Will ASEAN continue as a key player in 2030?

Will ASEAN continue as a key player in 2030?

By Amitav Acharya

What will the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) look like in the year 2030? As a durable and successful regional grouping in the developing world, ASEAN is a force for stability and cooperation in Asia. But can we take its longevity and success for granted?

ASEAN’s irrelevance or even death has been predicted several times before. At its birth in 1967, few people thought it would live to see another decade, given that the two previous attempts at regional cooperation in Southeast Asia — the Association of Southeast Asia and the MAPHILINDO (Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia) concept — ended within a few years after their creation.

The Malaysia-Philippines dispute over Sabah in 1969, the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Indochina in 1975, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, the end of the Cold War in 1991, and the outbreak of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, have all been seen as critical blows to ASEAN.

But ASEAN not only survived, it actually grew a bit stronger each time. So there is precedent, and hope, that ASEAN will be around in 2030.

But surviving is not the same as thriving. In 2030, ASEAN might keep plodding on, but will it be a key player in regional peace, stability and prosperity in Asia — a role that it currently enjoys? Here, the question becomes more difficult to answer.

The answer depends on three key questions. First, what will ASEAN’s relations be with the great powers? ASEAN’s biggest fear is that it will be swept aside by the rise of its two most powerful immediate neighbors — China and India — and the resulting tide of great power competition will draw in the US and Japan as well.

ASEAN emerged at a time when India and China had just fought a war with each other and faced major domestic challenges, including Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. Japan in the late 1960s and 70s was still in a recovery mode, politically if not economically. The field was thus open for ASEAN to anchor regional cooperation.

How different the situation is today! China and India are racing to join Japan and the US in the great power club, and seeking their rightful place at the top of world affairs. Japan, though stagnant economically, is reorienting itself — as a “normal state” — to an active political and military role in Asia.

Some things remain unchanged though. China, Japan and India do cancel each other out due to their mutual mistrust. All three and the US want ASEAN to accept its leadership in Asian regional cooperation.

Some imagine a concert of powers developing in Asia, wherein China, Japan, India and the US jointly manage regional security issues. This would marginalize ASEAN. As the saying in Southeast Asia goes, the grass suffers not only when the elephants fight, but also when they make love. But an Asian concert of powers would require the powers to overcome differences which are neither temporary nor trivial.

A second question about ASEAN’s future is what the state of intra-ASEAN relations will be. The ongoing skirmishes on the Thai-Cambodian border do not inspire confidence. Simmering rivalries and mistrust continue to cloud relationships between Singapore and Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar, and Malaysia and Thailand.

But this is a far cry from the 1960s and 1970s, and there is every reason to hope that these intra-ASEAN conflicts will not doom the organization. They would need, however, to be managed carefully, especially with the help of existing and new mechanisms that ASEAN is currently seeking to develop.

The third question is perhaps the most important. What will the domestic political configurations of ASEAN countries look like? Will ASEAN countries become more open and democratic? Indonesia has surely taken a major leap towards democracy.

But there has been a major setback in Thailand and continuing frustration with Myanmar. Domestic succession in many ASEAN countries remains uncertain and even volatile. Domestic turbulence can spill over borders and limit ASEAN members’ ability to contribute to the regional public good. As a regional group, ASEAN cannot shape the domestic politics of its members, but a collective commitment to participatory democracy and regionalism helps.

The idea of a People’s ASEAN has thus far only meant fostering cultural exchanges and cooperation, not promoting or defending democracy (although Indonesia’s efforts through the Bali Democracy Forum are praiseworthy). ASEAN has made a tentative commitment to human rights, but this remains constrained by the resilience of the non-interference norm.

One could imagine ASEAN in 2030 either as the wise counselor of Asia, or the marginalized relic of the past. Approaching its mid-1960s, it could still be at its peak, functioning as a steady and calming influence on the rising upstarts of Asia: India and China. Or it might have lost its bearings, amidst the confusion of profound changes in the regional economic and military balance of power.

To avoid the latter, ASEAN’s current leaders must stay united, strengthen mechanisms for cooperation, steadfastly maintain its neutral broker image among the great powers and be attentive to their people’s voices. By doing so, they will have a good chance of retaining ASEAN’s driver’s seat in Asian regional cooperation.

This essay was first published in The Jakarta Post.