32nd Asean Summit

Success or failure: two experts debate the impact of Asean

Ahead of next week's 32nd Asean Summit, we asked two passionate voices from either side of the divide to argue the case for and against the Asean bloc being considered a success

April 18, 2018
Success or failure: two experts debate the impact of Asean
Representatives of all ten Asean member states, plus Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre), at the Asean-Australia Special Summit last month Photo: David Gray / Reuters


Amrita V. Nair is a research associate at the National University of Singapore. She provided primary and secondary research for the book The Asean Miracle and has previously worked at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

In the five decades since its founding in 1967, Asean has played an instrumental role in bringing peace, stability and prosperity to an erstwhile strife-ridden region. Through the ‘Asean Way’, based on “compromise, consensus and consultation”, its members have cultivated respect for the very differences that once threatened to tear them apart.

This ‘way’ has enabled the organisation to make extraordinary geopolitical achievements. Formed as a response to the ‘Red Tide’ that threatened to sweep Southeast Asia, Asean today embraces two communist countries – Vietnam and Laos – in its fold. Under Asean’s stewardship, Myanmar has transitioned from a military dictatorship with a flailing statecontrolled economy into a “hybrid regime” and popular investment destination.

Asean’s collective bargaining power allows individual members to punch above their weight in geopolitical fora. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described Asean as a “lifeboat for all ten countries in Southeast Asia to come together, to work together, to have our voice heard on the world stage…”

In our uncertain geopolitical climate, Asean serves as a vital platform for Great Power engagement. The Asean Regional Forum is a neutral and conciliatory setting for disputing nations to meet without losing face. It is also the only multilateral platform that includes North Korea.

Stability in the region and increased geopolitical influence have also yielded greater prosperity for the member states. Asean’s collective GDP of $2.56 trillion makes it the 6th-largest economy in the world. It is expected that by 2050 Asean will have the 4th-largest economy in the world. Total merchandise trade grew from $10 billion in 1967 to $2.2 trillion in 2016. Asean’s collective economic clout has attracted other major economies to form free trade agreements with the region. Meanwhile, cautious execution of economic integration through the Asean Economic Community has drastically reduced trade barriers without subjecting less-developed member states to sudden shocks.

Singapore’s third and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Singapore is the 2018 chair of Asean Photo: Dan Himbrechts / EPA-EFE

Economic growth has also led to a corresponding improvement in living standards. GDP per capita increased by 3.5 times from $1,135 in 1999 – when Cambodia, the tenth and final member joined – to $4,021 in 2016. Poverty in Asean fell from 47% in 1990 to 14% in 2015 – far surpassing the region’s Millennium Development Goals target.

Asean’s future looks bright as its booming middle class is projected to reach a population of 500 million in 2030. The region is poised to reap rich demographic dividends as 68% of its population is expected to be of age by 2025. Unlike many other parts of the world, young people in Asean are optimistic about their future. A 2017 World Economic Forum survey of 24,000 Asean youths found that 69% of them expect to have better lives than their parents, while 64% said that their own career prospects were improved by being part of Asean.

While challenges (spillover effects of US-China tensions, Rohingya issue) and shortcomings (lack of enforcement compliance, an underfunded Secretariat) remain, Asean’s many achievements deserve acclaim. Asean may never be a poster child for big bang changes or dramatic gestures. But as Mahbubani and Sng argue in The Asean Miracle, Asean is like a crab – seemingly slow and haphazard, but making steady, determined progress just the same.


Miguel Chanco is an analyst focusing on Asean in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Asia Country Analysis team. He holds a master’s in international political economy from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. 

‘Asean bashing’ is an easy sport, and one that many commentators – including yours truly – are more than happy to play each time a major problem in a member state is met with silence from the bloc. The usual talking points include the weakness of the underresourced Secretariat and how the region’s operating principles – the so-called ‘Asean Way’ – are too rigid to address the issues of the day. Even Asean’s reputation as a talk shop that could bring major rivals into the same room is in question.

These lines of criticism are still valid, but to more fairly assess how the 50-year-old institution is faring in modern times one can try to find any signs of a willingness to adapt in the face of new challenges. Unfortunately, even by this more generous standard, it is hard to make a case that Asean has seen recent success. Take a look at the past 12 months alone: the old adage of never letting a crisis go to waste simply had no resonance in what was a crisis-filled year.

I can already see the chorus of tweets flooding my feed, arguing that Asean is not even in the business of promoting democracy

For the first time since the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) started assessing the state of democracy in the world more than a decade ago, no Asean member state registered an improvement in 2017. Instead, conditions for democracy and the rule of law deteriorated, as if in unison, in an unprecedented seven member states. Of the seven countries in Asia the EIU classifies as an ‘authoritarian’ regime, four can now be found in Southeast Asia.

Apart from the occasional expression of concern and call to ensure stability, the bloc largely stood by as the political opposition and critical media outlets were silenced in Cambodia; as thousands were killed extrajudicially in the Philippines’ war on drugs; and as close to 700,000 ethnic Rohingya were forcibly displaced from their homes in Myanmar. Last year, at least two dozen individuals were convicted for advocating for democracy in Vietnam, while an ethnic minority Chinese-Christian candidate was effectively barred from Jakarta’s top post in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

I can already see the chorus of tweets flooding my feed, arguing that Asean is not even in the business of promoting democracy. They would be right – to the extent that this clearly has not been on the bloc’s to-do list in recent years. They would be wrong, however, to suggest that I have set an unfair bar for a regional grouping that is married to the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs.

The goal of establishing the Asean Political- Security Community (APSC), one of the two unloved siblings of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), promised to the people of the region a “just, democratic and harmonious environment”. It is normally easier to gauge how much the AEC has moved forward given the quantifiable nature of regional economic integration. The same isn’t true of the APSC, but history will surely remember the year gone by as more failure than success.

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