The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

If ASEAN continues along the same path, it risks becoming irrelevant and obsolete.

August 8th marked the 56th anniversary of ASEAN. Although its journey over nearly six decades has seen mixed results, the future appears increasingly precarious for the organization, unless it opts to reorient its longstanding principles and beliefs.

Historically, Southeast Asia’s regional unity has been cemented by trade, economic correlations, and a shared longing for security assurances. ASEAN was conceived from a common dread of communism and external threats, and this core principle remains. However, the ability to collectively confront external threats from a point of joint deterrence and capacity has eroded. Compared to established systems like the EU, regional awareness and the spirit of community understanding in ASEAN are deficient.

ASEAN’s inability to foster new enthusiasm for enhancing intra-regional connectivity, appreciation among peoples, and openness in investment has stifled true capitalization on regional strength. Peer competition and lingering geopolitical distrust are constant obstacles.

Moreover, ASEAN has become ensnared by its own principles of policy-making and its stance of neutrality with external powers. Changes in regional and global security paradigms have rendered the conventional status quo increasingly irrelevant and prohibitive in ensuring that ASEAN remains secure and resilient.

The primary objective of ASEAN is to foster regional cohesion and appreciation for the people’s resonance within a framework of regional spirit and solidarity. This includes leveraging economic prosperity, stronger interpersonal ties, and the facilitation of knowledge and capital transfer. However, obstacles such as disparities in governance models, development, urban-rural gaps, literacy, and geographical differences remain hindrances to collective socio-economic progress.

ASEAN’s dependence on external economic support exposes the region’s challenges in investment and business. Competition for geostrategic interests, along with individual alliances and affiliations, reveal the inadequacy of sustaining tools in building ASEAN-centered capacity.

Despite being recognized as a region full of potential, the inability to break free from past dogmas has led to missed opportunities. ASEAN’s reliance on external powers and technological tools reveals a significant deficiency in both hard and soft power, leaving the region susceptible to external influences.

Recent incidents, such as militarization activities in the South China Sea, underscore ASEAN’s failing approach to managing tensions and conflicts. The organization’s inability to take a realistic stance in great power competition threatens its relevance, leading to individual defense agreements with the West.

ASEAN’s lingering Cold War mindset and attempts to hedge its bets through neutrality have become obsolete in the current security landscape. In a potential conflict, neutrality no longer assures safety from fallout, as geographical and economic linkages make it impossible to remain impartial.

China’s influence divides ASEAN and weakens its resolve, leading to one-sided economic dependence and fear of retaliation. If ASEAN continues along the same path, expecting different results, it risks being perceived as naive.

The future demands that ASEAN transform itself to adapt to stark realities. Without significant change, it risks undermining its own principles and aspirations for a stable region. ASEAN and its principles of neutrality have failed to produce any significant impact, and the time is ripe for a rigorous and transparent reassessment of its direction and approach.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.