As Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand prepare to host major world summits next month, the 55-year-old Association of Southeast Asian Nations is facing an existential crisis, fueled by deep internal divisions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the military coup in Myanmar and other issues is due to . The 2007 ASEAN Charter’s vision of deeper political, economic, security-related and socio-cultural integration no longer exists. To salvage what is left, you must accept this reality and regroup accordingly.
Notwithstanding previous bureaucratic and functional pledges to do more together, ASEAN’s regional integration has always been superficial. Intra-regional trade in goods remains low at 21.3% and trade in services is below 12%, according to the ASEAN Secretariat. In addition, 88% of investments in the region come from external sources. Unlike the European Union, with its economic integration through a single market, ASEAN has emphasized cross-border connectivity through hard and soft infrastructure, from roads and railways to tourism and people-to-people contacts.
The organization seemed to be on the rise for a while after the ASEAN Charter came into force. At the time, the region’s economy was the fastest growing in the world, and its promising development coincided with the decade of Myanmar’s post-2011 political opening and economic reform.
ASEAN capitalized on this internal momentum and took the lead in organizing regional peace and security projects through gatherings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus. Businesses and investment funds formulated ASEAN-focused strategies, recognizing the region’s promise as a connected manufacturing hub with a combined GDP of more than $3 trillion and more than 680 million people, many of whom are young and make up a growing middle class.
But this narrative of ASEAN progress has lost its luster as the geopolitical framework has changed. ASEAN’s success requires relative peace and a rough balance between the great powers around it. When the major powers are locked in a zero-sum conflict — as between Russia and the West, or China and the United States — ASEAN is almost bound to become as fragmented and ineffective as it was before Cambodia joined as the tenth and final member in 1999.
Think of China’s interests in the South China Sea, Myanmar’s internal conflict, and Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Each issue pulls different ASEAN member states in different directions. Cambodia supports the junta of China and Myanmar under the State Board of Directors, but not Russia. Laos seems to support all three. And Vietnam criticizes China but remains silent on Myanmar’s military dictatorship and sympathizes with Russia.
Meanwhile, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have joined forces to express concerns over China’s warlike role in the South China Sea, the Tatmadaw takeover in Myanmar and Russia’s war. And while Thailand has been wary of China’s territorial assertiveness and Myanmar’s coup, it has measuredly resisted Russia’s aggression.
Myanmar itself is an instructive case. The United Nations still recognizes the civilian-led government’s ambassador, and ASEAN has so far refused to allow the State Administrative Council to represent the country at its major assemblies. As a result, Myanmar on record voted to condemn Russia at the United Nations, despite the Council’s open support for the Kremlin. After last year’s “five-point consensus” failed to foster dialogue and negotiations in Myanmar, ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship, led by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, is now cracking down on the junta and its leader, Colonel-General Min Aung Hlaing, before.
Nevertheless, the situation in Myanmar threatens to derail the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh in November. And Russia’s war has cast a shadow over the APEC meeting in Thailand and this year’s G20 summit in Indonesia in the same month.
To navigate this tense geopolitical environment, ASEAN needs a new approach. Members willing and able to share common positions should do so without waiting for unanimity among all 10 countries. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore are already leaders, and others, such as Thailand and Vietnam, can join them on specific issues that serve their interests. The new model could perhaps follow an “ASEAN 5+X” formula, with the five original members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore – serving as the renewed organizational core.
The old ASEAN is gone for good. The region will not be fully unified by political, security, economic and socio-cultural communities. But the organization will not be dissolved either. Instead, its like-minded members should seek a harsh realignment so that individual factions – like Myanmar’s military – cannot cripple the rest of the group. For now, the new ASEAN should focus on the five founding members plus Vietnam. If Cambodia and Laos want to be seen as core members, they must moderate their positions rather than carry water for outside powers.
The idea of forming an ASEAN economic community is no longer an option. Instead, governments, civil society organizations and companies with interests in Southeast Asia must begin to view the region’s integration as an a la carte meal, rather than a five-course meal.