Is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) moving to abandon its time-honored consensus-building principle after the bloc excluded military-ruled Myanmar from its meeting in Jakarta last week?

Hopefully not, but recent decisions by the 10-member bloc suggest it might be moving in that direction.

For example, nine Asean foreign ministers gathered for a special meeting in Jakarta last week to assess progress of the implementation of the five-point consensus to restore normalcy in Myanmar, which was agreed upon by Asean leaders in April 2021.

This was a rare case when a member-state was excluded in deciding on an issue affecting the region.

Last year, Myanmar’s leader, Min Aung Hlaing, promised to carry out reforms laid down in the Asean peace plan, including freeing political prisoners led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

But a year later, nothing has changed in Myanmar. Violence even escalated, a concern shared not only in Asean but also in other countries, like the United States, United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, and Canada.

Myanmar has also hardened, warning Asean against exerting pressure on the country and accusing the bloc of fast becoming a lapdog of the United States and abandoning its constructive engagement mechanism.

Frustrated and disappointed over the pace of political development in Myanmar, Asean has not invited the country’s leader to its annual summit and also excluded its foreign minister from meetings, inviting only a non-political representative.

Myanmar snubbed Asean meetings in retaliation and refused to implement political reforms which it had agreed to last year.

Asean’s decision to exclude Myanmar’s political leaders from its meeting was the best it could do to show its displeasure on what’s happening in the Southeast Asian country. It could not suspend or expel Myanmar.

Myanmar’s continued intransigence could break up Asean solidarity and cohesion as some countries, like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore have increasingly shown impatience. Others opted to be silent on the issue, choosing to adhere to the Asean principle of non-interference and consensus-building.

The decades-old consensus works very simply. If one country does not agree to a proposal or an idea, then there could be no decision.

In 2012, for instance, Asean for the first time failed to issue a joint communique during a foreign ministers’ meeting when Cambodia did not agree to a text on a statement on the South China Sea, choosing to listen to China’s lobbying.

The practice of building consensus has been both an effective mechanism to preserve solidarity and cohesion and a problem in resolving controversial issues affecting the relevance of the organization.

Consensus-building and non-interference in domestic affairs have kept Asean united despite its diversity for decades. These two principles have served the bloc well as member-states grappled with their own security and historical distrusts with each other.

But the problem with Myanmar as well as other issues, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea, could open the possibility of abandoning the principle of consensus-building.

It might be difficult to change the principle of consensus-building on political-security issues but on economic issues, Asean has relaxed its rules by adopting the Asean minus X principle.

Under the Asean minus X formula, member-states can go ahead with a proposal on economic integration while waiting for other slower economies to get onboard.

Asean can explore this formula on political and security issues, which Western countries have been pushing the bloc to move into.

For instance, the United States has been pressuring Asean to do more to compel Myanmar to implement the five-point consensus. The generals agreed to it but were delaying actions.

Washington even wanted Asean to impose economic and political sanctions on Myanmar. The United Kingdom, European countries, and Canada had also punished Myanmar to force it to restore democracy.

However, the sanctions seemed to have backfired as these had brought Myanmar closer to the Western countries’ rivals Russia and China.

Asean must resist efforts by extra-regional powers to be swayed into taking drastic actions that could abandon its decades-old principles.

Abandoning the principle of consensus-building is so tempting at this point when Asean’s patience is wearing thin on Myanmar.

It has embarrassed the bloc, giving its critics enough reasons to say Asean has become irrelevant and ineffective.

But the principles of consensus-building and non-interference have kept Asean together for more than 50 years, making the bloc unique from the rest of the world.

Asean’s solidarity and cohesion is different from the European Union as the region has a more diverse political and economic systems.

Individual Asean member-states are jealous of their sovereignty and territorial integrity and are not ready to dismantle national borders like the European Union.

These principles have survived the post-Cold War period and have kept peace and stability in the region despite differences, as well as assured smaller and weaker states the same voice in the bloc. It had prevented larger states from dictating on other states as all work for consensus-building before agreeing to a proposal or an idea.

For now, Asean could preserve its principle of consensus-building and non-interference but it could look for more creative and innovative engagements to move forward.

Asean should not get tired of engaging Myanmar until reforms are implemented. It should continue with the principles to keep its unity.
A breakup could be more dangerous for the region and may heighten polarization between the United States and its rivals.

Asean would not want to be caught in the middle of this intense rivalry. It wants peace, stability and prosperity in the region. This is the price it has to pay to keep the region stable.