Ja Ian Chong, NUS
Over its history, ASEAN has reduced the possibility of war among its members and created a platform for member states to project their common concerns and to advance shared interests. ASEAN enabled what were relatively new, developing and in some cases small states collectively to play a sort of quasi-middle power role with which more powerful actors have to contend. But it may no longer be able to inhabit such a sweet spot.
Established at the height of the Cold War, ASEAN was entrenched around an understanding among conservative, anti-communist elites with at least some authoritarian sympathies. These elites accepted autonomy, mutual non-intervention, consensus on issues that required collective action and mutual restraint from the use of force as the basis for coordination, if not cooperation. Such commitments reduced tensions among member governments and enabled them to focus on consolidating domestic political authority, economic development and, where convenient, diplomatic cooperation.
ASEAN successfully carved out an area of steady economic growth and calm at a time when wars were raging in Indochina and when China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. As a result, external actors (including the major powers) accepted ASEAN prerogatives in Southeast Asia.
Riding on ASEAN’s Cold War successes, members consolidated the group’s position as East Asia’s premier regional organisation — due partially to the absence of similar arrangements in Northeast Asia. Other actors, including major powers like the United States, China and Japan, were therefore willing to accept ASEAN ‘centrality’ and its position ‘in the driver’s seat’ when it came to intra-regional cooperation.
These considerations characterised several ASEAN-focussed cooperation initiatives in East Asia between the 1990s and 2000s. They included the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN+3, the East Asian Summit and the multilateral Chiang Mai Initiative for currency swaps after the 1997–98 Asian Financial Crisis. The 1990s also saw ASEAN expand to cover most of Southeast Asia with the incorporation of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and even Vietnam — the grouping’s former adversary.