ASEAN | Southeast Asia’s source of stability

The 55-year-old grouping that has managed to strive on the principles of centrality, non-interference and economic progress now faces the pressures and lures of geopolitics as both China and the U.S. are trying to exert their influence in the region

Updated - September 10, 2023 02:55 pm IST

Published - September 10, 2023 02:02 am IST

In 1967, as the Cold War was at its height, five countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — decided to embark on a path of regional cooperation with the initial goal of opposing communism. Today, after bracing the peaks and troughs of more than five decades in which it expanded its membership to a total of 10 nations and enlarging areas of cooperation, the organisation, which is seen as a rare example of cooperation in one of the most culturally and politically diverse regions, is trying to protect itself from becoming the new age proxy battlefield.

On September 5, at the 43rd summit of the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta, Indonesian President Joko Widodo opened the event by saying the grouping had agreed to not be a “proxy” to any powers, in a veiled reference to the growing competition between China and the U.S. to assert influence in the region. “Don’t turn our ship into an arena for rivalry that is destructive,” the leader warned as top officials from both countries were in attendance .

The Hindu Editorial | Eastern hedge: On the need for India to stay closely engaged with ASEAN members

ASEAN, while being lauded by some and written off by others for the way it functions, continues to pride itself on its two core operating principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of its members and consensual decision-making. It also strives to maintain what it describes as “centrality”. Article 1.15 of the ASEAN Charter states that the group’s main objective is to maintain ASEAN’s centrality, which essentially means being in the driver’s seat.

It is perhaps due to this recipe for regional partnership that the 10 economies of Southeast Asia (Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) that can be spotted at varied points on the administrative spectrum from democracy to absolute monarchy have managed to work together on lucrative economic goals.

Representing a strategically important region cradling some of the world’s busiest sea lanes, including those in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, the 10 countries collectively rank as the world’s fifth-largest economy, having posted a combined annual GDP of around $3.2 trillion in 2022. With a 600-million strong population, it is also an attractive market.

The ASEAN way

The grouping gradually began to expand its areas of cooperation: in 1976, member states signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, focusing on mutual respect and non-interference in other countries’ affairs. At the end of the 1990s, membership doubled as the end of the Cold War, and the normalisation of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam brought relative peace to mainland Southeast Asia. As Brunei entered the grouping in 1984, followed by Vietnam (1995), Laos and Myanmar (1997), and Cambodia (1999), it began to foray into economic cooperation between members.

In 1992, member-states formed the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) with the objectives of creating a single market, increasing trade and investments within members, and getting foreign investments. The AFTA removed tariffs on nearly 8,000 items and raised business access to neighbouring markets, also lowering consumer goods prices. With the 1997 Asian financial crisis finding its roots in Thailand, ASEAN members moved to further integrate their economies.

While it only took form in 2015, ASEAN countries had resolved back in 2003 to establish the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a single market community and production base to facilitate the free flow of goods, services, investments, capital, and labour. While the jury is still out on the efficacy of the AEC, it helped further reduce tariffs.

Over the decades, ASEAN countries, while seen by many observers as having underdeveloped economic and security systems of their own, established various international fora to look outward and collaborate with external partners while keeping the “centrality” principle intact. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), first convened in 1994 with 26 Asian and Pacific states and the EU, was formed to facilitate dialogue on political and security matters. The East Asia Summit (EAS), created in 2005, is an evolving, leaders-level forum with a varied agenda. It also convenes the ASEAN-India Summit to cooperate on a range of areas. ASEAN also has trade agreements with several regional partners, including Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. In 2019, ASEAN and five of those nations concluded a trade agreement covering 30% of the world’s population (more than any other such agreement) known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

ASEAN nations have been lauded by multiple observers for being able to engage regionally and internationally on such a scale despite being vastly heterogeneous in terms of cultures, growth and developmental levels, modes of governance, and so on. Singapore, for instance, has the highest GDP per capita in the group at around $60,000 while Myanmar’s has the lowest. While Singapore and Vietnam are considered as some of the world’s most religiously diverse countries, Buddhist-majority Cambodia and Muslim-majority Indonesia are fairly homogeneous.

The success of this regional partnership, some observe, hinges on ASEAN’s informal organisational structure, heavy focus on consensus building, equal weightage to members, and a policy of non-interference, which has collectively been dubbed the “ASEAN Way”. Others, meanwhile, argue, that this style constrains ASEAN from acting strongly and cohesively on important issues, often writing it off as ineffective and toothless.

Geopolitical challenges

While priding itself as the beacon of Southeast-Asia’s regional and global outreach in multiple areas, ASEAN has not been isolated from the pressures and lures of geopolitics. The ASEAN model has been questioned over the grouping’s inability to provide a coordinated response to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, where five ASEAN members (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam) have contesting claims.

In the last couple of years, ASEAN has been criticised for not adequately isolating the military junta which seized power in Myanmar in 2021. Owing to its growing economic and strategic importance, ASEAN has also landed itself in a dilemma of picking sides between the U.S. and China. While China is the region’s biggest trading partner and pumps in more investments than the U.S., it also is facing opposition in multiple member states, owing to the nature of its investments and bids to throw its weight around militarily. On the other hand, while successive U.S. administrations have not engaged consistently with the region, America views ASEAN as a geopolitical buffer to help maintain the “rules-based order” and outpace China economically.

The Hindu Editorial | Restoring order: On ASEAN and Myanmar 

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