“ASEAN at 50” Kishore Mahbubani, Project Syndicate, 2 August 2017

“The EU was the gold standard for regional cooperation. But it continues to struggle with a seemingly never-ending series of crises, including Brexit. So it seems prudent to seek other models of cooperation. ASEAN’s approach may turn out to be the way of the future, enabling other fractious regions to develop cooperation”.

We live in troubled times, with pessimism clouding even the most prosperous parts of the planet. Many are convinced that the international order is falling apart. Some fear a clash of civilizations. Yet, Southeast Asia offers an unexpected glimmer of hope. The region has made extraordinary progress in recent decades, achieving a level of peace and prosperity previously unimaginable. And it owes much of this success to ASEAN. Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most diverse regions. Its 640 million people include 240 million Muslims, 120 million Christians, 150 million Buddhists, and millions of Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists and Communists. Its most populous country, Indonesia, is home to 261 million people, while Brunei has just 450,000. Singapore’s per capita income of $52,960 per annum is 22.5 times that of Laos ($2,353). This diversity puts Southeast Asia at a distinct disadvantage in terms of fostering regional cooperation.  In 1967, Southeast Asia was a poor and troubled region, the Balkans of Asia. But ASEAN defied expectations, becoming the world’s second most successful regional organization, after the EU. Its combined GDP has grown from $95 billion in 1970 to $2.5 trillion in 2014. ASEAN comprises the world’s seventh-largest economy, to be the fourth by 2050. As ASEAN was getting off the ground in the early 1970s, the strategic interests of America, China, and the bloc’s members converged. But when the Cold War ended, ASEAN countries maintained their cooperative habits. ASEAN’s communist enemies – Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – joined the bloc. So did Myanmar, ending decades of isolation. ASEAN moves like a crab – two steps forward, one step back, and one sideways. It is the only reliable platform for geopolitical engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, unique for convening meetings attended by all of the world’s great powers, from the USt and the EU to China and Russia. ASEAN’s resilience is rooted in the culture of musyawarah and mufakat (consultation and consensus).


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“ASEAN at 50” Kishore Mahbubani, Project Syndicate, 2 August 2017


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