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  • Mapping ASEAN's Futures
  • Donald K. Emmerson (bio)

The future of ASEAN is necessarily unknown. Its futures, however, can be guessed with less risk of being wrong. The purpose of this article is not to predict with confidence but to "pandict" with reticence—not to choose one assured future but to scan several that could conceivably occur. Also, what follows is merely a range of possible futures, not the range. The five different ASEANs of the future all too briefly sketched below are meant to be suggestive, but they are neither fully exclusive nor jointly exhaustive. Potentiality outruns imagination. The author's hope is that by doing the easy thing—opening a few doors on paper—he may tempt analysts more knowledgeable than himself to do the hard thing. That truly difficult challenge is to pick the one doorway through which ASEAN is most likely to walk or be pushed through—and to warrant that choice with the comprehensive evidence and thorough reasoning that, for lack of space and expertise, are not found here. That said, this "pandiction" does start with a prediction, and thereafter as well the line between speculation and expectation—the possible and the probable—will occasionally be crossed. In addition, by way of self-critique, the author's postulations may overestimate the importance of China in ASEAN's futures. [End Page 280]

Will ASEAN Disappear?

To the author's knowledge and recollection, none who witnessed ASEAN's creation in 1967 were optimistic enough to predict that it would live to celebrate its 50th birthday. Yet it did. By 2017, notwithstanding Philip Bowring's mock obituary,1 the safest thing to say about ASEAN was that it would, in some form or another, continue to exist. Presumably inferring its tenacity from its age, not even the critics of ASEAN were pessimistic enough to anticipate its literal demise; even Bowring pronounced it merely irrelevant.

One can, of course, imagine it being dissolved. The diplomats and staff go home. The secretariat at Jalan Sisingamangaraja No. 70A in Jakarta is remodelled into a shopping mall. Could this occur? Yes. But will it? Assuredly not in the near-to-medium term, and probably not in the moderately longer-run future. Why not? Because too many unlikely things would have to happen first.

One of the unlikeliest is an eruption of contagious violence between ASEAN states, abetted perhaps by outsiders, that grows deadly and destabilizing on a scale large enough to destroy the Association. Although the past need not be prologue, no Southeast Asian states have gone to war with each other while belonging to ASEAN. Without predicting another half-century of intramural peace, one must acknowledge the hitherto durable absence of omens of inter-member war—intramural tensions, spats and occasional incidents aside. Certainly the existence of ASEAN has contributed to that irenic record. How, why and to what extent is debatable; correlation is not causation. But that ASEAN has fostered peace is recognized and valued by the region's elites.

That understanding shrinks the chance of a deliberate dismantling of the group by its leaders. Why get rid of a pretty good thing? Two of ASEAN's most ardent Southeast Asian fans have even argued that it deserves a Nobel Peace Prize,2 and the case for such an accolade is at least stronger than the one that warranted the award's bestowal on President Barack Obama in December 2009. A cynic, of course, might attribute ASEAN's staying power less to its ability to preserve regional peace than to the opportunities it affords for its movers, shakers and speakers to jet around the region.

That said, one need not be a cynic to fault ASEAN for being an under-achiever bound by its "ASEAN Way" to honour consensus over consequence, process over product. One can counter that critique by noting that ASEAN was not authored to be, nor has it become, an intrusively supranational body. But that defence comes close to [End Page 281] implying a predetermined future and a corresponding dismissal: ASEAN will never become more than the sum of its sovereign parts, so why bother imagining otherwise?

The ASEAN Way does deserve credit. On the Association's...


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