Opinion Pool: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations at 50
Bernard K. Gordon: ASEAN’s Disappointing 50th
Marc Mealy: ASEAN at Fifty – Trying to Come Together as the Global Order Comes Apart
Frederick Kliem: 50 years and none the wiser? A (flexible) Westphalia in Southeast Asia
ASEAN at 50
H.E. Kasit Piromya, National Reform Steering Assembly, former Ministerof Foreign Affairs of Thailand
My concern for ASEAN at Fifty and the years to come in the near future is the lack of vision and determination on the part of its political leadership. The leaders somehow seem to continue paying lip services to the centrality role of ASEAN in the Asia-Pacific region and to its viable and pivotal role in the international arena. Their decision–making and professed common stand on global issues and on immediate undertakings of ASEAN Community based on the ASEAN Charter and Roadmaps continues to rely on the workings and recommendations of the bureaucrats. Political initiatives and drive have not been forthcoming. The political leaders seem to be more parochial and domestic-oriented. They seem to be taking the concerns and the posturing of outside powers more into consideration than the genuine and legitimate interests of the ASEAN Community as a whole. ASEAN’s wellbeing and progress seem to be taking a back-seat to national agendas and external influences.
It is about time, hopefully, that over the course of the year 2017, the ASEAN leaders will meet as often as possible to take stock, to build further on the past achievements and to hasten the completion of outstanding issues and tasks as well as to have a common stand on various regional and international issues of vital importance to ASEAN cohesion and integration, credibility and respectability. A case in point, for example, is the facilitation of all cross-border activities to ensure smooth-flow of capital, services, products and citizens. Another important issue is the harmonization of laws and rules pertaining to taxes and documentation. ASEAN also needs to develop a programme for migrant-workers and hasten the coverage of mutual recognition and acceptance of professional certifications and standards. A region-wide dissemination of knowledge about the ASEAN Community and opportunities therein, continues to be a very urgent and important task.
There should also be an ASEAN Master Plan for environmental protection and assessment as well as a Master Plan for disaster prevention, relief and rehabilitation. In all of these issues, ASEAN need not to start from point-zero, there are international and regional organizations as well as civil-society organization that are more than willing to assist and to cooperate.
In short, there is the need for a sense of purpose and urgency. There must be political will and the genuine belief in the common value and in the sanctity of ASEAN.
ASEAN at 50
Pamela Sodhy, Adjunct Associate Professor – Asian Studies Program, Georgetown University
On its 50th birthday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has much to celebrate. One reason for celebration is that it has lasted for half a century, despite skepticism that first surrounded its establishment in August 1967 to “accelerate the economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region” and to “promote regional peace and stability”. Another reason for celebration is its doubling of membership, from five members to ten. ASEAN began with Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines but has grown to include Brunei in 1984; Vietnam in 1995; Laos and Myanmar in 1997; and Cambodia in 1999. Although its members have humble beginnings and only Thailand escaped colonialism, one of them, Singapore, has attained first-world status since the mid-1990s. Another cause for celebration is no outbreak of war between the ASEAN members for fifty years since its formation, a remarkable feat in light of traditional hostility between some of them, such as Thailand and Burma, and Laos and Thailand.
There are other reasons to celebrate this milestone birthday. For instance, ASEAN continues to enjoy collective clout, even though some states are tiny, like Singapore and Brunei, because together ASEAN covers a huge land and sea area and a combined population of over 630 million, a figure exceeding that of the European Union (EU) or the United States (US). ASEAN also continues to possess abundant economic resources, like forest products; marine resources; minerals; spices; plantation crops; and oil. Its present economic growth rate at around 4.5% is higher than that of the EU and the US. Moreover, it enjoys a favorable geographical position between India and China, and has several strategic sea lanes, including the Straits of Malacca, the Sunda Straits, and the Lombok Straits. In addition, ASEAN provides a forum for its ten members to meet regularly at summits and other meetings to discuss issues concerning them. It also has its Dialogue Partner System since 1976, whereby it meets with its major trading partners to deal with common matters on a wide range of issues.
