The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was originally established during the Cold War as a coalition of several non-Communist nations of Southeast Asia, hoping to achieve some regional stability and favours from the West, given the security challenges stemming from regional rivals like China.
Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand were the founding members of the ASEAN. Later, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Brunei also joined the regional trading bloc.
While ASEAN is not as closely knit as the European Union, it intends to serve as a platform that enables greater integration among different Southeast Asian states, and allows them to stand up against powerful countries like the United States and China.
The ASEAN region is also geopolitically significant. Countries in the region boast a young, educated, and skilled population, spectacular surroundings, abundant wildlife, crucial maritime routes, ports and unlimited potential.
The region's GDP was measured at $3.35 trillion in 2021 (Source: Statista), making it the world's fifth-largest economy. The region's massive post-WWII growth can be largely attributable to foreign investment, especially in manufacturing, services, and infrastructure.
Nonetheless, despite 55 years of ASEAN's establishment, it could not become a regional game-changer, despite having potential.
Firstly, ASEAN's main issue is its adherence to the concept of "Non-Interference" (Reuters, Oct 21, 2021). Every founding member agreed that they would operate on the principle of non-interference, which stipulates that members would not interfere in the internal affairs of another member state.
The principle of non-interference was established because, at the time of the organisation's inception, the political aristocracy of founding members, from Marcos in the Philippines to Suharto in Indonesia, were either striving to or was in the process of solidifying authority to establish authoritarian regimes. Their ruling class understood the significance of such an idea to avoid further instability in their country from external pressures and internal conflict.
This idea, however, implies that governments are allowed to revert to authoritarianism and oppressive practices wherever they think appropriate, without concern for international ramifications.
The recent Rohingya crisis and the Cambodian-Vietnamese conflict are two examples of internal disputes that the organisation has already experienced. In addition, they had failed to halt (even backed) Pol Pot, as well as the Cambodian genocide. They even rebuked the Vietnamese for halting the madness. As a result of these disputes, the organisation's conflict resolution mechanisms as well as its capacity to maintain regional stability is deemed incommensurate.
Another point is the failure to spread ASEAN into other parts of Asia. East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all are close neighbours of Southeast Asia, and may benefit from becoming members of ASEAN, yet they aren't considered to be part of Southeast Asia.
For instance, Bangladesh has become a new Asian tiger and its strategic location serves as a gateway between Southeast and South Asia. The ASEAN countries could be benefited collectively or individually by engaging Bangladesh in their regional forum.
ASEAN has little influence geopolitically, in particular, because of the different political structures, bipolarity, foreign policy agendas, and economic systems. Consequently, it's become difficult for ASEAN to speak with one voice on important issues such as the disputes in the South China Sea and the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar.
While the ASEAN did draft a "Five Point Consensus" peace plan in Myanmar, it has failed to facilitate a peaceful end to violence in Myanmar.
Despite attempts to improve it, ASEAN does not have a properly integrated regional economy. Differences prevail among the bloc's wealthiest and poorest countries, and trade barriers persist among members.
Moreover, economic cooperation within ASEAN is neither exclusive nor inclusive enough to boost regional trade links. Its biggest business partners are not other ASEAN countries, but rather extra-regional powers like China, the United States, Japan, and South Korea.
It is challenging for ASEAN to reach an agreement that everyone agrees upon. This analogous organ's struggle to reliably make decisions has spurred the necessity for reform.
It is difficult to establish policies that benefit every ASEAN member since the association is made up of 10 countries with different financial and political structures, as well as, ideologies.
ASEAN's relevance is often influenced by outside factors such as the rise of China, the changing balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, and the growing influence of other multilateral organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
The ASEAN countries are highly dependent on either China or the United States for trade and national security (depending on the allegiance of each country). The United States has friends and allies in the region, including Thailand and the Philippines. While Cambodia, Laos is closest to China and is often accused of kowtowing to China.
Article 31 of the ASEAN Charter states, "The Chairmanship of the ASEAN shall rotate annually, based on the alphabetical order of the English names of Member States". This continuous change in leadership also makes it difficult to implement any policy or action on time.
Overall, the organisation has advanced in promoting regional integration and cooperation, yet it has a long road ahead to go to completely transform the region. Nonetheless, ASEAN can still have a substantial impact on shaping the future of the Asia-Pacific region with continuing efforts to encourage cooperation, resolve disputes, and expand its influence.
Sauid Ahmed Khan is a freelance contributor and a graduate of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Dhaka.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.