South-East Asian countries today are far more integrated than they have ever been in the modern history of the region, but ASEAN has some way to go before it can call itself a real community.
The 10 member countries of ASEAN are glued together more because of their geographical proximity, and out of that, perhaps, comes a sense of shared destiny.
But a community where members have shared values and principles, ASEAN is not.
For now, it is looking more like a neighborhood.
It’s a neighborhood of nations, big and small, rich and poor, at different stages of economic and political development that are already trading with one another more and more.
But they are ruled by vastly different political systems and ideologies, and often have little in common other than the knowledge that their prosperity is closely tied because they are neighbours.
ASEAN marked its 50th anniversary on August 8, and although the group officially became the ASEAN Community at the end of 2015, one can hardly find the spirit or the sense of being part of an emerging community when traveling and meeting with ordinary people across the region.
Their governments rarely talk about ASEAN as a community. In speeches, they still refer to it just as ASEAN. Some call it an ASEAN economic community because of the closer economic integration.
Their peoples, according to most surveys, are mostly ignorant about the community idea. Many do not even know what the ASEAN acronym stands for, let alone the benefits the association brings. Yet, ASEAN officials tirelessly churn out new acronyms with every new meeting.
The ASEAN motto “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” has hardly taken root among its 625 million citizens. Few people will be singing the ASEAN anthem, aptly titled “The ASEAN Way”. Few people actually are aware there is such an anthem.
But at least there is the aspiration, or the stated intention, to turn the region into a community. As the anthem goes, ‘we dare to dream, we care to share, for it’s the way of ASEAN’.
What is grossly missing is the political will of its leaders to take up the community idea more seriously and as more than just a geopolitical and economic concept.
This, however, does not take away the value of ASEAN during its first 50 years to the member countries, to their peoples and to the rest of Asia and beyond.
People’s ignorance of ASEAN extends to the most important contribution that the association has made: Five decades of uninterrupted peace which has afforded member countries time to focus on and devote resources to nation-building and economic development. People in the richer ASEAN countries may not appreciate that their prosperity is due to the relative stability their leaders have painfully built through the association.
ASEAN meetings have expanded with offshoots, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, which bring together all the major powers to discuss the political and economic security of the region and the world.
ASEAN has been dubbed the most successful regional organisation in the world, so successful, in fact, that it has often been in the driver’s seat for initiatives seen in the Asia-Pacific region. ASEAN enjoys the centrality of its role in the larger region.
Fifty years ago, this region was a zone filled with tension and conflicts. Every country had a bone to pick with all of its neighbours over overlapping territorial claims or ideological differences. In the Cold War context, South-East Asia was the perfect theatre for the big powers to conduct proxy wars.
The original five founding members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – worked out the perfect way to overcome their differences and their territorial disputes: Put them aside or sweep them under the carpet. It’s a formula that has survived the test of time as the group expanded over the years, with the addition of Brunei in 1984 and Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam in the late 1990s.
Throw in the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other members, and of decision-making by consensus, and you have the “ASEAN Way” – a slow but almost sure, and most importantly, peaceful mechanism. It only takes one member to kill any initiative or to slow down the process.
ASEAN has moved nevertheless. That is how ASEAN has grown – some ascribe it as the recipe for its success – and it is going to be the way it moves forward for the foreseeable future.
With the group turning 50, the ASEAN Way has become the one factor that slows and limits the process of closer integration. The ASEAN Way defines not only how fast but also how far it can move with the community idea.
The integration of their economies has moved quickly, with countries trading with one another more and investing in one another more, but political integration is a different story. It is moving at a snail’s pace, if at all.
ASEAN never had the pretension to replicate the European Union, and the Brexit brouhaha makes it even more unlikely that ASEAN countries will want to move faster toward political integration.
The EU places more emphasis on members having shared values and principles. Former East European communist states had to work hard at political reforms to strengthen their democracy, freedom and human rights guarantees before they were admitted to the club.
No such requirements in ASEAN. It’s purely geography. If the map shows you’re part of South-East Asia, welcome to the neighborhood. No questions asked.
Unlike the EU, ASEAN is a collection of diverse political regimes: An absolute monarchy (Brunei), communist states (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), a military junta (Thailand), semi-democracies (Singapore and Malaysia) and struggling democracies (the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar).
There was an attempt to write in the principles of democracy, freedom and human rights when ASEAN was drafting its charter as part of the move to become a community.
The original white paper was a very progressive document prepared by eminent people in the region, but after ASEAN officials got their hands on it, they shot down the requirement that member governments must ascribe to basic democratic principles.
Nonetheless, the Charter, enacted in 2008, was a milestone for the regional grouping.
The official launching of the ASEAN Community in 2015, marked the intention of their leaders to bring their countries closer together, if not politically, then certainly economically. Now they look to 2025 as the new target for some of the community ideals to be fulfilled.
But the march towards a community, in the real sense of the word, will likely have to wait until these countries decide to come and live together under shared principles and values.
For now, let’s be content with ASEAN being a neighbourhood. It’s not a bad one.