While the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) may elicit a mix of feelings depending on whom you speak to, its 50th Anniversary is notable no matter your opinion of the organization.
Founded 50 years ago today, the founding five nations – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines – came together to encourage stability and political development in a region that at the time was suffering through the Vietnam war and the threat of a rise in communism. Over time, it has grown to ten countries, spanning from Burma on its western fringe to the Philippines at its eastern most point, and its mission has changed to promote greater regional economic, cultural and political multilateralism. The numbers ASEAN represents are impressive: a population of more than 630 million, a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion rendering it the fifth largest economy in the world.
ASEAN, at times, draws comparisons to the European Union. Its histories are similar: the European Union was formed in 1951 by six nations – Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – to strengthen economic integration in post war Europe. While the EU has rapidly developed into an organized bloc of 28 member countries across the continent with independent decision-making bodies that wield authority to provide aid, military assistance and political assistance around the world, ASEAN at times struggles to find common ground on many issues and is beset by disagreements and inaction.
These struggles emanate from its extremely diverse membership. A strong and independent Singapore with a per capita GDP of more than $50,000 cannot not be compared to Cambodia or Myanmar at a per capita GDP of barely $1,000. Besides, ASEAN is comprised of polar opposite political systems – from Communist Laos to full-fledged democratic systems in the Philippines and Indonesia. Competing interests lead ASEAN to fail to find common ground on critical issues such as security and how to deal with an increasingly belligerent maritime China
And yet, despite all of this ASEAN has done well to advance regional economic interests. Nearly all goods within the bloc are traded sans tariffs and several multilateral trade agreements exist with major powers and the bloc. While much effort at integration remains for ASEAN to punch at its weight, a recent development has also surprised many Asia watchers. This past weekend’s annual ministerial meeting came with a statement (and thus agreed to by all ASEAN nations) calling for militarization in the South China Sea to be avoided and expressed concern over island-building. This language is the type of rhetoric China abhors, and is unusually strong given that several ASEAN economies are wholly dependent on China and loath to rankle their hyper-sensitive neighbor.
This is a big step for the bloc as it flexes its muscles on this important anniversary. The years to come will present great challenges to ASEAN, however, its continued integration will expand its global influence – one that will undoubtedly play an important role in stabilizing the region and beyond.