Half a century later, Asean still faces questions over relevance, centrality and leadership
The membership has doubled in that time, all the while trying to maintain regional peace and stability
Fifty years ago, when five countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – set up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, their main objective was to cope with communist threats expanding in Vietnam.
At the same time, they were trying to fight insurgencies within their borders and prevent the internal conflicts from spiralling into broader, regional ones, as well as to maintain neutrality amid rivalries between superpower states.
Over the past 50 years, the membership has doubled to 10 to include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam while trying to maintain regional peace and stability.
Amy Searight, director of the Southeast Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that many notable and even surprising successes have been achieved by the body, including preventing armed conflict, despite “such high degree of diversity and political rivalry” among member states.
The regional bloc has also succeeded in developing and promoting norms of open regionalism to commerce and investment that have been critical to the region’s economic success and has laid “the groundwork for an effective regional security architecture,” she added.
Moreover, it successfully managed to launch collaborative efforts to tackle specific problems, such as piracy in the Malacca Strait and cross-border crimes and terrorism in the Sulu Sea, and to cultivate healthy relationships with all dialogue partners, observers note.
Challenges, however, are still ahead for the regional community to maintain its relevance in global affairs and its centrality in setting the agenda for the region.
“Some challenges have proved daunting and have called Asean’s effectiveness and relevance into question,” said Searight, who is also former deputy assistant secretary of defence for South and Southeast Asia.
Pou Sothirak, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, shared a similar view, saying emerging and serious security issues in recent times have also constantly confronted its relevance.
“The first challenge in my mind is how is Asean able to keep its centrality afloat amid traditional and non-traditional security challenges, which are constantly testing the association’s credibility,” he said.
Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai acknowledged that one of the tough challenges Asean is facing is security in the digital realm.
“Asean has to adjust the community to the dynamic world and be ready to deal with possible threats,” Don said.
In dealing with security issues, which also include territorial disputes among member states and instability in the Korean Peninsula, according to Sothirak, Asean needs strong leadership to put the difficult issues on the agenda, particularly those that affect regional peace and stability.
The main problem, he said, is that Asean lacks effective leadership.
Now, Asean is often perceived by many observers as a mini clearing house of routine tools and avoids sensitive subjects that might involve the internal affairs of member states,” he said.
Avoidance of intervention in the domestic affairs of other member states is occurring, according to Sothirak, particularly in the case of “sensitive issues” related to sovereignty. He cited overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea and serious violations of human rights and issues related to the Rohingya minority group in Myanmar.
Don stressed, however, that maintaining neutrality and upholding the principle of consensus serve its unity and reliability in dealing with regional and global issues.
“We have to maintain the Asean way of consensus because it is our charm. We have to maintain a peaceful atmosphere and avoid escalating conflicts ... to make a sea of peace,” he said.
Searight and Sothirak disagreed, saying neutrality cannot be an option any longer in some cases.
“In the present era, political disputes are getting more difficult to resolve. Asean needs to invent itself as a provider of regional leadership and exhibit leadership skills to address complex problems,” Sothirak said.
Focusing on neutrality and showing less centrality, according to Searight, may raise the “diplomatic comfort level” in the short term, but can seriously undermine Asean’s influence in the long-term and turn the body into a passive bystander of larger regional dynamics.
Asean needs to find a way forward to maintain centrality and forge greater unity and not always focus on neutrality, they said.
“This will take leadership and political courage and determination, and likely entail institutional reform,” Searight said.
“Not an easy course of action, but Asean has shown in the past that it is up to tough challenges, including seizing the opportunity in a period of uncertainty in regional order, if it put its collective mind to it.”