THE Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) was founded half a century ago at the height of the Vietnam War, with both Malaysia and the Philippines as founding member states. The founding of Asean was undoubtedly a bold and farsighted step taken by the various national leaders of Asean to group the major (at the time five) countries of Southeast Asia, hopefully to achieve some common goals.
It was a tumultuous time. The Indonesian “confrontation” with Malaysia over the latter’s forming an independent nation instead of becoming part of Indonesia had just ceased slightly more than a year before. The Philippine claim to Sabah, my home state, was also being actively pursued then. But most of all, the Vietnam War loomed large in the background. The fear was that the fall of South Vietnam would trigger a domino effect toward a communist Southeast Asia. The United States, which by then was inextricably caught in a quagmire in Vietnam, was more than happy to see a more or less anti-communist alliance voluntarily formed by the “free” nations of Southeast Asia.
Thus, Asean started as a loose strategic alliance of the major Southeast Asian nations to ensure their respective independence (from communist threats) and sovereignty, although, unlike a “true” defense alliance such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Asean never formed a unified military command. From the outset, mutual non-interference in the internal affairs of each member state became the cornerstone of Asean’s doctrinal and operational imperative. After the Vietnam War concluded with the unification of North and South Vietnam, the much feared domino effect did not substantially materialize, with only Cambodia and Laos becoming communist countries, but not the much larger Thailand, nor even further, Malaysia.
Asean countries thus had a breathing space to step up their industrialization. Foreign investments from the West as well as Japan and Korea were welcome in all Asean member states, and their economies took off spectacularly, with some Asean members becoming so-called Asian Dragons and Tigers (in honor of their economic growth). To remain relevant to address the changing needs of its member states, Asean would of course have to switch the focus of its operations toward a more economically driven perspective. The change in Asean’s operational focus was subtle however, with continued efforts still being expended, for example, in resolving the political crisis in Cambodia (which was then not an Asean member state, and was thus all right with Asean’s mediating role).
Asean tried its best to become useful to its member states through, among others, its pragmatism. For example, realizing that the comprehension of English as an important international language intrinsically associated with trade and technology, Asean education ministers decided to set up a language center for advancing primarily the teaching and learning of English in the region. A similar science and mathematics training center was also formed to benefit more Southeast Asian teachers and students with knowledge in science and mathematics that is crucial to maintaining the region’s growth and competitiveness. Asean also undertook to conclude collective free trade agreements among its member states with some of the major economies of the world, including China and Japan. This economic focus of Asean reached its height when in 2015, the Asean Economic Community was formed, which was a free-trade-plus pact enabling greater and freer flows of goods and services among Asean countries, with much reduced tariffs and non-tariff barriers.
Over the years, Asean doubled its size to 10 members, with at least one more to join in the near future. Asean has thus become the indisputable regional organization, and would thus have to “re-shoulder” some of the more strategic concerns in the region. Asean has been playing this role through promoting the concept and practice of “Asean centrality”, serving as a forum where regional security issues can be discussed and hopefully settled amicably. Its foreign and defense ministers’ meetings typically have attracted attendance by counterparts from even the superpowers of the world. And Asean summits typically see not only the leaders of Asean member states, but other major political figures from around the world as well, taking advantage of the sidelines to discuss bilateral and multilateral issues of great concerns.
Criticisms have been launched against Asean for its repeated inability to reach consensus (required for most of Asean’s decisions and resolutions) in several issues, the most prominent being those related to territorial disputes. But that is the price a viable international organization has to pay, i.e., to allow its members to agree to disagree. The European Union alternative, with a much more structured and mandatory operational set-up, may arguably be so unbearable as to have led to the exit of at least one of its members, the United Kingdom, with more contemplating the same. In contrast, Asean’s much more “voluntary” decision-making set-up may by the same token have arguably contributed to the notion of leaving Asean being unthinkable.
The Rohingya issue which has come to a head over the past few years is again testing the practicality and relevance of Asean, for it involves a serious humanitarian concern both within an Asean member and spreading to the shores of other Asean members as well. Asean would have to revisit some of its tactful strategic-dealing lessons from the past to ameliorate this urgent situation.