Over the years, ASEAN has also been able to present a united front when faced with challenges threatening the peace and security of Southeast Asia. One such challenge was the large influx of Indochinese refugees in 1975, following communist victories in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The ASEAN states responded by spearheading the 1979 United Nations (UN) Conference on Indochinese Refugees, held in Geneva, which stemmed the flow of Indochinese refugees to Southeast Asia and speeded up the process for their resettlement elsewhere. Another challenge which led the ASEAN states to combine forces for a united front was the Third Indochina War, which started in December 1978 when Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia. Throughout this ten-year war, ASEAN led a diplomatic offensive against Vietnam. Its actions included non-recognition of Vietnam’s puppet regime in Cambodia, yearly U.N. resolutions calling for Vietnam to withdraw its military forces; and support for the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea against Vietnam. ASEAN’s actions helped to end that war in 1989. A more recent example of a united front by ASEAN against a common challenge is its present concerted and collective fight against terrorism.
ASEAN can also be proud of its ability to adapt to new circumstances, as clearly seen in how it has chosen to work closely with former enemies. In this connection, it has allowed Vietnam, its enemy during the Third Indochina War, to join its regional association, enabling Vietnam to become a valued partner. Likewise, ASEAN has welcomed European nations that formerly colonized Southeast Asia to join its Dialogue Partner System (DSP) and its Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). It now enjoys cordial relations with all of them, an admirable achievement.
At the same time, however, ASEAN has some tasks to complete. For example, ASEAN needs to resolve some territorial disputes between members, such as the Sabah claim, raised by the Philippines against Malaysia in 1963. To the Philippines, Sabah was leased to the British North Borneo Chartered Company in 1878 by the Sultan of Sulu, and thus still belongs to the Philippines. To Malaysia, however, Sabah was ceded in perpetuity to the Company, fell under British rule after WWII, and became part of Malaysia in 1963. So far, ASEAN has shelved the Sabah claim, not resolved it. ASEAN also needs to bridge the economic gap between its richer and poorer members as some observers see a two-tiered ASEAN, with the older members in a better position than the newer ones, in particular Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Yet another problem is the inherent rivalry between some members, which can sometimes flare up, as in the case of Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia. There is also the need to increase intra-ASEAN trade which is low at 25% of total trade in spite of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) reducing tariffs to 0-5 percent. In addition, ASEAN needs to rethink its adherence to a policy of non-interference and non-intervention between members, as keeping quiet is allowing contentious policies to persist, such as Myanmar’s discrimination against the Rohingyas and the Philippines’ harsh handling of the drug problem under President Rodrigo Duterte. With Donald Trump as the new US president, ASEAN now has the challenge of raising its profile, so that he can appreciate ASEAN’s importance, especially on the trade and security fronts.
As for ASEAN’s prospects for the future, one prospect is more members, as Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste have expressed interest in joining as full members. A second prospect is that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), launched in late 2015, may succeed in improving intra-ASEAN trade and in lessening the economic gap between the ASEAN states. A third prospect is more division among the ASEAN members over China, which is taking an aggressive stance in the region, especially over its claims in the South China Sea. Cambodia has become closest to China through aid and trade, and sided with China on the South China Sea issue at an ASEAN summit. Thus, at 50, ASEAN can acknowledge that it is still a work in progress, with many achievements under its belt but with also more work to do in order to be more effective as a regional organization in handling present and future challenges.
ASEAN’s Disappointing 50th
Bernard K. Gordon, Professor Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire
ASEAN’s origins and goals from its very beginnings were entirely political, rather than economic, cultural, or social. Those political roots, in an era when the Vietnam war was entering a more intense phase, stemmed from deep and real concerns about national security, and from a sense that somehow, greater cohesion among ASEAN’s several very disparate nations would promote each nation’s security. In today’s terms ASEAN resulted from a multiplier effect, one that might allow the mostly small nations of Southeast Asia to punch above their weight.
