After a fruitful 50 years, the bloc is divided by uneven wealth and China’s rise
KEN KOYANAGI, Editor-at-large, Nikkei Asian Review
On Aug. 9, 1967, The New York Times reported the signing of the Bangkok Declaration to inaugurate the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The brief, 80-word article on the declaration — inked the previous day by five founding foreign ministers — said the document was “vague about concrete aims and projects.” It also derided the agreement as the product of “two days of golf talks” at a beach resort outside the Thai capital.
It is hard to say to what extent the vagueness was deliberate. But those who belittled the new bloc as weak were to be surprised, time and again, in the coming years. As it turned out, the ill-defined aims and functions, as well as the minimum degree of institutionalization, would prove more often to be a source of resilience than weakness.
ASEAN leaders would later become conscious and proud of this undogmatic approach, which prioritizes individual sovereignty — an approach now referred to as the “ASEAN Way.” They even adopted a song titled “The ASEAN Way” as the group’s anthem in 2008.
One reason so much was left unsaid, back in 1967, was that the common issues and threats facing the member states were too obvious to bother articulating: American military and political activity in Indochina, based on the so-called domino theory; Soviet military support for communist forces there; and China-linked insurgencies inside the member states themselves, to name a few examples.
In addition, of the five founding member governments, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore were struggling for legitimacy in the early days of post-colonial independence. Thailand was the lone exception. Under the circumstances, it was unrealistic for the group to define clear political goals.