“ASEAN never had the pretension to replicate the EU, and Brexit makes it more unlikely ASEAN countries want to move faster towards political integration. The EU places more emphasis on shared values and principles. No such requirements in ASEAN. If the map shows you’re part of South-East Asia, welcome to the neighbourhood. No questions asked”.
South-East Asian countries today are far more integrated than they have ever been, but ASEAN has way to go before it calls itself a community. The 10 member countries are glued together by their geographical proximity, and out of that comes a sense of shared destiny. But a community, where members have shared values and principles, ASEAN is not. It looks more like a neighbourhood of nations, big and small, rich and poor, at different stages of economic and political development, already trading with one another more and more. But they are ruled under vastly different political systems and ideologies. Although it has officially become the ASEAN Community in 2015, it is not. Some call it an ASEAN economic community because of closer economic integration. What is missing is the political will of its leaders to take up the community idea seriously. This does not take away the value of ASEAN in the first 50 years of its existence. It has brought five decades of uninterrupted peace. And it has offshoots: the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, that bring all the major powers and the Asian region together. Fifty years ago, the region was filled with conflicts. In the Cold War, South-East Asia gave the perfect theatre for the big powers and their proxy wars. Non-interference in the internal affairs of others and the decision-making by consensus are the “ASEAN Way”: a slow but sure and peaceful mechanism. It takes one member to kill any initiative. It may be the one factor that slows closer integration. The economic integration has moved far afield: countries invest in one another more than ever. Political integration is moving at a slower pace, if at all. The march towards community, will have to wait until these countries decide on shared principles and values. For now, let’s be content with ASEAN being a neighbourhood.