Sceptics may look askance at the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations' commitment to the "Asean Way" - particularly the reluctance to speak up about prickly issues in the name of avoiding interference in a member nation's internal affairs. Some also complain that Asean is prone to taking a lowest common denominator approach. But, sensibly speaking, there could be no other way to coalesce a region that is so disparate in income levels, population size and access to, and use of, technology. As a measure of Asean's success in a range of fields, merely look at, say, the dismal progress South Asia has made in building regional cooperation.
Organisations, like people, need to be judged over time by not just milestones but also the road they've travelled. Forty-eight years ago this month, when Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore sat down to form Asean, the Vietnam War was in full cry and the shadow of communism loomed. Foreign journalists based in these parts characterised South-east Asia as the Balkans of the East. That peace has largely prevailed for decades here, and the occasional skirmishes in Indochina have not widened, must, surely, count as a key success of Asean.
The original five, soon joined by Brunei, took far-sighted decisions that have helped place Asean at the centre of the Asian cross-currents straddling the Indian and Pacific oceans. Of these, the most significant was to broaden the group to include the Indochinese states of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Today, Vietnam, once the source of instability in South-east Asia, has the potential to become one of the
fastest-growing economies globally, according to accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Myanmar, however, is groping its way towards more openness. In their separate ways, helping the two emerge from their dark ages must also count as a success of the Asean project.
Certainly, Asean has its warts. It has no mechanism to cope with serious political or military challenges, has only just embarked on building a joint disaster-mitigation capacity, and has no formal body to monitor the implementation of key agreements. Many serious challenges lie ahead. Rising Big Power play in the region will, inevitably, lead to demands to declare loyalties, testing Asean unity. Internally, swift technological changes will affect some more than others, putting pressure on employment and causing social distress. There are also signs of protectionist instincts in countries like Indonesia.
The challenge will be to rise above narrow interests and to reaffirm the enduring benefit of acting together, rather than individually, when threats arise. By standing united, Asean can continue to wield diplomatic-political clout on the world stage to address common concerns.