The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional grouping that stimulates economic, political, and security cooperation among its ten members: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. ASEAN nations have a total population of 650 million people and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.8 trillion. The group has played a dominant role in Asian economic integration, signing six free-trade agreements with other regional economies and helping spearhead negotiations for what could be the world’s largest free trade pact.
The ASEAN Declaration states that the aims and commitments of the Association are: (1) to accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavors in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of Southeast Asian nations, and (2) to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries in the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter. In 1995, the ASEAN Heads of State and Government re-affirmed that “Cooperative peace and shared prosperity shall be the fundamental goals of ASEAN.”
Kishore Mahbubani, former Singaporean Ambassador to the United Nations, once declared, “When ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] was born on the 8th of August 1967, it was destined to fail.” After all, Southeast Asia was, and continues to be, one of the most diverse regions in the world, hosting four major religions, 800 languages, innumerable ethnicities, and radically diverging political systems and cultures. Despite its unprecedented diversity, ASEAN has brought durable stability and prosperity to 655 million people in Southeast Asia. In an era of growing cultural distrust, ASEAN is a incredible counterexample of coexistence.
Before ASEAN was formed in 1967, establishing regional cooperation was an unlikely, if not impossible task. Not only is the region a melting pot of religious and ethno-linguistic diversity, but it is also a place of great political diversity, most recently including three constitutional monarchies, two communist states, three republics, a sultanate, and a former military junta. With national per-capita incomes ranging from $4,000 in Cambodia to $90,500 in Singapore, it is one of the most unequal regions of the world.
Moreover, during the 20th century, much of Southeast Asia was previously swamped in war, so much so that the region was referred to as “the Balkans of Asia.” Many of these conflicts were between retreating colonial powers and insurgent nationalist groups. Indonesia fought the Dutch in a revolutionary war that resulted in 200,000 military and civilian fatalities. Meanwhile, Việt Minh forces sought independence from the French but attained it only after fighting the eight-year-long First Indochina War. Other domestic upheavals also threatened peace: Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III of Brunei faced an insurrection in 1962 by antimonarchist militants, while in 1965, General Suharto staged a coup in Indonesia and started a massacre of 400,000 alleged members of the Communist Party of Indonesia. With constant fighting during the mid-20th century, the grounds of Southeast Asia were not fertile for cooperation, domestic or international.
Nevertheless, in the face of unprecedented difficulties, on August 8, 1967, foreign ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand met in Bangkok to sign the ASEAN Declaration. There were numerous ingredients that catalyzed the creation of ASEAN, the first of which was fear of communism. The 1960s saw the rise of the “domino theory,” or the faith that the fall of a noncommunist state to communism would precipitate the fall of noncommunist governments in adjacent states.
With the victory of the Chinese Communist Party, the Vietnam War, and North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, Southeast Asia was predicted to be the next battleground. Moreover, communist insurrections in Southeast Asia during the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore, heightened the perceived threat of communism in the region. As Christina Davis, a government professor at Harvard University, told the HPR, ASEAN during its early years “created a united front and cemented solidarity against the Northern Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.”
The second ingredient to ASEAN’s success was a balance of power. Transnational organizations often lose legitimacy because of “great power dominance, “when powerful actors dominate organizations and turn them into tools that serve individual interests. Some looks include Saudi Arabia in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, India in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and the United States in the Organization of American States. When first conceived, ASEAN could have been dominated by Indonesia, the region’s largest economy and home to roughly half of the region’s population. However, Lee Kuan Yew, the late Prime Minister of Singapore, recalled a sensible effort by Indonesia not to dominate the bloc.
“The role of President Suharto was crucial for the success of ASEAN. Indonesia did not act like a hegemon. It took into consideration the strategies and interests of other members,” he wrote in his memoir The Singapore Story; “This made it possible for the others to accept Indonesia as first among equals.” By serving as a forum for discussion, rather than simply a tool for great power dominance, ASEAN preserved legitimacy.
Since its inception in 1967, ASEAN has helped shape Southeast Asia. Economically, ASEAN has fortified free trade and foreign investment in the region. The 1992 ASEAN Free Trade Area removed tariffs on nearly 8,000 items, increasing business access to neighboring markets and lowering prices of goods for consumers, while the 2015 ASEAN Economic Community further lowered tariffs and streamlined trade regulations. In addition, ASEAN has given Southeast Asia better trade terms with the rest of the world. By merging into one bloc rather than acting as independent countries.
ASEAN gives Southeast Asia more leverage and more economic voice during negotiations. Still, hindrances to deeper economic integration remain. The key challenge for ASEAN is how to intensify intra-ASEAN trade and investment, which have been stagnant over the past five years.” One major reason for this stagnation is that despite tariff reductions between countries, there are tremendous non-tariffs barriers to trade, especially in industries like agriculture, which are protected for national interests.
ASEAN has delivered political benefits to the region as well. In a region where tensions among neighbors historically run deep, ASEAN has served as a forum for dialogue, defusing disputes between countries and ensuring relative regional stability. Scholars credit ASEAN with stabilizing tensions after the Cambodian-Vietnamese War, guiding Myanmar’s partial transition from military dictatorship to democracy, and mediating maritime disputes between various member states.
Today, ASEAN’s annual summits continue to serve as neutral forums for major powers to discuss fraught issues. That is not to say ASEAN is perfect. Davis notes that ASEAN’s consensus model, in which all decisions require countries’ unanimous approval, “limits ASEAN’s scope of collaboration and makes it difficult for ASEAN to be assertive in sensitive areas.” ASEAN is frequently criticized for not acting more harshly against Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingyas and for not being more assertive in the South China Sea. In this sense, Rosengard believes that ASEAN’s “greatest strength is also its greatest weakness … its ability to accommodate diverse viewpoints and survive as a bloc also sometimes undermines its ability to be proactive.”
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