Two efforts that preceded ASEAN, now largely forgotten, reflected that search for cohesion. One was “ASA,” a short-lived grouping in 1961 of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand, and the other was “Maphilindo,” an attempt at cooperation dating from 1963 among the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. ASA was largely promoted by Thailand’s impressive Foreign Minister at the time, Thanat Khoman. It got nowhere because it lacked the heft that would later come from Indonesia, the region’s largest and most populous nation. The second effort, “Maphilindo,” foundered because Indonesia’s President at the time, Sukarno, had embarked on an anti-colonial effort known as “Konfrontasi.”
Several statesmen were key to ASEAN’s eventual formation in 1967: Adam Malik, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister; Thanat Khoman, his counterpart in Bangkok; Ghazali bin Schafie, the permanent secretary to Malaysia’s Prime Minister; and Singapore’s Foreign Minister Rajaratnam. They were accomplished leaders, each of whom I interviewed several times, and they all recognized that what later would become a complaint about ASEAN—that it was no more than a Foreign Minister’s “talking shop”—was in fact its greatest virtue. That virtue was based on a commonly held sense of values, the most prominent of which was each nation’s commitment to genuine independence, meaning quite literally non-dependence on any of the major powers who were and are active in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the 50 years since its beginnings, ASEAN has registered a few successes and several important mis-steps. Among the positive but modest developments were two efforts to incorporate the roles of non-ASEAN members in support of ASEAN: the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum (or ARF), and the TAC, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Some observers also count as a positive development ASEAN’s involvement in the Cambodian conflict, followed by Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN. Yet Cambodian developments since then do not appear to support that view, and aside from Vietnam, the enlargement of ASEAN to include the former French Indochinese territories has not on balance represented a positive outcome.
ASEAN’s largest mis-step has stemmed from a conceptual flaw widely held in the years just before ASEAN’s creation: the view that regional economic cooperation is essential to regional political cooperation. That view grew from Europe’s experience, especially the 1957 Treaty of Rome which ultimately led to the European Union. But in fact, as Adenauer and others of the EU Founders stated at the time, they all knew that the impetus for what they were creating was political, and that whatever economic cooperation steps were also taken were ancillary to the fundamental political goal.
Southeast Asia’s political and economic conditions were fundamentally different from those in Europe. While Europe’s economies in many respects lent themselves to regional economic cooperation— the European coal and steel community most obviously—none of those preconditions characterized Southeast Asia. The region’s factor endowments, Singapore aside, have been too similar and redundant to provide a genuine base for regional economic cooperation. Yet in spite of that evidence, and the fact that present-day intra-regional trade patterns reveal precious little change from the 1960’s, ASEAN’s history has been regularly characterized by a vain search to promote regional economic cooperation. A prime example was the asserted establishment in 2015 of the “ASEAN Economic Community”, whose non-consequence has led some to conclude that in the absence of such “hard” evidence, ASEAN has done little of practical meaning.
Of course that misses the main point—that in a region that might otherwise have witnessed much conflict, ASEAN continues to exist and that is no small thing. But is it enough? Leaders among the ASEAN members and others who presume to speak for ASEAN appear to think otherwise, because in recent years they have begun to insist on the mythological notion of ”ASEAN Centrality.” Several of the outside major powers, most notably China and the United States, have sought to flatter ASEAN by seeming to endorse that concept, but it strains credulity to believe that Beijing takes the notion seriously. Yet the opposite is suggested by Washington, which has gone to far as to create an ”ASEAN Ambassador.”
A reasonable conclusion is that when measured across the international politics spectrum of the Asia-Pacific region, ASEAN is neither irrelevant nor central, though its recent inability to speak with a single voice regarding China’s hard-edged ambitions in the South China Sea flirts dangerously with the former. That message was implicitly conveyed at a recent meeting in Washington where Michael Auslin discussed his new book The End of the Asian Century. For more than an hour, he dealt with the security issues of the region, as they involved China, Japan, Russia, the Korean peninsula, and the United States. Yet not once, not even for a moment, was ASEAN even glancingly mentioned–and that absence suggests the new realities ASEAN now faces.
ASEAN at Fifty: Trying to Come Together as the Global Order Comes Apart
Marc Mealy, Vice President-Policy of the US-ASEAN Business Council. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the policy or positions of the US-ASEAN Business Council or its members.
