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It was supposed to be a landmark event. To celebrate its 40th anniversary this week, heads of state from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a charter that was intended to push the region toward more complete integration and more coherence. The final product — ASEAN’s new charter — falls considerably short of that ambitious design. Rather than demonstrating “one ASEAN at the heart of dynamic Asia,” the theme of this week’s summit, the summit exposed deep divisions at the heart of the organization.

ASEAN member states have a total population of about 500 million people, a combined gross domestic product of nearly $700 billion, and total trade of some $850 billion. It is a diverse group. Member states include sprawling archipelagoes (Indonesia and the Philippines) and tiny city-states (Singapore); the world’s fourth-largest country (Indonesia) and the 170th (Brunei); modern developed economies such as Singapore and agrarian backwaters like Laos. Their political and economic systems are equally heterogenous. The result has been a lowest common denominator decision-making style — the “ASEAN way” — whose lowest common denominator has been quite low.

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