Since its creation, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has contributed to ensuring peace and prosperity in a region that had witnessed many harrowing events during the XX century. As ASEAN has played in South East Asia a role similar to the one played by the European Union in our continent, Western commentators tend to analyze the first using categories applied when commenting on the second. However, this approach should be avoided, as it is misleading and does not allow for understanding the goals and peculiarities of the ASEAN.
On the one hand, there is the EU, whose main goal is to achieve political integration among its members, as demonstrated by the attempt to establish a “Constitution for Europe” or by the request of the European Parliament to act against Hungary “to prevent a systemic threat to the Union’s founding values”. On the other hand, South-East Asian countries are only interested in enhancing cooperation in certain fields. They are most definitely not aiming at a political union like the EU has.
The ASEAN experience is indeed deeply rooted on the “principle of non-interference” among its members; for example, no actions were taken either against the coup in Thailand in 2014, or against the persecution of Rohingya people in Myanmar, or against Rodrigo Duterte’s march to illiberal democracy in the Philippines. Moreover, the ASEAN charter adopted in 2007 does not establish a voting system (all decisions must be taken by consensus) and does not introduce provisions for sanctioning member states that do not respect or implement the decision adopted.
In other areas, nonetheless, ASEAN integration went deeper. The ASEAN was able to boost a rapid economic integration, achieving its primary goal to promote stability and growth. The first milestone along this path was the creation, in 1992, of the ASEAN Free Trade Area, which led to the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015. The AEC is presented as “the realization of the region’s end goal of economic integration” and “it envisions ASEAN as a single market and production base, a highly competitive region, with equitable economic development, and fully integrated into the global economy”.
The ASEAN cannot yet be considered a single economic bloc and it will take years to finalize the process of complete economic integration, but important results have already been reached: the ASEAN Integration Report 2019 underlines that “the average tariff rates decreased from 8.9% in 2000 to 4.5% in 2015” and “collectively, ASEAN has eliminated 98.6% of the total number of tariff lines in 2019”.
The simple drafting of the ASEAN Integration Report allows us to answer the question of whether the ASEAN has been an instrument to enhance cooperation in the region. The answer is yes; however, the Asian concept of integration is primarily economic and deeply different from the one elaborated in Europe. In fact, the ASEAN Integration Report can enumerate a long list of results, but it does not even address issues related to a deeper political integration.
The ASEAN acknowledged that the Western world order no longer exists. It was as contingent as any other era. As we are coming to a truly global world, the ASEAN aspires to a more inclusive horizon. For this reason, the ASEAN approaches foreign policy differently from the WEIRDs (Western Educated Industrial Rich Democracies). In fact, the ASEAN is still a foreign policy platform between its member states, and in this situation it is easier to focus on external economic relations rather than external political ones.
Since the establishment of the AEC, ASEAN’s pre-existing Five Plus One Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia and New Zealand are being reviewed. ASEAN has since then also entered into an FTA with Hong Kong and is in the final stage of negotiating for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with its six FTA partners.
ASEAN’s economic growth and development outlook cannot be delinked from its external engagements given the fact that ASEAN’s FTA partners account for a significant share of ASEAN’s total trade and of the world GDP.
In addition to the existing FTAs, work has been conducted to explore potential new trade agreements. Discussions for a possible ASEAN-Canada FTA were completed in September 2019. Discussions are under way to consider follow-ups to developing a framework setting out the parameters for a future ASEAN-European Union FTA.
Negotiations for a region-to-region trade and investment agreements between the EU and ASEAN were launched in 2007 and paused by mutual agreement in 2009 to give way to a bilateral format of negotiations. Bilateral FTAs between the EU and ASEAN countries will serve as building blocks towards a future EU-ASEAN agreement. So far, the EU has completed negotiations for bilateral agreements with Singapore in 2014 and Vietnam in 2015.
Beyond FTAs, ASEAN also continues to enhance its engagement with Dialogue and Development Partners. Plans of action are in place for each partner, which provide mechanisms to plan cooperation activities and initiatives with respective partners (such as Russia, the United States, Pakistan, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Germany, and Chile).
While ASEAN is a government-to-government institution, there is also strong recognition of the role played by the private sector. To this end, ASEAN also engaged with joint business councils of various Dialogue Partners. To date, there are nine such joint Business Councils, namely with: Canada, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the US, the EU, and an East Asian group of countries, with broad objectives for trade and investments
In addition to its engagement with formal partners, ASEAN also continues to strengthen relations with like-minded regional and global institutions. ASEAN is also represented in the G20. Indonesia has been a member of the G20 since 2008, while the Chair of ASEAN is invited to G20 meetings as guest of the Chair of the G20.
For all the above-mentioned aspects, the ASEAN represents a good example of the kind of international actors that will lead the new multipolar and multi-level global governance. Pragmatism represents the North Star of the ASEAN way to peace and prosperity. No doubt the ASEAN is already a primary driving force in the affairs of the Asia-Pacific region.