The ASEAN faces old and new challenges, and a huge long-term opportunity. The next three decades could witness the shift of global economic momentum from the Trans-Atlantic axis to the Trans-Asian axis.
Recently, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marked its 50th anniversary in Manila with President Duterte hosting the celebrations. Despite its importance, the Summit’s international coverage remains unacceptably marginal. But times are changing.
Today, ASEAN’s combined population amounts to 640 million, which makes it the world’s third-largest market. The combined ASEAN economies total $2.6 trillion. The grouping is a major regional power.
What matters even more is how important ASEAN and Asia could become globally in the next three decades.
Need For Unity and Leadership
“The biggest challenge for the ASEAN moving forward will be for it to stay united”, said Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh in a recent interview. I first met him a few years ago in Singapore, while serving in the EU-Center. Then, too, he expressed similar concerns – for a reason.
As major powers compete more intensely with one another for influence in Southeast Asia, ASEAN will come under competing pressures. Until recently, Washington still saw the grouping as an extension of its postwar hubs-and-spoke security system, while Brussels perceived the ASEAN as its weak replica, a sort of EU lite.
In the EU, integration was often seen as a norm for other groupings; in the US, regime changes have often been justified in the name of US view of “freedom”. North Korea is a textbook case (and one that could, under some circumstances, result in tragic devastation). In the recent Summit, Washington sought to pressure ASEAN to downgrade diplomatic exchanges with North Korea. But it is neither the ASEAN way nor its experience to isolate another country and condemn them. They know that imposing sanctions simply will not work.
In the case of Myanmar, Washington and Brussels isolated Myanmar and imposed sanctions; the ASEAN countries didn’t. As Koh put it, “We brought them into the family, we tried to influence them in a very gentle Asian way, and the Myanmar leadership, the military leadership, decided on their own volition – not because of external pressure – to develop their own roadmap to democracy.”
Instead of isolation, condemnation and imposed sanctions that won’t work, violations of international consensus should result in elevated cooperation, integration and positive rewards, which do work. That’s the ASEAN way, which offers great lessons not just in Southeast Asia.
In the past, Koh would patiently explain to the EU officials the ASEAN way, and its basic principles; cooperation, amity, and non-interference. To Brussels, that meant integration without integration. To ASEAN, integration is not conceivable without sovereignty. That’s the lesson of colonial subjection.
About the Author
Dan Steinbock is the Founder of Difference Group and has served as Research Director of International Business at the India China and America Institute (US) and a Visiting Fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Centre (Singapore). For more, see http://www.differencegroup.net