Innsikt: ASEAN After Fifty Years: what now?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is considered the first regional organization to function successfully in Southeast Asia. Its member states constitute one of the most important geographical areas on the planet. Nevertheless, Southeast-Asia is a very complex and contested region. The vibrant region contains prosperous and flourishing economies and is home to more than 600 million people. The world has witnessed the region rapidly develop economically and transform while maintaining peace and stability, despite the region´s vast diversity. Yet, maintaining peace and prosperity will be one of the biggest challenges in the coming years – especially with China as a global superpower rising from the horizon.

From its establishment in 1967 to its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, ASEAN´s goals have been the promotion of peace, stability, security and economic growth in the Southeast Asian region. A basic assumption of the leaders of the member states has been that the achievement of the first three goals is necessary to achieve the fourth. In the course of ASEAN´s history, the regional organization has undergone three reinventions. In 1976, it made security a primarily Cold War concerns. In 1992, it refocused on economic integration. In 2007, ASEAN adopted the ASEAN Charter, which serves as the legal basis for the ASEAN Community that was officially established in 2015. Throughout its history, the range activities expanded and new-socio-economic interests were placed on the agenda. However, ASEAN´s political basis has remained unchanged: state sovereignty, non-interference in domestic affairs and consensus decision-making. Over the years, these limits to action have challenged ASEAN´s claim to centrality as the driving force for the regional political and security architecture. This raises the question of ASEAN´s political capacity to adapt in a fourth reinvention to the political demands of the new, threatening greatpower strategic environments.

The Creation of ASEAN

On 8th August 1967, five leaders – the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand signed the ASEAN Declaration, which embodies the core of ASEAN. By virtue of the document, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was born. Today, the organization includes Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, completing the circle of “One Southeast Asia” with Timor-Leste knocking on the door. The five countries were notably the major nonCommunist states of the region. The ASEAN states shared the belief that the biggest threat that was facing them was foreign-backed communist insurgency. This particular fear was strengthened because of the context of the Cold War and the Domino Effect. The Cold War was fought in Southeast Asia along three interrelated dimensions: internal ideological struggle, superpower rivalry and interstate conflict. These risks urged the founding leaders to seek security and stability through the creation of ASEAN – especially as the Cold War exacerbated existing conflicts as well as creating new tensions. The fear of a common external threat played a significant role in ASEAN´s creation. Nonetheless, ASEAN´s evolution in response to external threats has remained a consistent motivating force behind its develop. The end of Cold War finally allowed the ASEAN nations to finally exercise greater political independence in the region.

After the Cold War: New Global and National Influences and Issues

The end of the Cold War forced ASEAN to redesign itself and find a new unifying purpose in the absence of an external enemy. Yet, the ASEAN states were determined to maintain ASEAN as a functioning institution as they realized the international political advantages of operating as a group. However, coinciding with the end of the Cold War was China´s emergence as a great power in the region. China, with the world´s largest population, had slowly risen to great power status with large growth in economic and military terms in the post-Cold War period. China´s emergence presented problems and opportunities.

In the late 1990s, the US turned their eyes towards the East again. In some aspects, it urged ASEAN to adopt the role as the mediator. The relationship between China, the US and ASEAN has been seen as an uneasy and fragile triangle. The complicated affair could evolve to become a great threat if ASEAN becomes a proxy battlefield between the US and China. As a consequence, there are a lot of issues that represent potential points of conflict – not only between the US and China but also between the ASEAN member states that can be caught in the middle.

It is during the post- Cold War period that we see the creation of ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and a series of other economic initiatives in response to multiple international economic threats. China´s emergence as a global economic global power was the single greatest force and motivation behind AFTA´s continuing development as a trade bloc agreement. Meanwhile, with increasing interest in Asia, Washington has pursued various regional trade policy initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP). The TTP consists of Pacific countries from Latin America, North America and East Asia, including ASEAN member states like Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, but excludes China. Agreements where China is excluded could result in regional trade dynamics becoming highly geopolitical.

The second and potentially most explosive issue is the disputed South China Sea. It is a complex issue not only for the Pacific region but also for the rest of world. The Territorial dispute is acute between China and four of the ASEAN states, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. Except for the latter, are members of the TTP. From the perspective of the US and the threatened ASEAN countries, China appears in the South China Sea as a territorial threat that claims island and maritime territories and disrupts “freedom of navigation” operations. As for the other ASEAN nations, the area is vital. China is dependent on supplies of resources, energy, minerals and food. If there are any disruptions in the South China Sea – particularly around the geopolitically critical Malacca Strait, it could put China´s 1.3 billon people in jeopardy.

Another important feature that is highlighted in the post-Cold War period is the issue of human rights and democracy in the ASEAN nations. The rapid economic growth in many of the ASEAN countries created a broader middle class and with it a greater concern about civil society and democracy. The recent Rohingya Refugee crises have illustrated ASEAN´s limited role and more importantly, the problematic aspects of the guidance norms of “ASEAN Way” like the nonintervention principle. The global community has criticized ASEAN for turning a blind eye to the Rohingya crises, as none of the statements or meetings has translated into concrete measures such as a humanitarian response or collective pressure on Myanmar.

Does ASEAN matter in 21st century?

After taking a closer look at ASEAN, there remains one question: does ASEAN really matter? The creation of ASEAN was mainly motivated by a common fear of communism and the quest for economic development. Since 1967, the organization has been responsible for economic development through the formation of a single market with free flow of skilled labour and trade. More importantly, the organization has helped to promote unity among the ten member-states. For a small nation like Singapore as well as the other members, a regional organization like ASEAN does indeed matter. ASEAN has become a crucial platform, where Asian nations can raise their marginalised voice, especially in a region where bigger nations like China and Japan dominate the spheres of politics and economics. More importantly, ASEAN is today a unique product of the Southeast Asian region, which continues to influence and impact the conduct of international relations in the more broadly conceived Asia Pacific.

It is important to keep in mind that ASEAN continues to be composed of ten very independent and nationalistic countries. Note that the major differences between these countries that have not disappeared over the years. ASEAN is also limited as a regional organization as it heavily relies on the controversial principles of quiet diplomacy and non-interference. The negative aspects of these principles are exemplified in the current situations like the Rohingya crises and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. These conflicts illustrate the limitations to what an association like ASEAN can accomplish beyond its promises and rhetoric. Finally, one cannot forget that the success and the future of this organization are closely linked to co-operation with the great powers.


Written by Luu Huyen Le, board member of YATA Oslo. She is a graduate student of Modern International and Transnational History (MITRA) at the University of Oslo and former trainee at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Singapore. The arguments made in this text express the views of the author and are not necessarily shared by YATA Norway.