Since the financial crisis of 1997 and the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 in the United States, ASEAN’s relevance has been put under the microscope.

The Bali bombing last October and the SARS outbreak early this March further dented the image of ASEAN and questioned its resolve to tackle the new challenges of terrorism and emerging communicable diseases. Now, the Jakarta bombing of Aug. 5 has raised the question as to how ASEAN would be tackling the terrorism problem at the regional level.

ASEAN has done considerably well to deal with the problems at hand. The financial crisis is by and large over with some lingering after-effect on the ASEAN economies. Most ASEAN economies have started to pick up gradually after the crisis and are expected to achieve a growth of at least 4 percent this year.

The Bali bombing brought ASEAN even closer together to fight terrorism as a region together with its partners such as China, Japan, the European Union, the U.S. and Russia. A trilateral agreement was adopted by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in 2002 to ensure border security with other member countries gradually becoming parties to the agreement. An ASEAN work plan on terrorism has been launched and activities have been lined-up for implementation this year.

While we can provide justification for and against the viability of ASEAN as the association celebrates its 36th anniversary on Friday, it would be important first to appreciate and understand what ASEAN is all about.

The association is not a supranational organization where the ASEAN Secretariat has the mandate and legal instruments to direct member countries and regional policies. It is an organization that is very much led and paced by the member countries with the Secretariat playing a coordinating and catalyst role.

ASEAN cooperation is premised on political commitments even though the grouping has, in recent years, adopted a number of binding agreements. It subscribes to the fundamental principles of non-interference and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of member countries, with consensus building playing an important part in decision-making. This has been the key to ASEAN’s success in the last three decades.

Many a time, the consensus process has been cited as a major obstacle slowing down ASEAN. However, it is important to see the merits of such a process — all agreements based on consensus will have a binding effect on the member countries and there will be commitment to move cooperation. Schemes, accords and initiatives of the grouping such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty, and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration were results of political commitment to see a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Southeast Asia.

The inability to address the financial crisis swiftly is often highlighted as one of the major failures of ASEAN, along with fighting terrorism. True, ASEAN could have done more and at a more accelerated pace to tackle the crisis on hindsight but it does not mean that ASEAN did nothing. Besides, bilateral assistance, the member countries established the economic surveillance mechanism to better anticipate any recurrence of a similar crisis.

ASEAN is now linking up closely with the economies of the U.S., EU, China, India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Free Trade Areas are being forged with many of these partners with China and India taking the lead. A number of swap arrangements have been secured within ASEAN and between ASEAN and the East Asia Countries and an Asian Bond Market is in the offing which would further ensure macroeconomic and financial stability in the region.

ASEAN has taken steps to speed up AFTA and is looking at what the region should be focusing on beyond AFTA. It is also working on making the region a more attractive destination for investments by promoting ASEAN as a single investment destination with a menu of options for investors to choose from based on their requirements such as level of job skills, natural resources availability, technology and a supportive policy environment. A competitiveness study has been initiated which has identified sectors for integration which would enable ASEAN to compete with other economies and increase trade.

The region is being integrated physically through road, railway, power grids, gas pipelines and telecommunication interconnections. The Sumatra-Singapore gas pipeline launched this week would inject further momentum to the Trans ASEAN gas pipeline project aimed at building a regional network allowing the flow and trade of natural gas across borders.

The more developed ASEAN countries are helping the newer member countries to integrate into the grouping through capacity building programs under the IAI. In addition, these countries are developing joint projects with ASEAN dialogue partners and among themselves to help the newer member countries.

ASEAN has also brought about 36 years of peace and stability to the region despite the bilateral and other squabbles among the countries in the region. The grouping has helped to cultivate the habit of consultation and resolving issues without resorting to the use of force. It has increased the comfort levels among the leaders, ministers and officials to discuss sensitive issues openly and candidly and to preserve the credibility of ASEAN. It has brought about greater economic interdependence among countries and plugged the region into the global community.

ASEAN’s contribution should be weighed against the purpose of its creation and the necessary limitations it has imposed on itself based on the lessons learnt from failed regionalism attempts in the past. There is no second best option for the region than ASEAN. Many of the dialog partners, including the EU and the U.S. are now also engaging ASEAN apart from pursuing bilateral relations with the individual member countries.

Once the realization that ASEAN is here to help create a peaceful, prosperous and progressive environment for all Southeast Asians sinks in, we will be able to appreciate the vision that ASEAN is working towards in creating a concert of nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies. Then, every anniversary of ASEAN would be more meaningful to the people of Southeast Asia.

*The writer is the Assistant Director for External Relations in the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia. The views expressed in this article are those of his own.