Asean at 50 has much to be proud of
There’s still much work to do but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has helped ensure peace, prosperity and stability in the region for the past half a century
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has its staunch adherents and vociferous critics. On its 50th anniversary today, their voices are louder than usual. But for China, the United States and others outside the region, there is no denying the worth of the 10-nation grouping. Nor, given the security and the peaceful environment it has created that facilitates smooth trade, travel and investment, can there be cause for holding back support.
Asean has the world’s seventh-largest market and third-biggest labour force. The establishment last year of an economic community aimed at creating a single market and production base will help drive growth, and the grouping believes that by 2030 it will be the fourth most important global economic bloc. Such cooperation helps attract foreign investment, but also brings member nations and their people together politically, culturally and socially. As beneficial as integration is, though, progress has been slow, at times painfully so.
Critics blame the famed “Asean way”. Asean makes decisions through consensus, with civility, order and cohesion. It is an understandable approach, given that the five founding members, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, at the time had little in common apart from being in Southeast Asia and having a sense of being threatened by Soviet-backed communism spreading from Vietnam. Half a century later, having doubled in size with the inclusion of Vietnam itself and Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, the nations remain culturally distinct and at markedly different stages of economic development, but share the common goals of working for regional stability and growth.
Border disputes between some members have still to be settled and new challenges have arisen, the biggest arguably being the power rivalry between China and the US. Some Asean countries have military ties to the US and count on the alliance to counter China’s rising strength, yet also have close and growing Chinese economic and investment links. The dilemma shows Asean’s worth, both for members and their foreign partners; the grouping offers unity and a forum to discuss concerns at multilateral and bilateral levels, as clearly shown in negotiations with China for a code of conduct to handle disputes in the South China Sea.
Celebrations in Manila today of Asean’s founding, and the Asean Regional Forum and ministerial meetings that preceded them, bring together members and nations in the name of cooperation. The grouping still has much work to do to build a community with a common destiny. But Southeast Asia’s peace and security, without which prospects for steady growth and development would be dire, are testament to Asean’s achievements and necessity.