Constructivism Perspective in International Development Cooperation: The Case of ASEAN

ASEAN is deeply rooted in the constructivist notion of regional identity.

Constructivism, a significant theoretical perspective in international relations, posits that the international system is not only influenced by material factors such as power and wealth but also by ideas, beliefs, and social identities. In the realm of international development cooperation, constructivism provides a lens through which to understand how norms, values, and shared understandings shape the interactions and policies of states and international organizations. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional intergovernmental organization comprising ten Southeast Asian countries, offers a compelling case for exploring the constructivist perspective in international development cooperation. This essay delves into how constructivist elements such as regional identity, shared norms, and collective values influence ASEAN’s development cooperation initiatives.

ASEAN and Constructivism

ASEAN is deeply rooted in the constructivist notion of regional identity. Established in 1967, this organization has evolved from a loose association aimed at promoting regional stability to a more cohesive entity with a strong sense of regional identity and community. This identity is not merely a byproduct of geographical proximity but a socially constructed reality shaped by shared historical experiences, cultural affinities, and collective aspirations for peace and prosperity.

The ASEAN Community, comprising the ASEAN Political-Security Community, the ASEAN Economic Community, and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, reflects this constructed identity. These pillars emphasize the importance of cooperation in various domains, aligning with the constructivist view that international actors are driven by shared ideas and values. The ASEAN Way, characterized by principles such as non-interference, consensus decision-making, and mutual respect, further underscores the region’s commitment to a collective identity that prioritizes harmony and cooperation.

Norms and Values in ASEAN Development Cooperation

Constructivism highlights the role of norms and values in shaping state behavior and international cooperation. In the context of ASEAN, several key norms underpin its approach to development cooperation. These include respect for sovereignty, non-interference in domestic affairs, and the pursuit of equitable and sustainable development.

ASEAN’s approach to development cooperation is often contrasted with that of Western donors, who may attach political or economic conditionalities to aid. Instead, ASEAN’s norms promote a form of cooperation that respects the sovereignty and autonomy of its member states. This respect for national sovereignty is rooted in the region’s colonial history and the shared experience of post-colonial state-building. Consequently, development initiatives within ASEAN are typically framed in a manner that emphasizes mutual benefit and regional solidarity rather than donor-recipient dynamics.

One manifestation of these norms is the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI), launched in 2000 to address the development divide within the region. The IAI Work Plan focuses on capacity building and technical assistance to newer and less developed member states, reflecting the constructivist emphasis on shared norms of equity and solidarity. The IAI underscores ASEAN’s commitment to inclusive development and the reduction of disparities among member states, fostering a sense of regional unity and collective progress.

ASEAN’s Development Initiatives

Constructivism also underscores the process of socialization, wherein states and actors adopt and internalize the norms and values of a given community. Within ASEAN, socialization occurs through regular interactions, dialogues, and collaborative projects, which reinforce a shared understanding of regional goals and priorities.

ASEAN’s numerous forums and meetings, such as the ASEAN Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and various ministerial meetings, provide platforms for continuous dialogue and engagement. These interactions facilitate the exchange of ideas and best practices, contributing to the development of a shared normative framework for addressing regional challenges. Through these processes, member states are socialized into ASEAN’s norms and values, strengthening regional cohesion and collective identity.

For example, the ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection, adopted in 2013, highlights the region’s commitment to inclusive and equitable development. The declaration and subsequent initiatives, such as the ASEAN Framework and Action Plan on Social Protection, reflect the constructivist idea that regional policies are shaped by shared beliefs and collective aspirations. These initiatives aim to enhance social protection systems across member states, addressing issues such as poverty, inequality, and social exclusion in a manner that aligns with ASEAN’s values of inclusivity and mutual support.

Constructivism and the Role of External Partners

While internal norms and values heavily influence ASEAN’s development cooperation, constructivism also acknowledges the role of external actors and ideas in shaping regional dynamics. ASEAN’s engagement with external partners, including dialogue partners like China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and the European Union, further illustrates the interplay of internal and external influences in the region’s development agenda.

ASEAN’s partnerships with external actors are often guided by the principles of mutual benefit and respect for sovereignty, consistent with its internal norms. However, these interactions also introduce new ideas and practices, contributing to the evolution of ASEAN’s development strategies. For instance, the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) cooperation, involving China, Japan, and South Korea, has led to various development initiatives, such as the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM) and the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR). These initiatives reflect a blend of ASEAN’s regional norms with external influences, highlighting the region’s dynamic nature of norm diffusion and socialization.

Lesson Learned from ASEAN

ASEAN’s approach to international development cooperation may be better understood through the lens of the constructivist perspective, which offers useful insights. The initiatives for development that are undertaken by ASEAN are molded by a regional identity that has been formed, as well as shared norms and values that place an emphasis on mutual respect, inclusion, and regional solidarity. These principles are reinforced through the process of socialization that takes place within ASEAN, which in turn helps to cultivate a feeling of community and collective responsibility among the member nations. Furthermore, the engagement of ASEAN with external partners exemplifies the dynamic interplay of internal and external pressures that are responsible for influencing the organization’s growth strategy.

ASEAN’s development cooperation is a testament to the constructivist theory that international interactions are not just driven by material interests but also by shared ideas, beliefs, and social constructions. In conclusion, this idea is a testimonial to the success of the ASEAN development cooperation. As a result of placing a high priority on regional identity, norms, and values, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has developed a distinctive method of development cooperation that places an emphasis on harmony, inclusion, and mutual benefit. This method serves as a model for other areas to consider when pursuing regional development initiatives.

Farhan R. Jhuswanto
Farhan R. Jhuswanto
Farhan Riswandha Jhuswanto is a master's student at Gadjah Mada University. His research interests revolve around the international political economy, diplomacy, and other economic features such as trends, exports-imports, and investments.