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Re-Envisioning ASEAN

by Joshua Kurlantzick
December 5, 2012

U.S. president Obama participates in a family photo of ASEAN leaders during the ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh. U.S. president Obama participates in a family photo of ASEAN leaders during the ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

In the wake of ASEAN’s disastrous year, which included open fissures in the organization over how to handle the South China Sea, spats between Cambodia and the Philippines, and the utter failure to play any role in helping resolve growing violence in western Myanmar, many commentators —including the current ASEAN secretary-general— have argued that the organization needs to change substantially over the next decade if it is to remain, as it hopes, at the center of East Asian integration. I took my own stab at proposing some far-reaching —some might say idealistic— goals for ASEAN to meet over the next twenty years. Many of the goals that I set out in the paper might seem far-reaching for an organization that has always moved slowly and prided itself on operating, Quaker-style, through consensus. And yet powerful voices within ASEAN, including inside the Secretariat, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam, do realize the organization needs to change substantially. Having the tiny sultanate of Brunei chair ASEAN next year, per the organization’s practice of rotating chairs, is hardly going to help ASEAN, since Brunei is a diplomatic flyweight and does not have the power to mediate disputes between members. You can read my Working Paper “ASEAN’s Future and Asian Integration” here.

Because of ASEAN’s problems, and the growing potential for a conflict between China and the United States over Southeast Asia, the organization actually has attracted far more interest from the international community than in the past.  One of the most experienced and prolific analysts of ASEAN, Amitav Acharya, now himself has a newly updated work analyzing how Southeast Asia has emerged as a viable community, examining the region’s challenges, and offering potential pathways to a future in which ASEAN remains the center of regional integration. Amitav’s book, The Making of Southeast Asia: International Relations of a Region, is available for purchase here.

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