- Locating ASEAN in East Asia's Regional Order
Like other regions and the international order more broadly, East Asia is in flux. It benefits less than it used to from the U.S.-led liberal international order that was instituted in the immediate aftermath of World War II.1 Different conceptions, dynamics, and goals now dominate the regional order, posing direct consequences for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The power shifts and transitions inherent in these competing visions are singularly underpinned by China's rise and expansion into the East Asian geopolitical and geoeconomic space at a time when ASEAN itself—Southeast Asia's one and only regional organization—had just overcome five decades of trials and tribulations.
Notwithstanding occasional border conflicts and diplomatic disputes, ASEAN has successfully prevented the outbreak of war among its member states, some of which were once bitter rivals, and has maintained regional unity. Yet after celebrating its golden jubilee in 2017, ASEAN still faces a range of challenges, old and new. To address these issues, it will need to hold itself together amid intensifying global power shifts. Doing so will require the organization to engage with the major powers, while keeping them at bay, to preserve its centrality in the regional architecture as a broker of peace and prosperity. This is a tall order but not beyond reach in view of how far ASEAN has come.
This essay briefly traces the contours and dynamics of ASEAN from its early years to its emergence as Southeast Asia's premier regional organization after the Cold War. However, ASEAN has faced new headwinds in the 2010s as a result of China's inexorable rise and has become more divided. [End Page 52] Intraregional tension has revolved around two main issues: China's efforts to build and weaponize artificial islands in the South China Sea, and its diversion of water resources by building upriver dams in the Mekong region. Confronted with these challenges, ASEAN has no choice but to regroup and reassert a unified position in order to maintain regional autonomy and avoid major-power rivalry and domination in its neighborhood.
ASEAN's ripe middle age belies its early challenges. After previous attempts at forming a regional organization failed following decolonization, ASEAN emerged as Thailand played a peacemaker role to extinguish the conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia known as Konfrontasi. Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines realized that they needed a collective Southeast Asian voice to keep the major powers from undermining them, as well as to assist their own nation-building efforts. Along the way, they weathered the bipolar Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union and attendant local Communist insurgencies.
ASEAN did not encompass all ten Southeast Asian countries until after the Cold War in the 1990s. Building on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1989 and the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1992, expanded membership enabled the organization to become a hub for broader cooperation through the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN +3 (China, Japan, and South Korea), the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. ASEAN also crafted a charter that codified existing norms and envisaged a collective Southeast Asian community focused on shared political, security, economic, and sociocultural principles.
In economic terms, ASEAN's impact is growing. Over the past twenty years, intra-ASEAN trade has remained around 25%, while overall trade has become more enmeshed with partners outside the region.2 In the mainland economies, integration of the labor market has deepened, with several million migrants from Cambodia and Myanmar, for example, working in Thailand.3 Since 1995, Vietnam has become Thailand's [End Page 53] second-largest trade partner in the region, supplanting Singapore, and Thai FDI in nearby Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam has increased markedly. Infrastructure connectivity has enabled road travel from Myanmar to central Vietnam, across Thailand and Laos.
This is not to downplay ASEAN-wide cooperation among the maritime and mainland states. Southeast Asia, with a population of 635 million people and a total GDP of $2.6 trillion, has been the world's fastest...