Baked in the heat of the Cold War as a bulwark against communism, Asean has come a long way since its original five, all favourably oriented to the West, gave birth to the regional body. Not only has its membership doubled from inception, but the 10-member group now also wears a farrago of political structures, from democracies to communist states. Despite the diversity of geography, language and ethnicity, not one member has thought of leaving. Indeed, more, like Timor Leste, are clamouring to be let in. Faraway nations like Canada, and bodies like the European Union, push to be included in the East Asia Summit, which is where Asean meets its full dialogue partners. By any yardstick, this must be a success.
Key to its uniqueness is that, unlike the European Union against which it is often compared, Asean has no Constitution, Parliament, central regulatory body or dispute-settlement mechanism. Its headquarters operates on a modest budget - just US$20 million (S$27 million) this year. In that sense, it is only a confederation of the willing. The maximalist objectives of the EU caused much resentment, not to speak of mirth. A memorable political victory of the mythical Jim Hacker in the BBC comedy series, Yes, Minister, was his fight to prevent the "Eurosausage" from replacing British bangers. Unlike the EU, Asean's strength is like that of the bamboo that sways with the wind but does not snap. Asean is not the EU; neither is it the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which is mired in a sea of suspicions.
Now that it is 50, it is time for its leaders to look ahead and decide what sort of Asean they wish to mould. Already, there are signs that the economic integration they cherished is not moving to plan. Instead of a unified market and production base, the ambition has been lowered to a "highly integrated" economy - a small but telling modification. As for broad political unity, it has been clear since 2012 that certain outside powers, rather than lending it strength, have worked actively to weaken it, making it unable to stand up as one even where the interests of some fellow members are affected directly.
With big-power rivalry likely to intensify as Japan, Russia and India enter a calculus now dominated by the United States and China, the next half-century portends a challenging period for Asean unity. The Asean Charter adopted in 2007 would have been a good starting point but the global financial crisis and China's introduction of the nine-dash-line claim over the South China Sea proved to be serious distractions. While some of the low-hanging fruit envisaged in the charter have been accomplished, serious matters, such as a dispute-settlement mechanism, remain unaddressed. Asean's next half-century will be judged on whether it will be more than a neighbourhood in search of a community.