On August 8, 2017, ten Southeast Asian nations of various cultures, religions, forms of government and stages of economic development will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Anniversaries offer opportunities to take stock of the past and assess the current situation, to better visualize pathways towards the future.
Since its inception, the vision of ASEAN was primarily driven by a value of developing closer ties between a grouping of five nations to help prevent cross border conflicts. While facing a myriad of developmental, institutional and structural challenges no major wars have occurred, an ASEAN Secretariat was created and the group has expanded to ten nations. While often characterized as a “talk shop” with a maddening operational construct known as the “ASEAN way”, the nations of ASEAN can take pride in a foundation of socioeconomic developmental accomplishments during its history.
As a region of 630 million people, the ten countries have combined GDP of $2.4 trillion and an average regional growth rate of 5% per year. Over a period of several decades, ASEAN economies once known for producing commodities and low value manufactured goods are now home to a $19 billion semi-conductor sector producing 80% of the world’s hard drives and an auto sector which is the 7th largest producer of cars, trucks and buses in the world. Registration of patents in ASEAN has increased by 40% since 2014 and ASEAN’s innovation led startup communities have helped produce seven “Unicorns” (startups with valuations exceeding $1 billion). Given its six FTA’s with Asia’s leading economies and rankings as the 3rd and 4th largest trade partners with China and America respectively in the world, ASEAN has become Asia’s leading regional economic hub.
Against this backdrop of historical success ASEAN formally launched the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015. It constitutes a uniquely ASEAN vision of regional economic integration, not like the European Union, and has been shaped by painful lessons learned from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. It reflects a sense that ASEAN’s successful economic development paradigms of the 20th century are exhausted and no longer capable of producing the similar sustainable economic results in the 21st century, because of the many ways the global economy has evolved and the emergence of China and India.
For ASEAN to reach its full potential, the clarity of vision must be matched by the commitments and actions of its member states, regional institutions and civil societies to make the necessary investments and policy reforms to create a more deeply integrated and globally connected region. ASEAN’s current challenges include several politically distracted national governments, insufficiently mandated and resourced regional institutions, and processes which are not adequately driven from the bottom up. All of them represent temporal realities, which if addressed could help set the tone for ASEAN’s direction in the years ahead.
ASEAN faces many of the same political, social, economic and environmental challenges affecting many of the world’s developing and middle income nations in the world. However, relative to many nations in the world, ASEAN has more of a foundation to build on and windows of opportunity to take advantage of.
It is the author’s hope that the current era of global uncertainty will serve as a catalyst for action & unity, as opposed to inaction & division, by ASEAN’s member nations both individually and collectively.
50 years and none the wiser? A (flexible) Westphalia in Southeast Asia
Frederick Kliem, Programme Officer Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia and the Pacific, Singapore, Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation
At first sight, it may seem strange to connect a small, beautiful forestry region in western Germany to Southeast Asia. For me, being a Westphalian by birth, it is a doubly peculiar exercise to write in a political sense on the Westphalian condition of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This year, on August 8 2017 to be precise, the Association celebrates its 50th anniversary and although celebrations are unfortunately likely to take place somewhat under the radar of most people, including Southeast Asians, there is much to celebrate; not least ASEAN’s distinctive Westphalian character.
It has been a remarkable journey. What began as rudimentary economic and security cooperation among, to put it smoothly, mutually suspicious nation states, eventually attained a level of regional integration second only to the European Union (EU). Unlike Europe, Southeast Asia is arguably not a “natural” region, lacking many of Europe’s binding religious, sociocultural or political elements. Nor has there been a long tradition of elite exchange and mutual identification as was the case in pre-1789 Europe among aristocracy and bourgeoisie, fostering a kinship and mutual understanding between European elites. ASEAN comprises a region larger than the EU in both population and area and consists of currently ten sovereign nation states each with their very distinctive character and history. One finds almost all types of government known to political science, including absolutist, authoritarian, semi-democratic, or democratic regime types. ASEAN Member States (AMS) range from secular to rigidly religious, Buddhist, Islamic, Christian; and while some are ethnically homogenous with a clear majority, in other AMS the largest ethnic group accounts for less than half the population. The socio-economic development gap between the richest and poorest is humongous.
