Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Forging an ASEAN Identity: The Challenge to Construct a Shared Destiny

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Forging an ASEAN Identity: The Challenge to Construct a Shared Destiny

Article excerpt

Introduction: An Evolving Regional Identity

In the last two decades, the world has seen the deepening of regional integration agreements among nations. The European Union, the most successful case of regional integration, has succeeded in creating a common market and laying down a foundation for the emergence of the Economic and Monetary Union with the installation of the euro as a common currency. A similar, perhaps less ambitious, type of regional integration occurred in the Americas with the signing of the NAFTA and Mercosur agreements. In Southeast Asia, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has formulated a planned integration among its ten member nations. ASEAN drew up its vision of its future in the document ASEAN Vision 2020 (1) at its annual summit in December 1997 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This document outlines a number of objectives defining regional development. One of those directives was defined: "We envision the entire Southeast Asia to be, by 2020, an ASEAN community conscious of its ties of history, aware of its cultural heritage and bound by a common regional identity."

What ASEAN means by "a common regional identity" and how it will be achieved has only been vaguely alluded to, leaving an incomplete or unspoken vision to the concept of regional identity. In various public lectures, Rodolfo C. Severino, Secretary-General of ASEAN, has referred to ASEAN as a "cohesive mass that can come only from geographical propinquity" that requires member nations' commitment to maintaining "ASEAN's cohesion and strengthen its solidarity ..." Severino has further described an association with great diversity that is composed of "societies and political constituencies ... marshaled in the cause of ASEAN solidarity and cooperation, behind the validity of the ASEAN idea ..." that aspires to ... open trading and investment regimes. An increasing integrated market. Progressively more open societies. The increasing ascendancy of the rule of law ..." (2)

Although there has not been a clearly articulated vision of regional identity with temporal benchmarks, there is a historical precedent for a regional identity and it lies in the context in which ASEAN arose. Shaun Narine in describing the historical context of ASEAN explains that, in order to reduce further regional tensions, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines founded ASEAN in 1967 amidst uncertain regional security and certain poverty. (3) The founders were seeking an association of Southeast Asian nations cooperating for a common good with peace and economic, social and cultural development as primary objectives. The organization has adopted the Malay cultural practice of consultation and consensus building as an operational process. This process has become a trademark response to all consultative matters and includes the hardened policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of fellow members' state affairs. This non-interference policy has defined political procedures of the organization and how it has chosen to deal with regional problems.

At the annual summit meeting (4) in Phnom Penh, an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) was proposed, seemingly supporting Hew's assertion that Vision 2020 was a document that "envisaged a stable, prosperous and highly competitive regional economic area". (5) However, beginning with the Fourth ASEAN Informal Summit, (6) ASEAN has been developing an Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI), an abstract initiative with the intention of "giving direction to the focus of collective efforts to narrow the development gap within ... and between ASEAN and other parts of the world". In ensuing years, ministerial meetings have further refined and developed the IAI with work plans, specific projects, and potential donors and resources. The IAI was endorsed and finally approved at the Phnom Penh summit as a six-year plan with a series of projects that addresses four priority areas: infrastructure development, information and communication technology, human resource development, and the promotion of regional economic integration. …

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