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All that makes ASEAN unique @ 50

The year 2017 marks the golden jubilee of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was founded on 8 August 1967. It is also the silver jubilee of its dialogue partnership with India, two reasons that make this an apt moment to examine how the organisation has fared.

This regional grouping came into being in the Cold War era, with a membership of five countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Between 1984 and 1999, five other nations, namely, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, joined it to make it an association of 10 states. It is unique in its essential character for it is different from both the European Union (EU) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Unlike EU, it is not a supra-national organisation, and unlike SAARC, it is the poster child of successful regionalism.

The 1967 Bangkok Declaration listed its seven “aims and purposes”, two of which were of a fundamental nature, i.e. to “accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region”, and to “provide regional peace and stability.”[1] On both counts, ASEAN has been doing very well; yet many assessments (in scholarly journals and media) of its performance and future prospects are marked by considerable angst and uncertainty. Some of the recent titles such as “ASEAN at 50: uncertain times call for smart diplomacy”[2] and “A close look at potential threats to  ASEAN stability”[3] reflect this trend of thinking.

Maritime and territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas and China’s assertive behaviour in the past five years have threatened ASEAN unity and “centrality”. An analyst wrote that its centrality now “is a piece of fiction.”[4] Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh emphasised that if ASEAN was not “united, independent and impartial”, it would be unable to play the central role in the region.[5]

A steady rise in China’s assertiveness, accompanied by the ambivalence of U.S. strategy, has left ASEAN vulnerable. Its endeavours to negotiate a Code of Conduct with Beijing on the South China Sea have failed so far. The 50th anniversary of its founding is, therefore, an occasion to draw a reality check on ASEAN’s grand ambitions and actual capabilities.

On the political side, the institution survived the challenge and pressures of the long Cold War, the disastrous Vietnam War, and its painful aftermath.  ASEAN emerged stronger as it expanded to include Vietnam, a former adversary, and others.

It has many economic achievements to its credit, but the challenges are plentiful too. With a population of 628 million and a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion, it is the world’s seventh largest market and third largest labour force, and it has been projected to become the fourth largest economic bloc by 2030. Mari Pangestu, a former Indonesian minister, says that it is now threatened by slow recovery in the global economy; increased anti-globalisation, anti-immigration and anti-elite sentiments; disruptive technologies that threaten job growth; and expanding urbanisation and demographic shifts. She recommends that it “speed up and widen the scope of regional economic integration”.[6] But do ASEAN leaders have the requisite political will to execute this?

Another flaw seems to be an inadequate connect between the ASEAN project and the people at large. The “bottom line”, argues Nicholas Farrelly, is “that nobody is sure how much pan-ASEAN affinity really exists, even after 50 years of concerted effort.”[7]

It may be recalled that following the turn of the century, in 2003, ASEAN set for itself the goal of graduating to an  ASEAN Community by 2015, a programme that was launched  on the last day of that year and whose three specific  pillars—political-security, economic, and social-cultural—promised a comprehensive umbrella of functions. Much of the actual community-building will take place in the future, but member governments are all agreed on the roadmap that promises to take them to their common destination.

This evokes some of the intangibility of its as yet unrealised goals, and ASEAN is often viewed as “a talk shop.” It is prolific in producing long-winded declarations and joint communiqués after each of its summits and ministerial meetings. Since it is at the centre of an array of regional institutions, involving partners in East Asia and beyond, such as  ASEAN+1, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting+ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia-Europe Meeting and the East Asia Summit, there is a continued process of conclaves taking place and statements emanating from them. As a result, it seems that the focus is more on word than action. But to take an objective view, ASEAN has made a significant contribution to peace, security and prosperity in the region. Without it, South East Asia could well have been like South Asia. Besides “the ASEAN Way” – a process anchored in the triad of Consultation, Compromise and Consensus – has not only succeeded, but could also be cited as an example to emulate.

Ever struggling to nurture and strengthen the roots of regional cooperation and integration in South Asia, our nation has set its sights eastwards. India stands to gain by learning more from the ASEAN experience and by deepening its cooperation in the region.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former ambassador to Myanmar. He has extensive experience of diplomatic and Track-II work in the ASEAN region.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[i] Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Overview, accessed on 22 March 2017 <http://asean.org/asean/about-asean/overview/>

[ii] Vatikiotis, Michael, ‘ASEAN at 50: Uncertain times call for smart diplomacy’, Nikkei Asian Review, 23 March 2017 <http://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/Michael-Vatikiotis/ASEAN-at-50-Uncertain-times-call-for-smart-diplomacy>

[iii] Global-is-Asian, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, A closer look at potential threats to ASEAN’s stability, 17 March 2017, <http://global-is-asian.nus.edu.sg/index.php/a-close-look-at-potential-threats-to-aseans-stability/>

[iv] Munir Majid, ‘No political leadership in failing Asean’, The Star Online , 30 July 2016. http://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/comment/2016/07/30/no-political-leadership-in-failing-asean/ (accessed on 22 March 2017).

[v] This was his response to the author’s question whether “ASEAN centrality is a fiction, a reality or a partial reality today”, posed at the final session of India-Singapore Dialogue in New Delhi on 23 March 2017.

[vi] Pangestu, Mari, ‘INSIGHT: Challenges of unity as ASEAN turns 50’, The Jakarta Post, 29 October, 2016.

[vii] ‘Nicholas Farrelly: 50 years on, ASEAN remains disconnected from its people’, Nikkei Asian Review, 10 November 2018.