Asean at 50: An indispensable partner in Asia

Major shifts under way between the US and China and at global level project Asean more on to the world stage

Central to the recent Asian diplomacy on the North Korea crisis has been the regional forum organised in Manila by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, the organisation has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, during which time it has enlarged to take in Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Dedicated to peace, prosperity and co-operation, Asean members have a population of 625 million people and collectively represent the world's sixth largest economic region.

Asean was formed mostly by newly independent states determined to protect their sovereignty and prevent formerly imperial or outside powers perpetuating conflicts in the region. It relied on personal diplomacy among charismatic but authoritarian leaders, with little resort to international bureaucracy or institutions. Their informal networking methods created growing goodwill among these states over Asean’s first decades, and they now have a very large agenda ranging from economics to international diplomacy, including climate change, migration, health, maritime issues and transport.

Asean faces major challenges in implementing this agenda. Its commitment to create an economic community will require greater resources and more streamlined decision-making. These are worth tackling to guarantee that the region's remarkable dynamism and growing prosperity continue unabated. Security issues include the growing tension in the South China Sea, where China is building up a presence on disputed islands straddling the world's largest trade route. Finding a way to manage that tension as several states look to the United States for protection will take skill and patience. Asean remains predominantly the creation of political elites. Finding a basis in popular community involvement and regional identity will require more emphasis on people-to-people contacts in social, cultural and educational affairs. Several religious and cultural civilisations coincide and coexist there, creating many opportunities for intercultural contacts the rest of the world can learn from.

These are largely problems of comparative success and growth. In the wider affairs of east and South Asia and the Pacific, Asean has proved to be an indispensable partner for regional security dialogue, creating multilateral opportunities to resolve conflicts where bilateral contacts are much more difficult. The major shifts under way between the US and China and at global level involving other regional centres of power project Asean more on to the world stage. It has learned to adapt lessons drawn from Europe's experience of integration. Both regions now have a real interest and motive to forge closer links in responding to these geopolitical changes.