- Roundtable:ASEAN at Fifty and Beyond
ASEAN, regionalism, Southeast Asia, centrality, Great Power politics
One of the most recognizable and durable regional intergovernmental organizations in the world, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will commemorate its golden jubilee on 8 August 2017, fifty years after the signing of the ASEAN Declaration in Bangkok by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. The "ASEAN-5" were later joined by Brunei on 7 January 1984, Vietnam on 28 July 1995, Laos and Myanmar on 23 July 1997 and Cambodia on 30 April 1999, comprising what is today the ten member states of ASEAN.
To mark the 50th anniversary of ASEAN's establishment, the editors of Contemporary Southeast Asia invited eight senior policy practitioners and academics to chart the organization's evolution, assess its successes and failures and contemplate its future development.
In the first article, Marty Natalegawa highlights the "transformative" contributions ASEAN has made to regional dynamics, especially its key roles in building strategic trust among the countries of Southeast Asia, insulating the region from Great Power politics and promoting a people-centred outlook. In the second article, Tang Siew Mun also examines the transformative effects ASEAN has wrought on regional politics, but questions whether the organization's founding principles and practices are sufficient to meet the current and future geoeconomic and geopolitical challenges facing Southeast Asia.
In the third article, Walter Woon appraises the ASEAN Charter a decade after it came into effect. As Woon notes, the purpose of the Charter was to provide ASEAN with a legal personality, put the organization on a proper institutional footing and ensure that the member states followed through on their obligations. The Charter remains a work in progress, and as ASEAN evolves so too will its Charter, but slowly and cautiously. [End Page 229]
The fourth article, by John Ciorciari, focuses on how ASEAN has shaped regional interactions with the Great Powers since the mid-1960s. Ciorciari argues that while Great Power politics had the effect of spurring ASEAN unity in its first few decades, those same geopolitical forces now make that unity increasingly difficult to achieve.
The fifth and sixth articles examine the three ASEAN-led forums devoted to the management of regional security. See Seng Tan looks at the establishment and evolution of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). He traces their contributions to managing regional security problems and fostering cooperation, but contends that over the past few years they have become "arenas for Great Power sparring" and that this may limit their effectiveness in the future. Nick Bisley's article on the East Asia Summit (EAS) follows a similar theme as Tan's piece. Bisley reviews the EAS' rationales and its progression over the past twelve years, but argues that its potential could also be frustrated by "Asia's increasingly contested regional order".
In the seventh article, Amitav Acharya explodes the myths and clarifies the misconceptions associated with the concept of ASEAN "centrality". Acharya describes the notion of centrality as "ambitious, ambiguous and impractical" and identifies four challenges to it: diminishing intra-ASEAN cohesion; the unravelling of ASEAN neutrality; the emergence of a China-centric regional order; and the decline of the US-led international order under President Donald Trump.
In the final article, Donald Emmerson considers what the next few decades might hold for ASEAN by sketching five possible alternative futures: ASEAN as a convenor; an association focused on economic issues only; an adjunct of China; a grouping of maritime states; or a centralized union.
As much as the authors have been critical of ASEAN, they have also highlighted the positive contributions the organization has made to regional peace, stability and prosperity. ASEAN may have its share of imperfections and contradictions, but its enduring existence for the past fifty years demonstrates that ASEAN has done something right, and illustrates its continued relevance as the one and only regional organization of choice for the countries in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, as all our authors argue, ASEAN's future will critically depend on the adroit political and diplomatic skills of its member states in maintaining...