The Association of South-East Asian Nations, or Asean, marked its 50th anniversary yesterday – a milestone of which readers of The National will be aware after the paper published an essay charting the history of what it rightly called "the region's most important group of nations". With a population of 625 million, Asean collectively constitutes the world's third largest workforce. It is expected to be the world's fourth largest economy by as early as 2030, by some estimates. It is at the core of the current and emerging economic and political architecture in the Asia Pacific. In short, Asean matters.
Journals throughout Asean covered the half century as well, but a sense of celebration, or of this day being imbued with special meaning, was hard to discern – in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur at least (in Manila, where the Philippines had just chaired a meeting of Asean foreign ministers, the festivities may have been more obvious).
If that suggests that the association has yet to form a bond with its 625 million people sufficient to make them think that it has a significant and tangible impact on their daily lives, the flip side of that seeming failure is also a sign of its success. Asean has made huge strides, such as going a very long way towards eliminating tariff barriers within the group, which really does make a difference to businesses and consumers. But it has never intruded into the lives of its citizens to the point that Asean-awareness risks becoming a reaction against membership, as it has in many European Union countries.
Asean has often been criticised for moving too slowly. But that steady pace, founded on the necessity for consensus between all member states, has built sure foundations. Results have taken time, but they have been achieved, nevertheless. Myanmar’s transition to democracy, for instance, took place long after it joined the grouping in 1997; but Asean takes the credit for having brought an isolated regime in from the cold. It may not, like the Vatican, think in centuries; but it is prepared to do so in decades.
The much more widely admired EU, on the other hand, whose unelected commission is always in far too much of a rush, is wracked with tensions between the original core countries and both the increasingly conservative eastern members and the southern ones that its great project, the Eurozone, has cruelly impoverished. Which, this year, has been the happier birthday, the EU’s 60th or Asean’s 50th?
Even if one answers "Asean" to that question, the slightly lacklustre nature of the birthday party remains noticeable. The explanation for that lies in the mass of ultimately successful contradictions that make up the 10-nation association. One positive aspect of that is described by Amitav Acharya in Asean Future Foreword, a forthcoming collection of essays to be published by ISIS Malaysia (the think tank for which I work).
“While none of its members are great powers,” writes Prof Acharya, “it has attracted the deference and engagement of all the great powers of the contemporary international system. It is a very rare example in the history of international relations in which the strong are ruled (normatively speaking) by the weak.”
A slightly less flattering description comes in another essay, which quotes Singapore’s Bilahari Kausikan arguing that “in the context of managing great power interests, Asean ‘works best when it doesn’t work too well’. It can set regional norms, provide useful forums, but not change or frustrate their vital interests. Rather than impose or enforce solutions, it is restricted to making them more likely.”
That appears to set out only a modest stall for Asean. But that kind of conclusion, and much of the criticism of Asean, rests on a false assumption: that Asean should aim to become an effective superpower, a “United States of Southeast Asia”, as it were.
More from Sholto Byrnes:
When no country in the group would ever dream of giving up any sovereignty, it should be clear that Asean's ambitions have always been of a different order. It is not a body that is about enforcing its will on others, or on internal members. It is about cooperation for the benefit of all, in a remarkably fluid way which still allows individual members to have strikingly different relations with China and the US. The Asean "centrality", which is so prized, is not a fixed point or ideology. Rather, it is a "moveable fulcrum adjusting adroitly as needed", as professor Paul Evans neatly puts it in Asean Future Forward.
If much of Asean’s success is measured by the wrong yardstick, and thus frequently underrated, its greatest success is often overlooked because it is an absence – of war. That is something to be prized in the “Balkans of Asia”, a region with an extraordinary and combustible mix of faiths and ethnicities, a long history of conflict and where a peace agreement was not signed in Cambodia until 1991.
That Asean has managed to build “an ecosystem of peace and prosperity”, as Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi wrote earlier this week, is no mean result. Yes, it is slow to act; it lacks a common foreign and defence policy, which some feel it needs as China becomes ever more dominant, and there is certainly no one person to phone when Mr Kissinger wants to call Asean.
But nor should there be. The compromise and consensus that characterise “the Asean way” have served the group well and suit the region. Birthday cheers are deserved for Asean, which should be applauded for successfully charting its own course rather than chastised for not following another example it never wanted to emulate in the first place.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia