintain its centrality and promote regional integration in the face of these complexities?. To answer this questions, the Theory of Constructivism, one major theory of International Relations is used because this theory emphasizes the importance of norms in shaping actors' behavior and interactions in the international system .

II. Methodology

The aim of this explorative article is to shed light on the prevalence of overlapping regionalism today the aim of this explorative article is to shed light on the prevalence of overlapping regionalism today.

Content analysis and literature review are the main steps used in this article. The author begins by reviewing existing literature, official documents, and related statements from open sources to gain an understanding of the overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia. This method further helps the author in drawing out conclusions based on the findings.

overlapping regionalism today

III. Findings

Scholars argue that an increase in the extent to which a member state is exposed to overlapping regionalism increases its probability for violations of regional organization’s norms and rules, which reduces regional organizations effectiveness . When states have joined more regional organizations with similar policy competencies, the number of rules and norms that need to be complied with is higher. Non-compliance also becomes more likely when these rules and norms are not identical or even incompatible . As states establish regional institutions to build confidence and promote cooperation, experts see the proliferation of institutions triggering rival regionalisms among competing major powers .

In the case of Southeast Asia, overlapping regionalism gives its member states, particularly smaller powers (Brunei, Cambodia,, Laos and Myanmar), greater strategic flexibility and choice. By engaging different actors in a range of regional policy dialogues and fora, policymakers contribute to regional governance while serving their own national interests . Participation in multiple regional institutions has enabled smaller states in Southeast Asia to punch above their weight by giving them additional voice on regional issues. The overlapping nature of regional institutions also offers middle powers (Indonesia and Malaysia) a greater role in regional affairs.

However, overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia faces challenges. One is the competing priorities of different organizations. For example, while ASEAN focuses on political and security issues, APEC prioritizes economic cooperation and trade liberalization. It has an important implications as it can put states, which are members in more than one regional organization, into situations where they are confronted with conflicting, mutually exclusive rules (e.g. concerning requirements for free trade of specific goods or services) . Since this triggers non-compliance with at least one set of regional organization rules, overlapping regionalism can have potentially negative effects on the effectiveness of a regional organization .

It is well known and documented that the ASEAN has been recognized as one of the most successful regional organizations in the world . However, overlapping regionalism has somehow impacted it’s role in the region. Here, the emergence of other regional organizations may tend to create a sense of competition with ASEAN, that may cause some of its member states to shift their focus and resources to these new organizations. Moreover, some overlapping mandates may cause confusion and reduce clarity of focus for ASEAN while the possibility that non-ASEAN countries may perceive other regional organizations as more effective and purposeful than ASEAN, leading to the eventual decline of credibility of the organization in the region.

Another potential challenge of overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia is the issue of overlapping memberships. Since many countries in the region belongs to multiple regional organizations. It is therefore important to address these complexities and challenges of overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia because it affects the cohesion and effectiveness of the region’s collective efforts towards integration and cooperation.

IV. Discussion

Southeast Asia is one of the most dynamic and fastest growing regions in the world (See Figure 3). With a combined GDP of USD 2.767 trillion, the region spans a market of 646 million people and attracts almost one- fifth of global FDI inflow annually . Its vast endowments of natural resources, an expanding middle class, a young, dynamic and increasingly well-educated population, a diversified economy and intensive regional integration initiatives, including the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint 2025 and the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025, underpin the region’s prosperity .

In the context of overlapping regionalism in the region, Constructivism can help explain how the shared norms across different regional organizations may influence their members' behavior and cooperation with each other. Moreover, Constructivism can provide a useful framework for analyzing the complex interactions and dynamics between different regional groupings in Southeast Asia and their impact on regional order and governance.

An important norm that is highlighted in this article is the “ASEAN centrality”, which refers to the idea that ASEAN should be at the center of regional architecture in Southeast Asia. This norm has helped to shape ASEAN’s approach to external relations and has encouraged ASEAN to seek active engagement with external partners in a way that is consistent with its own interests and values. So, in terms of overlapping regionalism, ASEAN operates within this framework which acknowledges the existence of other regional organizations in Southeast Asia but emphasizes the importance of ASEAN as the primary regional organization in the region. This framework encourages ASEAN to work collaboratively with other regional organizations, such as the ASEAN Plus Three or the East Asia Summit, while also ensuring that ASEAN remains the central driver of regional integration and cooperation. Overall, ASEAN's shared norms have been instrumental in shaping member states' behaviors and cooperation with one another, and “ASEAN centrality” has provided a useful framework for managing overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia.

It is therefore important to address these complexities and challenges of overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia because it affects the cohesion and effectiveness of the region’s collective efforts towards integration and cooperation.

V. Conclusion

In conclusion, overlapping regionalism is a complex but important phenomenon in Southeast Asia. While it can create challenges for policymakers, it also offers several benefits in terms of promoting cooperation and stability within the region.

For ASEAN, as the central organization in Southeast Asia, its role in shaping the future of the region must be steadfastly pursued. The organization must also address the challenges it faces, both internal and external, in order to maintain its position of leadership. It is believed that the ability to maintain its centrality in the region depends on its ability to adapt to the changing regional landscape and to assert its leadership in promoting regional cooperation. Thus, creating more synergy and coordination among regional organizations, and to strengthen the role of ASEAN as a central institution for promoting cooperation and resolving conflicts in the region is one potential solution.

Overall, the complexities of overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia are significant, but not insurmountable. By working together and finding ways to coordinate their efforts, regional organizations in Southeast Asia can achieve their shared objectives and promote greater stability and prosperity in the region.

Emerging Asian Regionalism A Partnership for Shared Prosperity Executive Summary. (2018). Retrieved from ADB: https://aric.adb.org/emergingasianregionalism/pdfs/ear%20executive%20summary%20080421.pdf

Jhoanna P. Rosales


People's Friendship University of Russia

Faculty of Humanities and Social Science

Master’s Degree

International Relations

Global Security and Development Cooperation


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Article comments

Jhoanna · 9 months ago
Thank you everyone for taking your time out to read and comment to my article.

Banwar · 9 months ago
Very informative.

Chance · 9 months ago
Very interesting read on overlapping regionalism in Southeast Asia. Very informative. Didn’t realize the gross GDP was that high or the region.

Jane · 9 months ago
Love this article.

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