From the left, Myanmar Health Minister Thet Khaing Win, Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin and South Korea’s Vice-Health Minister Lee Ki-il meet at the Asean Plus Three Health Ministers’ Meeting in Nusadua, Bali, Indonesia, on May 15. Photo: EPA-EFE
by Anthony Rowley
by Anthony Rowley

The ‘Asean way’ has more to offer Asia than a Nato-like security alliance

  • Caught in the bruising US-China contest for influence in the region and other challenges, Asia must find better ways to resolve conflict and promote economic development
  • With its strong and peaceful growth, unassuming Asean may provide some answers
Can nothing save Asia from the fate of becoming a long-term battleground as the US and China vie for economic and strategic influence in the region, while Quad powers Japan, India and Australia take sides, North Korea postures menacingly and Russia looms as a dark presence on the horizon?

It will be economic imperatives that force a retreat from the dangerously “squeezed” position that much of Asia (as well as Europe and other parts of the world) now find themselves in, as a result not only of the Ukraine war but also of aggressive superpower interference in the affairs of others.

Relentlessly rising prices and the threat of a prolonged recession will compel governments in democratic and authoritarian polities alike to bow to popular demand for a halt to growing hostility. Hunger for food and fuel threaten to provoke popular unrest and policy shifts in Asia and beyond.
Salvation will certainly not come about through any extension of Nato-like security arrangements for Asia, which would only increase tensions and the chances of conflict. It will more likely happen via what might be termed the “Aseanisation” of Asia.

What would this look like? It would mean that more Asian powers accept the notion of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, which has been the guiding principle adopted by the 10 states that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Economic and strategic exigencies are pushing towards wider acceptance of this principle in Asia as a whole, and beyond, because the alternative is potentially suicidal rising ideological and strategic friction, accelerated rearmament and, ultimately, open conflict.

If Aseanisation sounds idealistic to the point of being unreal, it is worth noting that, in their quiet and unassuming way, Asean states have since 1967 been growing strongly and peacefully, to the point where the group now constitutes a potential counterweight to global economic giants.


What is often overlooked in the obsession with China’s emergence as a major economic power and with US-China tensions (plus the problems of the two Koreas) is the progress that Asean has made behind the scenes on regional economic cooperation and integration and in terms of political maturity.

It is not just size that matters for Asean economies. Comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, Asean’s aggregate output of around US$3 trillion makes it the third-largest economy in Asia, and fifth largest in the world.

It is also the remarkable stability and often statesmanship that has been demonstrated by some Asean leaders that will provide a role model for the rest of Asia, even as those in the Western hemisphere indulge in ever more dangerous provocations that threaten regions beyond their borders.

US President Joe Biden meets visiting Asean leaders at the US-Asean special summit on May 14 at the State Department in Washington. Photo: Bernama / dpa

Southeast Asia can claim the moral high ground in this regard. The concept of Southeast Asia as a “zone of peace, freedom and neutrality” was embodied in the Kuala Lumpur declaration of 1971 and reinforced in the Asean Charter of 2007. The Asean states have generally hewed to these principles since.

They have gone on to establish a workable model of peaceful cooperation and mutual progress, a modus vivendi that the rest of the world would do well to emulate. Within their commitment to non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, the Asean states have forged an economic community.


In the 1990s, they established the Asean Free Trade Area with a view to raising the bloc’s competitive edge as a production base through the reduction or elimination of tariffs and non‑tariff barriers on intra‑Asean trade. This included the introduction of mutual preferential tariffs.

The grouping soon embarked on a more ambitious strategy of regional economic integration by launching the Asean Economic Community 2015, under which Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines achieved zero tariffs by the end of 2015. The next phase of integration is continuing under the Asean Economic Community 2025 blueprint.

Asean also went on to foster extra‑bloc free trade and regional economic integration. It signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which came into force on January 1, with its five regional trading partners, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Contrast all this with what has been happening elsewhere in Asia. Superpower rivalry between a US accustomed to dominance in the Pacific area and an “emergent” China has brought the region to a situation of threatened conflict, especially where Taiwan is concerned.
Sino-Japanese tensions have also flared up while friction between Japan and South Korea happens frequently, and North Korea is a constant source of anxiety. Any notion of peace, freedom and neutrality is sadly absent and the idea of non-interference in mutual affairs disregarded.

In the economic sphere, an attempt to form what would in effect have been a US and Japan-led Trans-Pacific Partnership foundered, leaving the Asean-supported RCEP to provide the basic architecture for regional economic cooperation. It is time for Asia to do things the “Asean way”.

Anthony Rowley is a veteran journalist specialising in Asian economic and financial affairs