Building a better tomorrow: The role of cooperation in ASEAN’s success

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte poses for a photo with the foreign ministers from participating countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers Meeting during its closing ceremony at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City on August 8, 2017. RICHARD MADELO/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

In 1967, few expected ASEAN to succeed. The bloc’s ability to put aside the differences of member states has been its greatest asset. It needs to remember this when addressing new challenges.


The political and economic situation in Southeast Asia in 1967 was bleak. Malaysia and Singapore had separated just two years before and tensions between the newly established neighbours were running high.

Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand were all battling insurgencies. Indonesia and Singapore had recently been embroiled in an undeclared war and the Philippines and Malaysia had also tackled a territorial dispute of their own.

It was in this uncertain climate on August 7, 1967, that the five founding nations established the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). It appeared doomed to fail. US Supreme Court Justice William Douglas quipped at the time that ASEAN’s road would, “confronted with staggering problems…rich in people and in resources and a prize for the Soviet empire builders,… be turbulent and uneasy.”

ASEAN has transitioned from a hub of conflict to a hub of business

Contrary to expectations, ASEAN has been an unmitigated success story. On the first weekend of June, Singapore hosted the 18th IISS Shangri-La dialogue, where ASEAN’s mechanisms for preserving peace were once again on display.

At the heart of ASEAN lies a commitment to peaceful dialogue and the pursuit of shared economic growth. Malaysia and Thailand’s Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand is a shining example of the fruits of this commitment. Both countries are able to manage their overlapping territorial claims through the pursuit of mutual prosperity.

As a result, the region that was once among the poorest on the planet has undergone rapid economic growth and expansion. Vietnam reduced extreme poverty from around 50% to just 3%. Indonesia and the Philippines both enjoy some of the highest levels of consumer confidence on earth.

Much of this economic progress stems from the establishment of the ASEAN free-trade agreement. The removal of tariffs and barriers to trade allowed inter-ASEAN trade to flourish. It also provided a strong economic platform for individual nations to negotiate bilateral trade agreements with much larger economies.

The economic successes of the block have led to significant social improvements. Literacy rates and life expectancy rates have soared. A newborn baby born in the ASEAN region in 2016 could expect to live 15 years longer than its counterpart born in 1967.

Regional cooperation lies at the heart of ASEAN’s successes

At the heart of ASEAN’s economic and social successes is the deep regional ties between individual member states. For example, the development of infrastructure in the region has drawn on the shared knowledge of individual member states to deliver improved competitivity and increased economic output.

The Myingyan power plant in Myanmar was a glowing example of successful regional cooperation for mutual prosperity. The plant was Myanmar’s first openly tendered independent power project. Singapore’s Sembcorp industries won the contract and is running the gas-fired power plant.

Vietnam plays an important role in ASEAN development

Joining ASEAN as the first Indochinese country had important social, political, economic and security effects for Vietnam. Vietnam’s membership of the bloc created a favourable environment for regional economic development.

As an ASEAN member, Vietnam has worked hard to secure peace, stability and reconciliation among Southeast Asian nations. This also raised Vietnam’s global image, leading to increased cooperation with multiple nations in the region and greater bargaining influence with global superpowers like the United States and China.

As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the term of 2020- 2021 and the ASEAN Chair in 2020, Vietnam has a huge opportunity to consolidate its position on the global stage. However, they will also challenge Vietnam’s ability to handle the relationship between larger powers, resolve the trade protectionism issues and other regional disputes.

Prof. Pham Quang Minh, Rector of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Hanoi once said: “The bases for Vietnam to achieve this position are stable political system, successful economic transition model and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Vietnam is in ASEAN as active and responsible member, seeking to join with other countries in resolving conflict by peaceful means and respecting international law”.

Deeper cooperation will be key moving forward

The region is at a critical juncture. Unique challenges posed by the ongoing US-China trade war, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the fourth industrial revolution mean that going forward, regional cooperation and integration are more important than ever before.

As tensions escalate in the South China Sea, and ASEAN’s claimant states are forced to confront Chinese aggression, regional cooperation will be key to producing a peaceful outcome. A Code of Conduct would underline ASEAN’s commitment to a rules-based order and could provide a conflict resolution mechanism and bring increased political stability.

By 2030, ASEAN’s infrastructure needs are set to reach US$3.4 trillion. To meet these needs, ASEAN will need to draw on the region’s workforce to plug knowledge gaps and provide a steady stream of affordable and reliable infrastructure.

To ensure economic stability in an increasingly volatile global economy, the region will have to increase its regulatory hegemony and remove non-tariff trade barriers. 

Deeper cooperation between nations can also provide solutions to the challenges individual member states face. The young workforces of Indonesia and the Philippines can alleviate the growing fiscal burden of an ageing population in Singapore. In return, Singapore’s small and medium businesses (SMEs) can help strengthen local expertise in the two countries to help their economies transition to the high-value activities of the digital era.

ASEAN’s structure is designed to facilitate cooperation. This puts the bloc in a strong position to tackle these global and regional challenges. The ASEAN platform regularly brings nation states together to discuss regional economics, foreign policy, fiscal policy and social issues. For example, on June 20 the ASEAN Summit will kick off in Bangkok, Thailand. The three-day event will bring governments together to collaborate on social, political, economic and security challenges. This year’s focus will be on advancing partnerships to promote sustainability.  

The first half-decade of ASEAN’s history has been a success story. All indicators suggest the next 50 years will be more of the same. ASEAN’s AEC Blueprint 2025 has outlined areas to increase strategic economic cooperation to ensure sustained economic growth in the new industrial age. Building the required shared economic policies won’t happen overnight. But ASEAN’s history of extensive cooperation and its working practices give it the best possible platform to build on.