August 2023

ASEAN’s blueprint for success

A truth of the human mindset is that we are drawn more to stories about problems than those of resolution.

Reporting on Asia is dominated by headlines that swirl around an invasion of Taiwan, hypersonic missiles and the upending of the world order. 

The enemy is China because its values threaten ours with a story made more compelling by scenarios of war.

Sitting quietly within all this are ten countries of Southeast Asia which have long experience in managing competing values and unaligned cultures, governments and religions.

Washington and Beijing would be wise to take note.

Last month’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers’ summit in Jakarta was scantily reported even though attendees from outside the region included top diplomats from the United States, Russia and China.

Wang Yi held separate side talks with Anthony Blinken and Sergei Lavrov.

In the main meetings, familiar issues of Myanmar, North Korea and the South China Sea were discussed amid substantive disagreements, particularly over Myanmar, but not in the win-lose style of Western politics.

ASEAN is routinely slated by Western commentators for being indecisive and ineffective and its low-profile way of operating as one of ducking issues.  One criticism is that over the decades, its members have failed to unify enough to withstand Chinese expansion.

From ASEAN’s view, however, this signifies a reality of accepting boundaries of power unlike, say, the United States with its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ASEAN knows it needs to work with all sides of wider geopolitical rivalry. 

While America’s security umbrella has given it the stability to flourish, in the field of infrastructure, Washington has nothing to match Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

ASEAN was formed in 1967 with the aim of creating a front against Chinese and Soviet communist expansion. 

A decade earlier saw the founding of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, a military alliance with Thailand and the Philippines as its driving members. 

The US led on both, very much as it was doing in Europe with NATO and the economic alliances that would become the European Union. The aim was that Southeast Asian nations would evolve into American-friendly democracies.

That did not happen because planners failed to take into account elements such as weak institutions, corruption and unfamiliarity with democracy itself.

SEATO failed and was dissolved in 1977 while, to the surprise of many, ASEAN strengthened.

The binding thread of ASEAN is trade, which represents a unifying value above democracy, human rights and individual freedom which dominate Western political thinking. 

Its principles include the peaceful settlement of disputes, non-interference in members’ internal issues and consensus-based decision-making.

Paradoxically, it has been cooperation rather than enmity between the US and China that has allowed ASEAN to flourish, with a spectacular expansion of trade in the early 2000s.

In 2001, China was admitted to the World Trade Organisation and, a year later, Beijing signed a free trade agreement with ASEAN.  From this came the sophisticated network of supply chains that have raised living standards and currently underpin globalised trade, making a hot and cold war far less likely.

As China and America continue to vie for influence around the world, they need to keep in mind ASEAN’s formula for success. 

Many clusters of nations within the Global South mirror ASEAN elements, whereby challenges of day-to-day living supersede those of political doctrine. 

Amid these shifting balances of power, ASEAN’s way of doing things may well become a model for the future.