The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, better known as ASEAN, has long been a paradox as much as it is a special and unique case in the parlance of international regional cooperation. One of the more mature transnational organizations in the world, its presence and longevity make it the poster child of stability that newer international organizations aspire to emulate. The ASEAN has successfully made it through several crises, transitions of power, and shifts in the balance of world affairs since its inception in 1967.
Born from the vestiges of other regional initiatives such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Greater Malayan Confederation (Maphilindo), the ASEAN was the evolution of its predecessors. As the nation-states were making their way through rehabilitation after World War II, the need to create alliances and improve their leverage was much sought after. However, it was not as easy as it was thought to be, and the trade-offs the ASEAN countries needed to make during the time of its creation have been the glass ceiling that has hampered the region’s evolution over the last few decades.
One of the most significant differences between the ASEAN and other regional collectives is the culture of “non-intervention.” In an attempt to honor the diversity in the region, the ASEAN upholds this norm to facilitate dialogue but without the prescriptive imposition of authority as seen with other organizations, such as the European Union. The “ASEAN Way” is perceived as one of the main reasons for the ASEAN’s longevity. By respecting domestic affairs and sovereignty, the ASEAN has averted conflict among member states, thus achieving a semblance of peace and unity.
But non-intervention prohibits the regional organization from realizing its full potential by setting invisible boundaries on itself. Rather than a unified collective of states in one of the fastest-growing regions in the world, the ASEAN is still a hollow shell that has yet to discover its own identity. For nearly a half-century, the ASEAN has been unable to evolve, all because of its challenges in imposing a rules-based approach in transnational governance. Since diverging interests, histories, and identities were considered in the creation of a non-interventionist approach, this approach hampers the regional bloc from advancing groundbreaking initiatives to aid in converging interests of the majority of ASEAN member states.
The ASEAN Way has had a negative impact on the region by forcing the regional organization to settle differences by indecision — problems and issues are “swept under the rug.” Due to the absence of true leadership and the challenge of rules-based international order, the ASEAN does not have the integral rudder that should steer the region to a better future. The ASEAN is a victim of its success by being trapped in a norm that should have long been outgrown. Due to this, ASEAN’s dream of economic integration and regional security are still to be realized.
The ASEAN today is a collection of nation-states that are unified by loose alliances. Facing headwinds in security and trade, what is important for the region is to finally mature and push towards its full development by properly and effectively positioning itself to gain from the volatility of the US-China trade war as well as the South China Sea issue.
By fast-tracking the ASEAN Economic Community project, focusing on policy streamlining among member states and ironing diverging interests, the region can benefit from the outflow of businesses coming from China, such is the case with Thailand and Vietnam. The effect of this can further be amplified by showing a cohesive, strong, and consistent voice against Chinese aggression in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. If the ASEAN can finally settle differences and have a coordinated plan of action like airing its discontent and grievances to China, then it solidifies the region’s power and influence as a serious partner in international affairs.
The lack of clout is rooted in the absence of true unity and voice that binds the caucus of states, and this is what is desperately needed by the collective. With its growing economic power as it reaches the demographic golden age of its population, the ASEAN is indeed at the crossroads of its development. The renaissance of the ASEAN, oddly enough, depends on its will to redefine and grow out of the old formula that made it last. When one takes into consideration the admonitions against forgetting one’s history, the ASEAN is a one-off case where it’s members need to forget its past to finally realize who they really are and what they can do; hopefully as early as the 35th ASEAN summit in Bangkok this November.
The only way for the region to advance is by moving away from who it was. Though a challenge, the ASEAN must find the courage to settle its own identity by looking beyond and envisage gaining its voice as a regional actor.
Ren de los Santos is a Resident Fellow for Global Politics, Stratbase ADR Institute.