Making matters worse is the oftentimes complicated relationship among many AMS. Communist consolidation in Vietnam was one of the main threats against which background ASEAN came into being in the first place. Expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia was only the beginning of what to this day continues to be a complicated, acrimonious relationship. Historic animosities between Cambodia and Vietnam or Cambodia and Thailand still linger and Sukarno’s Konfrontasi mostly on the island of Borneo is still in living memory. In fact, apart from the capricious fate of geography, AMS have very little in common. Perhaps the only sustainable links for most AMS are comparable patterns of migration, i.e. ethnic Chinese immigration, and a shared colonial experience. 
Considering this extraordinarily heterogeneous and complex membership and problematic historical intra-regional relations, ASEAN is one of the most remarkable cooperative organisations in contemporary international relations. Against all odds ASEAN has not only survived, but flourished and continuously expanded. Following the 1997 Asian Financial crisis, ASEAN rhetoric focussed more profoundly on deeper regional integration and institutionalisation in both the political, socio-cultural, and economic domain. Calls for deeper integration were provided with a clear agenda with the Declaration of ASEAN Concord II (Bali Concord II) and reaffirmed in 2011 with the Bali Declaration on ASEAN Community (AC) in a Global Community of Nations (Bali Concord III). Based on those documents ASEAN embarked on a hitherto uncharacteristic community building project by specifying an institutional and ideological framework for deeper regional integration somewhat similar to the European pre-Lisbon Treaty pillar architecture. As of December 2015, the AC is comprised of a three-pillar organisational architecture with the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). The three pillars collectively represent the AC and are concurrent and mutually reinforcing, each defined by respective blueprints. 
Enabling such wide-ranging and institutionalised cooperation and regional integration in spite of aforementioned heterogeneity and confrontational and competitive past, is not least a unique and rather peculiar, seemingly contradictory way of regional governance, colloquially called the ASEAN way. This ASEAN way consists of several core principles and practices such as sovereign equality, mutual respect for territorial integrity, and mutual non-interference in internal affairs both bilaterally as well as via ASEAN. The realisation of this set of principles in the day-to-day routine of ASEAN politics is the backbone of a mutual appreciation by all AMS of the intergovernmental architecture of Southeast Asian regionalism. The ASEAN way has a mixed record in general, enabling cooperation in a diverse region where otherwise there could have been none, but at the same time inhibiting affirmative action in cases of disagreement.
When in 1648 the Peace of Westphalia was concluded following one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history, the Thirty Years’ War, none of the representatives would have imagined that they were to create not only a modus vivendi for a Europe torn by a Catholic-Protestant conflict, royal turf wars and shifting alliances. They would also produce one of the most stable and peaceful periods in European history and at the same time the most enduring system of international relations to date. Against the backdrop of total human devastation and near self-destruction, European elites agreed on a set of practical measures that would represent a unique and novel system of regional order, attempting a degree of diplomatic stability and civility among conflicting parties where neither was present or expected. What delegates conceived in the small Westphalian towns of Münster and Osnabrück would become generally accepted concepts of international order that persist to this day and in fact create the contemporary understanding of statehood and sovereignty. The agreements of the Peace of Westphalia institutionalised absolute equality of all independent nation states, reigning without outside interference over what would be accepted by all as their respective sovereign territory. Equality of and respect for all attributes of independent, sovereign statehood regardless of individual power, size, or domestic system of governance became the fundamental pillars of the international order and coexistence. Hitherto, the legal concept of state, not individuals, dynasties, religions, or ideologies, would be the main reference unit of international relations. Religious or Royal affiliation, divine ruling rights, and absolutist demands ought to take a backseat and unconditional acceptance of heterogeneity and respect for whatever differences there were would form the basic principles of order.
