(Re)Negotiating East and Southeast Asia: Region, Regionalism, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

By Alice D. BA | Go to book overview

Introduction

The ASEAN states have only three things in common:
karaoke, durian,1 and golf.

Popular ASEAN saying

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long posed a puzzle for the study of international relations. On the one hand, states are often divided among themselves; economic interests are more competitive than complementary; unilateralism, as often as not, seems to trump multilateralism. In fact, the open-endedness of past initiatives and the often frustratingly slow pace of ASEAN cooperation have given rise to a common characterization of ASEAN as a “talk shop”—all talk, no action. ASEAN’s difficulties and challenges in responding to recent crises—most notably, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2003 SARS crisis, Myanmar, and the recurring environmental haze caused by yearly fires in Indonesia—not to mention recent difficulties in approving a new ASEAN charter seem to further confirm the particular problems of intra-ASEAN coordination.

On the other hand, ASEAN is associated with the transformation of the once volatile and fragmented region that was Southeast Asia. If ASEAN is viewed by many as a “weak” case of regional cooperation, ASEAN’s creation in 1967 may be just as widely viewed by others as marking an important turning point in the international relations of Southeast Asia. By this view, with ASEAN’s creation, an era marked by highly confrontational politics gave way to a new one characterized by more stable relations and growing cooperation.

In fact, Southeast Asia’s economic dynamism, relative stability, and regional initiatives make it easy to forget just how fragile both region and its relations were forty years ago. At the time of ASEAN’s founding, conflict and division plagued practically every level of politics. The newness of most states and the legacies of arbitrarily drawn colonial borders practically assured that domestic development in Southeast Asia would be a volatile process. Nor were Southeast Asia’s international politics any more stable. At the global level, states found themselves the targets and tools of major power interventions and Cold War designs. At the regional level,

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