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During the recent ASEAN summit in Labuan Bajo, Indonesian President Joko Widodo reported that a recent study indicated that approximately 83% of Southeast Asian individuals perceive ASEAN as slow and ineffective. Approximately 73% of individuals comprehend that ASEAN is evolving into a platform for competition among major powers and that member states have the potential to serve as representatives of superpowers. 60% of the remaining population express concern regarding the inconsistencies within ASEAN or harbour apprehensions about the potential disintegration of the organisation.
Lately, there has been a growing trend of criticisms directed towards the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is a regional intergovernmental organisation consisting of ten Southeast Asian nations. Critics contend that the organisation exhibits a sluggish pace and inefficiency and serves as a conflict zone for dominant powers. However, notwithstanding these critiques, it is crucial to comprehend that a flawed ASEAN is significantly superior to the absence of ASEAN altogether.
Firstly, it is essential to consider the historical context that gave rise to the establishment of ASEAN in 1967. Then, post-colonial tensions, border disputes, and ideological differences characterised the Southeast Asian region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded to advance regional stability, foster economic growth, promote social progress, and facilitate cultural development. Throughout the years, it has served as a safeguard against inter-regional disputes, converting a tumultuous area into a comparatively tranquil one. Despite criticism, the principle of non-interference has effectively contributed to upholding peaceful relations among nations with varying political systems and ideologies.
Although ASEAN's decision-making process is frequently criticised for needing to be faster, it is essential to recognise that achieving consensus among ten countries with diverse political, economic, and cultural backgrounds is an enormous undertaking. The ASEAN Way, which prioritises informal and non-binding agreements, has facilitated collaboration among the diverse nations within ASEAN. It has effectively averted significant conflicts and wars within the region. Having an imperfect peace is preferable to engaging in a perfect war.
In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has played a crucial role in promoting economic integration within the region. The ASEAN's efforts, including but not limited to the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), have played a pivotal role in boosting regional trade and investment. Notwithstanding the variations in the economic progress of constituent countries, these endeavours have stimulated economic expansion, creating employment opportunities and elevating the standard of living for millions of individuals. Despite its imperfections, ASEAN has enabled a certain level of economic prosperity that would have been unattainable for individual nations working alone.
The validity of the concern that ASEAN is transforming into a platform for major power competition is noteworthy. Nevertheless, this competition has also contributed to magnifying the region's strategic significance. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has adeptly managed the complex geopolitical environment by maintaining a delicate equilibrium in its interactions with key global players such as the United States and China. This approach has been instrumental in preserving the ongoing tranquilly and stability of the region. ASEAN's pivotal role in shaping the region's geopolitical discourse is highlighted by its centrality in major regional forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.
Moreover, the apprehension regarding the disintegration of ASEAN is a genuine concern, underscoring its significance. The potential dissolution of ASEAN could result in a significant power vacuum, which may lead to destabilisation within the region. Moreover, the proposed action has the potential to disrupt the established mechanisms for regional cooperation and economic integration developed over several decades. On the contrary, a flawless ASEAN offers a forum for discussion, conflict resolution, and joint efforts that would otherwise be lacking.
It is imperative to acknowledge that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an ongoing endeavour. Similar to other multilateral institutions, it encounters considerable challenges. However, it has demonstrated resilience and adaptability by consistently evolving to address the evolving requirements of the area. Moreover, the awareness among Southeast Asians regarding the imperfections of the entity and their expression of concerns regarding its potential disintegration indicates their appreciation for its existence.
In summary, although ASEAN may have imperfections, its non-existence would adversely affect the region. The identified limitations should be regarded as opportunities for enhancement rather than grounds for termination. Despite its imperfections, the ASEAN serves as a foundation for Southeast Asian nations to establish a more promising, affluent, and harmonious future. This symbolises optimism and illuminates the way towards achieving regional integration, collaboration, and shared comprehension. We should enhance the brightness of the light rather than extinguishing it due to its flickering.
Ki Manghout is a Master Student in International Relations at Griffith University, Australia.