Beating the Odds: How ASEAN Helped Southeast Asia Succeed

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 pessimism, ASEAN is a miraculous counterexample of coexistence.

Infertile Ground for Peace

Before ASEAN was formed in 1967, establishing regional cooperation was an improbable, 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 engulfed 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 casualties. Meanwhile, Việt Minh forces sought independence from the French but achieved 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 initiated 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. In an interview with the HPR, Jay Rosengard, a lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, explained that ASEAN’s “ability to survive national, regional, and global turmoil over the past half-century, and doing that by accommodating a lot of diversity, is a big accomplishment in and of itself.”  

An Unlikely Success

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 several 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 belief that the fall of a noncommunist state to communism would precipitate the fall of noncommunist governments in neighboring 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 examples 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 conscious 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 policies 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 maintained legitimacy. 

ASEAN’s Impact

Since its inception in 1967, ASEAN has helped shape Southeast Asia. Economically, ASEAN has encouraged 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 coalescing into one bloc rather than acting as independent countries, Davis argued that ASEAN gives Southeast Asia “more leverage and more economic voice” during negotiations. Still,  obstacles to deeper economic integration remain. Sithanonxay Suvannaphakdy, a researcher at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies–Yusof Ishak Institute, explained to the HPR, “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. Going forward, Rosengard believes that ASEAN’s main economic challenge will be “reconciling countries’ tendencies of cooperation and competition.”

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.”

The Current State of ASEAN

ASEAN today faces a number of challenges, the first of which is the South China Sea. China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea are disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all of which have their own, rival claims. ASEAN traditionally issues a consensus-based, joint communiqué at the end of its Foreign Ministers Meeting every year, but in 2012 and 2016, the South China Sea issue prevented communiqués from being agreed upon. In each year, the Philippines and Vietnam both wanted the joint communiqué to refer to the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the South China Sea, which found China’s claims to be in violation of international maritime law. However, Cambodia, which is seen as China’s closest ASEAN ally, opposed any mention of the ruling and blocked the communiqué. By preventing ASEAN members from reaching a unified position on territorial claims, the South China Sea has threatened the organization’s consensus-conscious culture.

The U.S.-China rivalry also presents a major obstacle to ASEAN and Southeast Asia. As the rivalry intensifies, ASEAN has become a geopolitical battleground, where both the United States and China are petitioning member countries to choose sides in the rivalry. In November 2019, Indonesia decided to allow Huawei to begin building 5G telecommunications infrastructure in its country because of its low cost — a move that disgruntled U.S. officials. Meanwhile, many other ASEAN countries are both highly economically dependent on China for infrastructure project financing, such as for roadways and high-speed rail, and on the United States for trade. Since the region receives significant business from both China and the United States, countries struggle to remain impartial and retain good relations with both sides. Should U.S.-Chinese tensions escalate further, the fallout for Southeast Asia could be significant. 

Renewed Importance

When he first entered office, President Donald Trump engaged intensely with ASEAN, flying to Manila in 2017 for the annual U.S.-ASEAN Summit. “The United States remains committed to ASEAN’s central role as a regional forum for total cooperation,” he announced at the summit, asserting that “this diplomatic partnership advances the security and prosperity of the American people and the people of all Indo-Pacific nations.” However, 2018 saw a dramatic downturn in U.S.-ASEAN engagement, as Trump skipped several ASEAN meetings traditionally attended by the U.S. President. If the United States wants to promote regional peace and security, counter China’s expanding influence, and make promising economic investments, it must continue to engage with ASEAN politically, economically, and culturally. 

Member countries must also support ASEAN themselves. Over the past few years, leaders in Southeast Asia have contended with increasingly difficult domestic politics. In Indonesia, identity politics linked with conservative religious values are threatening President Joko Widodo’s reformist agenda, while in the Philippines, President Roberto Duterte has recalibrated government policy to focus on domestic order. When signing the ASEAN Declaration, Singaporean Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam warned of the need to govern with a two-level mindset – to not only think about national interests “but posit them against regional interests.” Despite facing increasingly challenging domestic situations, ASEAN country leaders must not chase exclusively domestic concerns at the expense of regional interests. Now more than ever, ASEAN must heed Rajaratnam’s rule.

Looking forward, Southeast Asia will become an even more important region of the world. It is home to 650 million people and counting, making it the third-most-populous place in the world after only China and India. Collectively, its countries will grow to be the world’s fifth-largest economy and third-largest recipient of foreign investment. Located at the heart of the Asia-Pacific region, it is a strategic military location and is a worldwide trading hub, where $5.3 trillion of global goods already pass through its waterways each year. Retaining regional unity will be crucial. On their own, the countries of Southeast Asia may not be able to resist becoming pawns of great powers, or as Rosengard put it, “being divided and conquered.” But, unified under the ASEAN flag, they have a fighting chance to defend their own interests. 

In a world of growing pessimism and tribalism, where the unknown is feared and the foreign is treated with skepticism, ASEAN is a laboratory of diversity. ASEAN’s continued success is crucial because it would demonstrate that diverse co-existence is not an impediment to success, but the key to it. 

Image Source: Republic of the Philippines Presidential Communications Office

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