ASEAN at 50: Slow but steady development
ASEAN turns 50 – and it has seen a slow but steady development. This is most noticeable in the economic field. Any regional economic cooperation is based on a sound economic argument: a larger market means more competition which lowers costs and delivers more prosperity. ASEAN has indeed seen an expansion of trade and a deepening of economic cooperation, culminating by the formal start of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of 2015.
Prosperity around the region has risen fast in the last 50 years. The success of ASEAN founders like Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand has inspired the others. More and more countries have moved away from communist and socialist economic policies, and instead opted for market-driven policies. Myanmar, long one of the most isolated economies, has opened up, and ASEAN has played a key role in that. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have moved decisively away from communist systems and especially Vietnam is now a hot destination for investment. Again, ASEAN has helped quietly in this.
But there is also an important political rationale to it. Neighboring countries often have rivalries, enmities and territorial claims that sometimes go back centuries, and Southeast Asia is no exception. The ancient Cambodian, Siamese, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Laotian kingdoms have a history of warfare between them. There have been more recent tensions of one form or another between Singapore and Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia, to name just a few. Regional cooperation can dampen such conflicts, allow countries to put them in suspended animation, so to speak, and make them less virulent while building more trust and joint interests.
Given the many flashpoints that are there in ASEAN, the last 50 years have seen a remarkable period of peaceful cooperation between its members, and when conflicts erupted they were contained and did not escalate. When ASEAN gradually extended its membership, it helped simultaneously to extend a spirit of peaceful cooperation.
Many people are frustrated that ASEAN is moving slowly and is not yet in a position where it can speak with a unified political voice on the international scene. However, that is also the most difficult level, and this should not obscure the fact that ASEAN has delivered 50 years of economic development and peaceful cooperation to its members.
For that, it deserves a heartfelt “Happy Birthday, with many more birthdays to come!”