Before World War II, the lands comprising Southeast Asia had little in common with each other, apart from geographical contiguity. Vietnam was an appendage of the Far East, belonging to France. Everything else, if one had to call it, was ‘Further India’. Only with the creation of the Allies’ South East Asia Command did the idea of Southeast Asia begin cohering in the popular mind.
But it took more than an accident of history for anything resembling regionalism to take root in Southeast Asia. As Dr.Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok explores in (TITLE), three things have enabled ASEAN to thrive so far: pressures that came with the Cold War, the region’s collective priority for autonomy and development and the choice to leverage the web of international trade and, more recently, security links to maintain the region’s ‘centrality’.
These three factors have aligned well with Cambodia’s interests, as Senior Minister Prak Sokhonn recollects in (TITLE), his country’s journey with ASEAN for the past two decades. Priority for domestic autonomy and development provided the space for a traumatized Cambodia to mend itself without foreign meddling. ASEAN’s web of international trade agreements, likewise, brought Cambodia options to develop its economy when it chose to look outward again.
As it turns 50 this year, ASEAN’s deepening process has been well on track since Cambodia’s entry in 1999. If anything, Dr. Thitinan notes, ASEAN economic integration has proceeded at different speeds: mainland Southeast Asia is integrating at a much faster rate than maritime Southeast Asia.
Yet, not all is well with ASEAN. Criticism of ASEAN’s priority for domestic autonomy, that is to say unwillingness to meddle in the domestic affairs of neighboring countries, has grown stronger since the end of the Cold War. The Rohingya conflict in Myanmar and the political struggle against the Shinawatra family in Thailand, are turning up this line of criticism up a notch. ASEAN’s divisions, especially when it squares off against China, and inability to deal with problems that touch on member countries’ central interests are some issues Dr. Thitinan also notes.
Over the past 50 years, ASEAN has grown effective in areas where its member states have allowed it to be. Meanwhile, progress in other areas has been limited because member states have not found it in their interest. This situation is a reflection of the region’s collective priority for domestic autonomy, and this factor is running up against the wish for a greater ‘centrality’ for ASEAN. After all, an ASEAN that is riven has little credibility to set up international platforms or initiatives indicative of its ‘centrality’.