The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has managed to successfully survive for 50 years and will celebrate its golden anniversary in 2017. In many ways, ASEAN is a political miracle that over the last five decades has faced and overcome significant challenges. But, like any institution, ASEAN's success has been the result of its unique circumstances and, as circumstances change, so too will its future.
For more than a century, Southeast Asia has been riddled with racial animosities, ideological conflicts, border skirmishes and full-blown wars that Western colonial powers leveraged to further divide people and societies and eventually managing to turn citizens of these nations into mere subjects of British, Dutch and French empires. Despite the end of World War II and the withdrawal of Japanese forces that had occupied all of Southeast Asia, peace did not prevail in the region. The problems left behind by history and exacerbated by the Colonial rule, including territorial disputes and distrust, continued to divide Southeast Asians.
In 1949, when the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East was moved from Shanghai to Bangkok and in 1954, when the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), was setup in Bangkok, many believed that a semblance of regionalism was finally arriving in Southeast Asia.
However, initial indigenous efforts at forming regional organizations aimed at furthering political and economic cooperation were short-lived, including the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), that brought together Federation of Malaya (comprising Singapore), the Philippines and Thailand in 1961, folded in less than two years; Maphilindo, which was formed by the Federation of Malaya, the Philippines, and Indonesia, also lasted for only about one month in the summer of 1963. It was scuttled by the eruption of border clashes in the Konfrontasi (Confrontation) between Indonesia and Malaya.
In 1966, the end of Konfrontasi created the right circumstances and a new opportunity for a few regional visionary leaders to press for mutual cooperation so that Southeast Asian countries could get to know one another better, begin to work together for common regional interest, and coexist in peace. It was this convivial atmosphere that led to the formation of ASEAN.
The foreign ministers of five Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand gathered in Bangkok and officially established the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) through their declaration of 8 August, 1967. The declaration noted that one of the first purposes of the newly founded organization would be to ‘accelerate the economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region through joint endeavor.”
At the birth of ASEAN, the Vietnam War was escalating. Two members, the Philippines and Thailand, took an active role in supporting South Vietnam and the United States in the fighting against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, including sending troops and opening their air and naval bases to US forces. This in turn led to the intensification of communist insurgency with Chinese support both in the Philippines and Thailand.
At that time, Beijing supported North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, and vehemently attacked ASEAN as just a ‘front organization’ set up by the United States to contain communist China.
Circumstances began to change in 1972 with the historic meeting in Beijing between then US President Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong. The meeting was instrumental in bringing to an end the Vietnam War in 1976. The end of the Vietnam War also marked the end of strategic rivalry between the US and China, which has prompted them to compete for influence over smaller countries in the region for over two decades, and helped usher in a new regional, strategic and political order.
All this is very relevant to the question of ASEAN's future today. After 40 years, the era of uncontested US primacy appears to be coming to an end. In 1972, China acquiesced to US leadership in Asia in return for recognition of China's communist government and access to Western finance, markets and technology to support China's growth.
Now, as China's economy seems poised to overtake that of the US, Beijing wants to revise the rules and seeks a bigger regional leadership role. Unless the two nations can find a way to accommodate each other's conflicting aims, escalating rivalry is inevitable. Indeed, it is already happening in Asia today. As rivalry grows between Washington and Beijing, each once again seeks to maximize its own influence among ASEAN members and minimize that of its rival. While Washington generally uses carrots, Beijing has mostly used sticks but the aim is essentially the same. As China and the US become more strategically active in the area, ASEAN's solidarity will be harder to sustain.
Despite its immense geographic, demographic, economic, religious, ethnic and linguistic diversities and disparities, in the intervening years since its inception, for 50 years ASEAN has been able to successfully promote economic, social and political engagement among its member states, whose numbers have doubled from its original five nations.
Vietnam, which was initially seen as an aggressive outlier in the region, was subsequently admitted to ASEAN in July 1995, becoming its seventh member. Earlier, Brunei Darussalam had joined ASEAN in January 1984, one week after gaining independence from Britain. The ASEAN membership expanded further to include Laos and Myanmar in July 1997. The admission of Cambodia into ASEAN, which was postponed following a failed coup attempt in Phnom Penh in early July 1997, was admitted in April 1999. In March 2011, Timor-Leste submitted its formal application, which still remains under consideration, for the ASEAN membership.
The vast diversities among ASEAN states make it imperative for its members to make decisions by consultation and consensus based on sovereign equality. As such, there is no voting in the organization and members take turns in chairing ASEAN for a calendar year.
In the early 1990s ASEAN ventured into establishing a free trade area to attract more foreign direct investment (FDI) and create more jobs. ASEAN has also completed FTA agreements with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand in its continuing efforts to enhance economic competitiveness in the wake of the economic rise of China and subsequent economic opening of India.
The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) has now developed into the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) with a wide-ranging and comprehensive cooperation agenda aimed at making ASEAN a highly integrated regional market and regional production base. The AEC constitutes one of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community. The other two are the ASEAN Political-Security Community, and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.
ASEAN leaders announced the formal realization of the ASEAN Community at the end of 2015, and community-building in ASEAN is continuing under a new road-map toward 2025 based on the common aspiration 'One Vision, One Identity, and One Community'.
The survival of ASEAN successfully for five decades is truly a political miracle. Behind the 50-year success-story of ASEAN is no doubt the statesmanship and visionary leadership of its founding fathers including the likes of former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and former Indonesian President Suharto. These men had the foresight to see how much their countries stood to gain by cooperation, and how much they had to lose from rivalry.
In this context it is worth remembering how far this regional cooperation and collaboration was from being true in the 1960s - and how far it is from being true in so many other parts of the world today - to see how remarkable the 50-year achievements of ASEAN has been and how crucial it is for it continue in the years ahead.