The Association of South East Asian Nations

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

The Association of South East Asian Nations


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


THE reason that textbooks use the European Union as the standard example of a regional organization is that it effectively is the only such successful regional organization. The second most successful organization--the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)--is a long way behind. But the mere fact that it is still around is an achievement; 2007 marks its 40th birthday. This will be celebrated at a summit meeting in Singapore in November. There is nothing comparable in eastern Europe or north-east Asia, and the regional bodies in Latin America, the Middle East and the South Pacific are all well behind ASEAN's evolution. SEATO, the South East Asia Treaty Organization (formed in 1954 with the US, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines), was dissolved in 1977. ASEAN looks like continuing for many years. On 12 August it won a ringing endorsement from the Chinese Foreign Minister: 'China supports the leading role of ASEAN in deepening regional dialogue and cooperation. We wish ASEAN success in building an ASEAN community based on economic security and socio-cultural pillars as scheduled ... We are confident that ASEAN will be able to make a greater contribution to the maintenance of peace and promotion of development and cooperation'.

ASEAN was created in Bangkok, Thailand on August 8,1967 in response to two major regional crises. First, there were worries among five south-east Asian countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) that Vietnam was a military threat. The United States military build-up had commenced in 1965 and it was unlikely that the US would win quickly against such a determined enemy. Few predicted the eventual US defeat in April 1975 but many feared that it was going to be a long campaign.

Second, the 'Confrontation' between Indonesia and Malaysia (with Britain, Australia and New Zealand as allies) had just ended with the overthrow of Indonesia's President Sukarno. He had in effect challenged the right of Malaysia to exist (and the war was a useful way to keep attention off domestic Indonesian problems). His replacement, General Suharto, promised a new era of improved relations (which he broadly kept as far as his south-east Asian neighbours were concerned). But the low intensity conflict had warned the countries about their mutual insecurity and the need to create a more stable regional political environment.

Thus ASEAN was born out of fear rather than hope. The original members knew what they did not like (communism and foreign aggression) but did not have a positive vision of what they did want. Arguably this initial flaw has never been overcome. ASEAN did not, for example, evolve into a co-ordinated regional military alliance (like, say, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

ASEAN has evolved in its own way. With only what is now the European Union to guide them, the ASEAN member countries have tentatively moved forward. There was no local regional precedent in the area to guide ASEAN. Even the idea of 'Asia' is itself a European invention. The region has always been diverse. Of the five original members, two were former British colonies, one was Dutch and one American. The fifth member, Thailand has never been colonized in the modern era. ASEAN has expanded as new members joined: Brunei in 1984, Vietnam joined in 1995, Laos and Burma both in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999. Papua New Guinea was given observer status in 1976. Last year East Timor began the five-year process towards full membership.

There is, then, no common language or culture. On the contrary, each country has wanted to maintain its own language and culture. There is no evolving 'ASEAN spirit' emerging as some of the architects of what is now the EU had hoped for in their new 'Europe'. Communist-dominated Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are no longer seen as potential invaders. Indeed, especially in Vietnam's case, the communist leadership is successfully following a Chinese version of a market-based form of communism ('doi-moi'). …

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