More than three centuries later, on August 8th 1967 the leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines took their own multiplicity and difference as a starting point and signed the Bangkok Declaration, giving birth to ASEAN. The ASEAN way and with it the constitution of ASEAN is the embodiment of the Westphalian spirit and the preservation thereof became the raison d’état of AMS, embodied in the ASEAN way. Nowadays, those originally European principles and the spirit of Westphalia are perhaps nowhere quite as quintessentially obvious and as institutionalised as in Southeast Asia. Although the Europeans had long left the spirit of Westphalia behind after Louis XIV of France, Napoleon, and Frederick the Great and the colonisers of the 19th and 20th century certainly did not even think of applying Westphalian rules to their Southeast Asian dominions, their “subjects” used the Wilsonian right to self-determination of all peoples and national sovereignty in the spirit of Westphalia as arguments in favour of their independence movements. Nationalist demands of Westphalian conditions in the face of devastation and conflict is the most significant consequence of the anti-imperialist struggle of Aung, Ho, Sukarno and others against colonialism.
In 1967, all of this eventually led to a distinctively non-European, soft, or even weak institutionalism. While ASEAN does not lack bureaucratic bodies, it shuns supranationalism and administrative authority beyond the nation state in its most Westphalian interpretation. ASEAN elites continue to this day to prioritise intergovernmental, informal consensus seeking under the – at least officially and publically – utmost respect for equality for the nation state; be it Indonesia or Laos. ASEAN’s founders and subsequent leaders, just like the delegates in Münster and Osnabrück, created a regional architecture that prioritised problem avoidance and allowed the system to be just strong enough to facilitate cooperation in order to maintain regional stability but not as strong as to threaten absolute national sovereignty. ASEAN critics, of which there are many, often point to the fact that under such preconditions of problem avoidance, institutionalisation in ASEAN cannot be more than a “talking shop”, unable to proceed from problem avoidance to resolution in case of inevitable dispute. Effective regional governance cannot possibly be achieved under stewardship of institutions and regimes so profoundly lacking teeth.
Such criticism is certainly justified and ASEAN itself provided impetus for greater demand placed upon it. In the process of conceiving the AC and its pillars, ASEAN leaders broke with the Westphalian spirit and enshrined wide ranging universal norms and principle, such as human rights, into their every document. Such ambitions however were not backed up with the necessary institutional reform and ASEAN remains a paper tiger in terms of executive compliance enforcement. Its obvious inability to deliver on their promises was brutally exposed during instances such as the early responses to Cyclone Nargis in 2008 or the 2015 and ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. What good is an association that promises to bring relief to its people but is unable to take action? The answer is that, despite its many flaws, the Westphalian character of the ASEAN way has allowed competitive nations and peoples to live under precisely this stability ASEAN’s founders set out to achieve. In Southeast Asia ASEAN’s inauguration has led to one of the most stable periods in the region’s history, just like the Peace of Westphalia did in Europe.
Despite its many flaws, on 08.08.2017 all peace loving people ought to raise their glass in honour of ASEAN’s 50th. Perhaps, after 50 years of largely cordial cooperation, ASEAN and its members may allow a certain degree of reform and flexibility. ASEAN and its leaders most recent interference in what Myanmar considers a domestic affair, the maltreatment of the Rohingya minority, allows for some hope on that front. How better to celebrate a jubilee as to develop their very own Westphalianism? There is no need to upset an established order, no need for a Louis XIV or a French Revolution. Just a little tweak here and there to safeguard not only basic traditional security, but also its most vulnerable people. This would be a worthy jubilee birthday present from a truly remarkable Organisation to itself. After all, at 50 anyone can grow up.
1 Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia not to be officially colonialised. But even Siam and later Thailand experienced the vulnerability resulting from colonial power and it took great diplomatic efforts, painful concessions, and a great deal of luck to remain an independent nation.
2 All constituting documents and subsequent blueprints are available at: www.asean.org, accessed: 12.01.2017.
Against the odds – ASEAN turns 50
Jan Kliem, Program Officer, CPG, Bangkok
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has from the outset been an unlikely project. Its two short-lived regional predecessors, the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) and Maphilindo did certainly nothing to instil confidence in the regional integration project that was to follow. Notwithstanding, the efforts of five states to come together in one Association in a region that could hardly be any more diverse (including diversity on regime types, economic development, religion, ethnic homogeneity and even geography), culminated in the founding of ASEAN on August 8, 1967. The Association, now grown from the original five to ten member states, will celebrate its 50th birthday on precisely that day, August 8, in 2017.
