ASEAN at 40: Mid-Life Rejuvenation?

Courtesy Reuters

The current state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) evokes both pessimism and hope. Skeptics see the organization -- founded in Bangkok on August 8, 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore -- as increasingly irrelevant in the post-Cold War milieu and unable to confront the new enemies of a globalized world: currency speculators, pandemic viruses, and shadowy terrorist groups. To its harshest critics, ASEAN is little more than a quarrelsome bunch of peripheral nations too beholden to a nineteenth century view of national sovereignty to effectively cooperate and build a regional identity.

Yet ASEAN has been one of the most durable examples of regional multilateralism, one that commands attention and respect from regional organizations in other parts of the developing world. It acts as the hub, if not the leader, of regional multilateral forums for East Asia. The fact that the region's most powerful players -- including China, India, and the United States -- show deference to ASEAN by participating in these forums demonstrates that ASEAN still matters.

ASEAN's positive image was built around four areas of accomplishment in its first three decades. First, it was able to survive as Asia's only multipurpose regional organization after China and India failed in their attempts at regional institution building. Second, since 1967 no ASEAN member has engaged a fellow ASEAN member in major armed confrontation, in spite of occasional border skirmishes (notably between Thailand and Myanmar in 2001) and bilateral territorial disputes and political tensions (particularly between Singapore and Malaysia). Third, ASEAN was instrumental in bringing the decade-long Vietnamese-Cambodian conflict to the negotiating table in 1989 and in reaching a peace agreement in 1991. Vietnam, then seen as an obstacle to regional stability, is now a valued member of the organization. Finally, as the Cold War ended, it was ASEAN which provided the platform for building broader regional institutions that would engage a rising China and other major players in East Asia. Without ASEAN's neutral facilitating role, China might not have joined the ASEAN

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