Southeast Asia is a diverse and complex region where every major culture and civilisation of the world finds a place. There is a rich debate about the ‘identity’ of Southeast Asia as a coherent region in comparison to other regions of the world. The general summary is that four waves of cultural influence shaped Southeast Asia: Indian, Chinese, Muslim and Western – the fact that some of these are civilisational descriptors with a variety of ethnic influences within the larger civilisations is an additional factor of complexity. Modern Southeast Asia, comprising mainland and maritime countries including Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste and Vietnam, presents an example of varied cultures living together and thriving, despite the region experiencing decades of conflicts.
The year 2017 marks the 50th year of the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an association whose contribution towards regional peace, stability and prosperity goes beyond Southeast Asia to the wider Asia-Pacific region. ASEAN was created with the Declaration of Bangkok in 1967 by its original members Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. It subsequently expanded to include Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Despite its diversity, ASEAN has created a sense of community and identity which is unique from other regions.
The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace by Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffrey Sng is a welcome addition to the literature about ASEAN. At a time when western internationalism is in retreat and the future of regional organisations have been questioned, this book serves, as Amitav Acharya writes, as “a refreshingly hopeful reminder of how a group of small and developing countries can lead the way in building peace and progress”.
The book makes an optimistic assessment about ASEAN’s contribution to regional peace and prosperity. The success of ASEAN as the world’s most important regional organisation after the European Union (EU) is reiterated several times in the book. Engagingly written, ASEAN Miracle attributes the success of ASEAN to the fear of expansionary communism, the role of strong leaders, geopolitical luck, market-oriented economic policy, and creating a series of regional and extra-regional multilateral platforms that engages ASEAN with its dialogue partners in ASEAN-led processes. These include the Annual Ministerial Meeting (AMM), Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC), Asia-Pacific Economic Partnership (APEC) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) among others. Through these multilateral initiatives, ASEAN has maintained stable relations with the great powers in Asia. The authors observe, “as is normal with most living processes, good fortune and misfortune intervened from time to time to influence the course of ASEAN’s development” (p.49). The journey of ASEAN was not a cakewalk and its relevance and ability to adapt to changes were constantly under challenge.
The obsessive fear of founding members and of communist expansion receded with the end of the Cold War. The fear factor is important to measure the success of ASEAN and to generate ASEAN’s cohesion and solidarity as it was “the critical glue that held the five countries together” (p.53). As the fear faded, the founding leaders opened their markets by embracing a market-oriented economy integrating the entire Southeast Asian region into a larger East Asian region. An open regionalism, in the way of accommodating external powers, has been the most visible manifestations of ASEAN.
ASEAN is now indispensable in the region. It has helped shape regional interactions with the great powers including China, India, Japan and the US. The book’s third chapter documents how the great powers have a vested interest in ASEAN’s survival and success, despite their own contradictory interests in the region. The authors caution the great powers “to reflect deeply and carefully on their long-term interests vis-à-vis ASEAN” (p.76) and are critical of the US and China’s insufficient attention towards ASEAN (p.77). For instance, the authors disapprove the inconsistent attitude of the US towards the region (illustrated in three phases, pg 83-91) from extreme cordiality, to rejection, to a renewed relationship initiated by President Barack Obama, and to a period of great uncertainty created by President Donald Trump.
The ASEAN-China relationship is portrayed in three phases – from hostility to ‘falling in love’ to a period of uncertainty. The 2012 meeting in Phnom Penh marks a specific point in time that led to the friction in ASEAN-China relation. The meeting in Cambodia also exposed the weakness of ASEAN to the world community as it was unable to issue a joint communique about the South China Sea dispute. The book lays stress on the relationship between ASEAN and the EU as the world’s two most successful regional organisations (p.112). Thought they have followed divergent paths, based on divergent philosophies, on regionalism, ASEAN and the EU both have lessons to learn from each other and the authors discuss the reciprocal relationship between the organisations (p.112).
There is also an engaging analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of ASEAN. According to the authors, ASEAN’s strength lies in its great sense of community despite its diversity. The adoption of the ASEAN Charter in 2007, as the authors recount, reinforces the invisible sense of community by endowing ASEAN with a proper institutional rules-based footing. Ten years since coming into force, the Charter now has a legal dimension to its political foundation. The neutral role played by ASEAN in its external relations has helped ASEAN to “retain its centrality in the region” (p.182).
One of the greatest weaknesses of ASEAN is a lack of natural custodian, a Southeast Asian country, accepting a common responsibility of ownership to keep the organisation moving. The authors claim that Indonesia is the only country within the organisation capable of such responsibility but is still unable to perform such a role. The authors do not substantiate why Indonesian leadership is not forthcoming for ASEAN, however the ambiguity of Indonesia towards ASEAN has been a “constant feature of Indonesian political landscape” (p.185). Past leaders nurtured, developed and accommodated liberal free markets and Indonesian nationalists (p.185). However, there are indications under Jokowi’s administration, of Indonesia turning “inward”, away from ASEAN.
The web of ASEAN’s institutional framework is a paradox. “ASEAN developed more complex institutional frameworks after the launch of the ASEAN Charter in 2008…These institutions help hold ASEAN together, but they are not strong enough to provide leadership for ASEAN, as the EU commission often does” (p. 188). Geopolitical conflicts and rivalries, weak leadership and the failure to deal with both, are the threats the authors foresee for ASEAN in the future. The rise of regional multilateralism, and the centrality of Asia and ASEAN in global politics adds to the mounting opportunities ASEAN has amidst various challenges. A major let down about the book is that is overlooks intra-ASEAN security issues that characterise this complex region, including the Rohingya crisis, migration, human trafficking, pandemics, climate change, South China Sea and piracy.
The final part of the book addresses how the strengths of ASEAN outweigh its weaknesses, and opportunities overshadow its threats and challenges. Being the most successful regional organisation next only to the EU, the authors opine in the last chapter that ASEAN deserves the Noble Peace Prize and conclude with three recommendations: “Ownership of the organization must shift from the governments to the people” (p.221); “to change the current stunted and severely limited secretariat into a vibrant institution that will serve ASEAN as well” as (p. 225); “to promote ASEAN as a new beacon of hope for humanity” (p. 230).
Having experienced the turbulence of Southeast Asia during the second half of the 20th century, the authors seek to convey with great confidence the story about the prominence and rise of Southeast Asia and the ASEAN’s role in providing peace and stability in the region. The authors also bring in great insights from eminent scholars and policymakers from the region who had lived during the most eventful years of ASEAN.
There is much that is interesting about the book, but it may frustrate some readers who have engaged in the developments of the region and of ASEAN over a longer period.
Arenla Jamir is an independent researcher based in New Delhi. Her research areas are political developments in Southeast Asia and wider region of the Asia-Pacific.