The Association of Southeast Asian Nations celebrated its 50th anniversary in a ceremony earlier this month in Manila. The regional group has contributed to furthering peace and stability and laying the foundation for prosperity in Southeast Asia. But as it moves forward, it faces various problems both within the region and in its relations with other countries. ASEAN members need to make further efforts to overcome these problems as a step toward firmly achieving its grand goals — peace and stability, economic integration, social-cultural cooperation, political cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, as its leaders mentioned in their anniversary declaration.
ASEAN was launched on Aug. 8, 1967, by the original five members — the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore — in the midst of the Cold War. In its early stage, there was a strong sense that it was an anti-communism league, but after the end of the Cold War countries with socialist systems like Vietnam and Laos joined. In 1999, its membership expanded to the current 10 with the participation of Cambodia.
ASEAN has pushed cooperation among its member countries by respecting their sovereignty with the principles of “nonintervention in the domestic affairs of another nation” and unanimity in making decisions. It has evolved into a multilateral alliance with a combined population of 640 million people and focuses on cooperation in the economic and security fields.
Since the end of the Cold War, ASEAN has sought to strengthen cooperation with countries outside the region. It has enlarged its framework to include the ASEAN Plus Three (Japan, China and South Korea); the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which includes the United States, China, Russia, the European Union, Japan and both North and South Korea among the participants; and the East Asia Summit, comprising ASEAN members and eight partners including the U.S., China, Russia and Japan. ARF is one of the few multilateral frameworks in which North Korea is a member. But one day before ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, the forum issued a chairman’s statement that expressed “grave concern” over North Korea’s test-firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons tests.
Despite such efforts, ASEAN faces an increasingly tough international environment, especially as China bids for a larger influence in the region. China’s aggressive maritime behavior in pursuit of effective control of the South China Sea has divided ASEAN members. Since the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July 2016 rejected China’s claim of historical rights over most of the South China Sea, Beijing has made strenuous efforts to bring some ASEAN countries to its side, mainly on the strength of growing economic ties. The Philippines, which brought the case to the PCA, now belongs to a camp within ASEAN eager to seek economic cooperation from China, as opposed to states that face a clash of interests with Beijing over the South China Sea, such as Vietnam.
Both the ARF and the ASEAN foreign ministers welcomed the adoption of the framework of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which they said “will facilitate the work for the conclusion of an effective COC” with China. But the framework fails to make clear whether an eventual COC will have binding power, as some ASEAN members have sought, leaving its effectiveness unclear. ASEAN members’ relations with China get all the more complicated since the influence of the United States in the region — which has served as a counterweight against China — appears to be waning under the Trump administration.
Economic gaps among ASEAN members remain steep. Singapore’s per capita gross national income is about 50 times more than that of Myanmar and Cambodia. In their anniversary declaration, the ASEAN leaders said they “will continue our initiative to provide greater opportunities for our peoples and to narrow the development gaps in ASEAN.” They will need greater efforts to realize that goal.
Recent developments point to the limit of what ASEAN can do to cope effectively with human rights problems and moves against democracy among its members. The Philippines has come under international fire for its high-handed crackdown on drug offenses, while Thailand remains under a military-led regime since a 2014 coup. Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who also serves as foreign minister, failed to show up for the group’s foreign ministers’ meeting this time, apparently for fear of criticism over persecution of the Rohingya people, who are Muslims, in her country. ASEAN has not been able to take concrete actions to help resolve these problems.
Japan has had close diplomatic and economic relations with ASEAN countries. More than 11,000 Japanese-affiliated businesses operate in the region. The nation should also think how it can help ASEAN promote democratization and human rights among its members.