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April 11, 2021

Celebrating ASEAN’s Golden Anniversary

On the auspicious occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) celebrated on August 8, a legitimate interest for regional diplomacy  is  generated by a  new book entitled  “The Asean Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace”, by Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffrey Sng published by  the National University of Singapore Press.
Kishore  Mahbubani is a former ambassador of Singapore to the United Nations and currently is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in his country, while  Jeffery Sng is a writer and former diplomat based in Bangkok.

In 286 pages the two authors do their best to convince the readers on all continents that ASEAN is a miracle. In their view, in  an era of growing cultural pessimism, there is a pervasive belief that different civilizations cannot function together. Yet, the ten members of ASEAN  offer a persuasive example of peaceful and productive coexistence, as more than 630 million people , representing 9 per cent of the world’s population, live together in peace in the area covered  by this  regional institution.

The  book explains in detail how in 1967 leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand struck a landmark agreement by signing on August 8 the Bangkok Declaration which is in fact the birth certificate of  ASEAN.

In this respect it is specifically recognized in the book  that Thai leaders have  often given ASEAN development a significant boost. “ASEAN was born under the tutelage of Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman … The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) concept was launched by another Thai Prime Minister  and elder statesman, Anand Panyarachun.Thai leadership has influenced ASEAN’s development positively…”, remind the authors.

Thai leaders  had  the merit of realizing   that enlarged  political and economic cooperation would bring greater stability and prosperity to the region.

After fifty years and  with five additional countries  becoming members of ASEAN (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei Darussalam and Myanmar), this alliance represents now  “one of the world’s most successful collaborations” ,in spite of the fact that at the global level  it is still underappreciated as a regional organization.

In the political and diplomatic sphere ASEAN  created “conducive environments for the great powers to talk to each other’—an ‘ecosystem of peace’ that moderates ‘aggressive impulses.”


Is ASEAN  a success story ?


Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, has no doubts about it. According to him, “It is hard to overstate ASEAN’s contributions to peace, prosperity and transnational cooperation across South- East Asia. Its positive impact is felt by millions of peoples in what has traditionally been one of the more complex and divided regions of the world.”

It is obvious that ASEAN has successfully maintained regional peace and security for half a century. This achievement is fundamental. Therefore, we can join Anand Panyarachun, mentioned above, former prime minister of Thailand, who noted that the two authors of the book under review “have done the world a huge favor in documenting this success story and in making concrete proposals to strengthen   ASEAN further. This is a must-read for all who have interest in ASEAN affairs.”

It is also appropriate to remind the opinion about this book expressed by Pascal Lamy, former director-general of the World Trade Organization , who draws the attention of the readers to the fact that this volume on ASEAN is so timely, as  it “describes how a third world region has emerged as a dynamic economic powerhouse, thanks to open trade and economic integration. ASEAN, on track to become the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2050, can serve as a model…. This book is a must-read for policy-makers all around the world.”

Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffrey Sng demonstrate in their book that ASEAN’s  achievements are nothing less than spectacular. If this organization  “can keep up its current momentum, there is no limit. The higher it soars, the brighter it will become as a beacon for humanity”.


A dynamic diplomatic partner


To reach such a high ideal, ASEAN must strive to maintain, enhance and galvanize its credibility by using the complex channels and practices of multilateral diplomacy to cope with increasing regional and global challenges. It has to demonstrate that it can function as a dynamic  partner and competitor in the world arena.

Indeed , the  ten ASEAN member states are bound by geography, common objectives and shared destiny. As a group, the first purpose of ASEAN as stated in its Charter (2008) is to maintain and enhance peace, security and stability  and further strengthen peace-oriented values in the region.
While not a constitution, the  ASEAN Charter (55 articles) is contributing to  making  ASEAN  a more  credible and effective regional organization, with  stronger legal foundations.

