Happy Birthday ASEAN, but is there anything to celebrate?

Asean National Flags in JakartaPhoto: Gunawan Kartapranata

By Claire Heffron

The ASEAN regional group recently reached its 49th anniversary. But as it struggles with issues such as getting a consensus on economic development or reaching a common understanding on the South China Sea dispute, it seems reasonable to ask; what has ASEAN achieved?

The group of nations is well known as a forum where members can raise concerns and allow members to meet and discuss potential solutions. However, when it comes to internal affairs or conflicts between neighbours, there is no equivalent political or military integration. Every country pursues its self-interest.

As an example, the bloc has so far failed to manage tensions with China over the South China Sea dispute. Discussions on this remain ongoing but without agreement on even a consensus statement, the future does not look bright.

Support for reform?

Meanwhile, ASEAN initiatives provided vital support to Myanmar during the country’s early transition to democracy, pushing for sanctions to be lifted. Critics say the overall impact was not so impressive; many ASEAN members were not especially “democratic” themselves and backed away from applying pressure to reform.

Look also at the Rohingya refugee situation. Every country affected spoke Myanmar’s authorities and asked them to take action; with little prospect of immediate action, it is easy to say ASEAN failed.

To look at successes, one of the group’s significant achievements was enabling the political dialogue that stopped border conflicts between Thailand and Cambodia escalating. Thanks to ASEAN-led discussions, both nations agreed to accept Indonesian observers and avoid further clashes over an ongoing border dispute.

And when it comes to tackling the biggest threat to the region, of the so-called Islamic State, ASEAN is focused on defence co-operation and agreements that combat the terrorist group’s local support. Just last month Police chiefs from across ASEAN signed a historic pact that will hurry up the sharing of information, intelligence and aid in times of crisis.

Overseas relationships

The group has also managed the engagement of America in the region in a way that does not antagonise China but builds security links for ASEAN members. Leaders are careful about being drawn into complicated issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and as a result, ASEAN is the United States’ third-largest Asian trading partner and the major Asian destination for U.S. investment. It also receives the biggest portion of outgoing investment from the EU, at 24%.

At the same time, critics have complained at the lack of collaborative trade negotiations. The bloc was created to promote economic collaboration in South East Asia, but these have not happened. For example, only individual member countries are taking part in the TPP. If this is the case, what is the point of ASEAN?

However, with a population of more than 600 million and a nominal GDP of $2.31 trillion, the countries of the ASEAN region have grown to become a major economic force and a driver of international development. And as the economies of neighbouring China and India decelerate, and the UK’s Brexit – the region is increasingly becoming a destination for investment.

Fit for the future

Pravin Advani, J.P. Morgan’s head of global trade Asia-Pacific region explains, “We see a bright future for ASEAN as the countries strive to sharpen their overall competitiveness through closer collaboration.”

In the final analysis, it is perhaps easier to see what ASEAN has prevented as one of it’s greatest accomplishments. What began as a disadvantaged, war-ravaged region caught up in the hottest of Cold War conflicts is now a zone of peace and prosperity.

By dispersing clashes through the “Asean way” of meetings, seeking consensus and avoiding any intrusion in one another’s domestic affairs, the economies of South East Asia were able to tap into the global supply chain and boost their impressive growth. Lifting ASEAN member’s citizens out of poverty has to remain the ultimate goal.