By Niruban Balachandran, Executive Director of TeamBuilders International Ltd.
ASEAN is currently at a critical juncture in its history, responsible for dealing with uniquely Asian challenges such as regional security, terrorism, economic growth, natural disasters, human rights and infrastructure issues. At crossroads like these, it often becomes useful to ask: What if ASEAN was never created in the first place? Would the history of Southeast Asia have turned out differently without the existence of ASEAN?
Predicting alternate futures is anathema to many policymakers and social scientists, because historical trends are notoriously difficult to project into the future. There are literally dozens of factors and variables that may contribute to any specific future outcome, many of which are nearly impossible to predict. Nevertheless, it can be useful to imagine what might be without ASEAN to evaluate its utility to us today.
Without ASEAN, the probability of interstate wars between Southeast Asian states would have most likely increased. Since its founding in 1967, there have been markedly fewer armed conflicts between any ASEAN member states than before. Commercial trade, a regional ban on nuclear weapons, interdependence and a platform for continuous dialogue have rendered interstate wars nearly inconceivable. This is no small accomplishment, given that Asian history has been rife with centuries of rivalries, tensions and armed conflicts. Though the Association lacks a collective-defense agreement equivalent to the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article V (“An attack on one is an attack on all”), the first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting held in Hanoi last September was a promising step forward for regional security cooperation.
Maintaining peace between bloc member states is not always easy, however. For example, this month’s ASEAN summit was nearly derailed by open hostilities between the Thai and Cambodian heads of state, who have been arguing over months-long territorial skirmishes which have so far killed 85 people and temporarily displaced 85,000. Despite third-party efforts to mediate the conflict between Bangkok and Phnom Penh during the summit, no resolution was reached. Carl Thayer, a foreign policy specialist from Australia’s University of New South Wales, says that while these mediation efforts were admirable, ASEAN’s reluctance to impose sanctions on member states that violate the organization’s charter and will continue to be slow down the peace process. Despite these peacekeeping challenges, a community like ASEAN that emphasizes the payoffs of transnational cooperation and security is indispensable for preventing future conflicts between members.
The removal of ASEAN from the region’s economic equation would have probably made the rapid growth of many individual Southeast Asian markets less likely. Although many critics contend that ASEAN did very little to protect the region from the wholesale destruction and chaos of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the Association has had a long and proven track record of contributing to the economic stability for its member states. Because of the Association’s economic policies, intra-ASEAN trade barriers and tariffs are typically lowered between member markets, and the mobility of workers seeking to make their fortunes in other member markets is comparatively less difficult than if they attempted the same elsewhere.
(Though it is tempting to overstate the contributions of ASEAN policies to the region’s economic prosperity, long-term growth in Southeast Asia would have most likely played out in any case eventually. This is because globalization- and business-friendly environments, demographic trends, export-driven markets and a cultural emphasis on both education and high savings rates are the hallmarks of most ASEAN member states.)
Despite ASEAN’s widely-criticized failure to make significant progress on some political and security issues at this month’s summit, the bloc still did manage to yield results on a few important matters, namely bloc-wide agreements to partner with grassroots civil-society and youth organizations, to cooperate on disaster management training, to enhance food production region-wide and to admit East Timor as the Association’s 11th member state within the decade. There is therefore some hope for the ability of ASEAN to produce results in certain policy arenas.