Credibility demands visibility and predictability. It also requires coherence and consistency in all fields of action. In 2017 it is vital  for ASEAN to illustrate its diplomatic maturity through convincing facts.

ASEAN’s credibility, visibility, centrality and effectiveness can be improved. The resistance to change can be overcome. As emphasized by  former ASEAN Secretary- General Surin Pitsuwan, the commitment of all ASEAN members to transform their organization into a people-oriented New ASEAN is genuine.

ASEAN needs assistance from civil society in this transformation. Popular support can further strengthen the political will to make ASEAN a truly successful institution. That requires energetic efforts for the enhancement of ASEAN’s role in world affairs. It can become a dynamic diplomatic partner, able to bring a valuable contribution to the solution of major regional and global problems.


Imagining the future


Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffrey Sng  advance three major recommendations for the future of ASEAN.The first is considered to be  the most obvious one. If ASEAN is going to survive and succeed over the long term, ownership of the organization must shift from the governments to the people. Governments come and go. People do not.

The second  recommendation is equally evident: to change the current stunted and severely limited secretariat into a vibrant institution that will serve ASEAN well.

The third recommendation is in fact a genuinely  bold initiative: to promote ASEAN as a new beacon for humanity. In authors’ view, our world will never become a melting pot. With the current resurgence of different Asian civilizations, the need is to handle a world of greater, not less, diversity. This is why ASEAN, the only truly multi-civilizational regional organization in the world, can serve as an alternative beacon of hope.

ASEAN  is able to provide a valuable model for how  different civilizations can live and work together in close proximity. No other region can act as a living laboratory of cultural diversity, so the whole world has a stake in the success of ASEAN. Therefore, the authors believe that “Every day and every year ASEAN succeeds provides a valuable beacon of hope”.

Evaluated from this  perspective, ASEAN  achievements  determine the authors to  advance the proposal of  awarding this regional  institution  the Nobel Peace Prize.

According to the two authors , the Nobel Prize would attract  global attention to a beacon of hope emerging on the world stage and would send a positive message to the Western countries  that Islamic and non-Islamic civilizations can live together in peace.

If ASEAN can find the right leaders to drive it forward in the 21st century, the strengths it has developed can propel it forward at an even faster pace, assert the authors.

ASEAN member states may contribute to this process by shaping with the European Union  a robust intercontinental partnership capable of giving new functional dimensions to the present world order. European and Asian countries are able to conduct complex negotiations leading to  win-win situations.

As  emphasized by Glyn T. Davies , US Ambassador to Thailand, in a 2017 interview, “We support ASEAN because we believe that, as the regional grouping grows and becomes stronger economically and strategically, this in turn helps ASEAN member-states to grow and to become stronger economically as well as politically. We hope that the voice of ASEAN will be listened to more by countries around the world. If you look at Asia today, ASEAN is probably the multilateral grouping with the most positive track record and this has been true for decades”. 

ASEAN’s  50th anniversary offers invigorating political energy and convincing evidence of its undisputable maturity.

Promoting closer cooperation between ASEAN, the EU and other regional organizations will be a valuable contribution to restoring faith in the multilateral system which  is now underestimated by many countries.

In a special  commemorative resolution adopted by consensus on July 19, 2017, the United Nations General Assembly, acting   on behalf of its 193 members, recognized ASEAN’s role as a regional organization that promotes multilateralism and regional peace, stability and prosperity, including through the regional architecture led by ASEAN  and emphasized the importance of the centrality and unity of ASEAN in further strengthening the regional security architecture.

The General Assembly also recognized the role of ASEAN in advancing political-security cooperation, sustainable economic growth and socio-cultural development in South-East Asia.

This  positive  collective assessment formulated by the world organization about ASEAN is a political and diplomatic testimony conducive to the conclusion  that this regional institution  will  be able  in the years to come to fulfill its historic mission and will enjoy a universally recognizable  identity.


Dr. Ioan Voicu is  Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok

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