A smartphone app called ASEAN One, which translates popular business phrases into 11 languages of the Southeast Asian region, was launched last week in Bangkok. Private sector initiatives like this, which promote the concept of a Southeast Asian community, should be encouraged.
Aside from ASEAN One, there are bigger projects that seek to foster unity in the region. For example, there has been talk of sending a single regional team to the Olympics. Meanwhile, some economists are in favor of a single regional currency and even the establishment of a Southeast Asian bank network. In addition, tourism officials are currently studying the feasibility of adopting a single travel visa for the whole region.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has a big role in facilitating the success of these region-wide efforts. It has the authority to coordinate with government ministers of its member countries to ensure regional cooperation on various issues and policies. And it can tap the resources of its members and even global institutions to implement innovative programs.
But despite its modest success in promoting cultural exchanges, especially in organizing summits and conferences, ASEAN has miserably failed in the past four decades to resolve conflicts and divisions in the region. Its policy of non-interference has weakened its political influence and organizational capability. It couldn’t even sanction member countries accused of committing widespread human rights violations.
In fairness to ASEAN, advocating unity isn’t its primary function, a fact that further highlights the need for alternative models on how to strengthen the Southeast Asian community. The question is whether it’s still possible to undertake region-wide activities despite the border clashes of its neighboring states, the rise of racist and ultra-nationalistic attitudes among politicians, and the general lack of interest in the issue among Southeast Asians.
ASEAN’s refusal to act as one body has allowed economic and military superpowers like the United States, China, and Japan to conveniently stage their geopolitical games in the region. There’s no unified ASEAN front willing to confront China’s aggressive efforts at claiming territory and resources in the region, and no ASEAN effort to check the expansion of the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific. Worse, ASEAN member countries are in many cases choosing to align themselves with either one of the superpowers to boost their clout in the region.
Meanwhile, it feels like an insult to the ASEAN idea that smugglers, drug traffickers, and terrorists seem to be more successful in building strong, albeit underground networks in the region. Despite the illegal nature of their activities, they are able to recruit and indoctrinate individuals who understand the strategic value of connecting the grassroots of one country with the remote villages of another country in the region. In short, they are sometimes better able to maximize the advantages of Southeast Asia than ASEAN’s leaders are.
Overhauling the ASEAN way of doing things is something that should have been done years ago. Isn’t it strange that ASEAN countries are ready to welcome the arrival of U.S. warships on its shores while remaining hesitant to welcome Timor-Leste as a new member of the regional grouping?
ASEAN should do some serious soul-searching on how to assert its political relevance, and must do more to prevent global superpowers, criminal gangs and terrorist cells dominating the region’s political economy and agenda.
The first challenge for this new ASEAN, though, would be to build a more cohesive community in this part of the world.