A birthday, especially a big one marking the golden anniversary of ASEAN, offers ample opportunity to reflect, assess and take stock. Taking stock in ASEAN’s case is bound to be a joyful exercise for much has been achieved. Among the achievements, most obviously, is the fact that no major war has occurred between any of the member states of ASEAN over the past 50 years of its existence. This alone is a notable achievement in a region where there has historically been plenty of animosity between countries. Whilst there have been severe ‘border skirmishes’ between for instance Thailand and Cambodia during the ‘Preah Vihear’ temple dispute, major conflict has by and large been avoided. Secondly, ASEAN has managed to put itself on the diplomatic map, engaging in numerous meetings, forums and summits not only within ASEAN, but importantly across the world, staging regular ASEAN Plus meetings and even having been invited to Sunnylands by former US President Obama in early 2016 (arguably, this newly attained attention may very well fade under new President Trump). Thirdly, ASEAN’s overall average GDP growth rate (around 5% since 2000) is another positive to be noted. Despite the fact that countries within ASEAN hugely differ in terms of economic growths, this has to be welcomed by all members. ASEAN is already forming an impressive economic bloc and if the cards are played wisely, this can and will benefit all member states.
ASEAN has displayed some impressive progress and to this day, even if comparison may end right there, its development has not been unlike the one laid out by some referring to the European Union, using the image of a bicycle as a metaphor for its integration – you have got to keep moving or else you fall over. Whilst in ASEAN’s case enlargement has clear geographical boundaries – the only conceivable further members at this stage would be East Timor, Papua New Guinea and under very specific circumstances maybe West Papua, the Association has moved on with and deepened its integration. Its most recent step in this direction was the inauguration of the ASEAN Community at the end of 2015, as it was laid out first in 2003.
Overall, ASEAN’s development, particularly when judged based on ASEAN paperwork, i.e. its contracts, statutes, blueprints and especially the 2007 Charter, looks nothing but impressive. The Association regularly speaks not only of common economic goals and political interests, but of a common identity, ASEAN centrality, ASEAN’s purpose to strengthen democracy and human rights in the region and equality for all its citizens regardless of for instance race, religion, gender or language. Unfortunately, it does not take much digging to see that there are some tensions between stipulated principles and goals on the one, and realities on the other hand.
To no small extent, many observers attribute this to the particularities of the ‘ASEAN way’, or the absolute respect for each members’ national sovereignty, unanimous decision making and strict non-interference in domestic affairs by ASEAN. They see ASEAN as the prime example of a paper tiger or a talk-shop with much talk and little action, which results in ASEAN’s inability to enforce any of its principles upon deviating members. And there is a lot of merit to this argument. With regards to human rights violations for example, ASEAN’s unanimity principle clearly obstructs progress. To many, it would make sense to use something like ASEAN minus 1 decisions in case one member state is allegedly violating human rights ASEAN supposedly defends. This way, the country in question would not be able to block ASEAN action by merely not voting against itself after an alleged violation has occurred. But exactly that is the case. Unsurprisingly and not due to lack of need, to date, ASEAN’s own commission on human rights, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) has not been taking any significant action on any issue since its inception in 2009.
As much as it is evident from the above that ASEAN has problems it needs to address, and there are many, observers must not forget where the association has come from and ask what it does for the region and its people, rather than what it fails to do. Much of the failures look devastating in the light of the expectations surrounding ASEAN. Some of these expectations are external, for example the expectation by some that ASEAN can play a salutary role and somehow be substantial to ‘solving’ the conflict in the South China Sea, and some are homemade such as being the upholder of human rights in Southeast Asia. It would do the Association good not to fuel overly high expectations with bloomy rhetoric on things it finds difficult to achieve at this point in time. For its birthday, it should focus on what it has already achieved, and then, keep working tirelessly so it can one day be what it already claims it is. But by all means, celebrate!