ASEAN is widely recognized in the international community as an exemplar of enlightened and successful regionalism. But what precisely constitutes the nature and measure of its achievements?

In the first place, it is remarkable enough that ASEAN has survived for all of three decades, considering that at the time of its birth, not a few political observers had predicted that, like its predecessors – the SEATO, the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) and the Maphilindo – it would soon wither in the blast of the complex and unpredictable regional situation. As Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas recalls, “When ASEAN was born, there were a good number of skeptics who would not believe that, given the wide divergences of view among the ASEAN countries, the differences in the political and economic systems of its founding members, it would ever succeed in this endeavor at regional cooperation. Well, ASEAN proved all its critics wrong and it is now a vibrant reality, an Association recognized not only in its own region but also in the world at large as one of the most successful regional cooperative schemes”.

The recollection of the Foreign Minister of Singapore, Professor S. Jayakumar is that when ASEAN was founded, the situation in Southeast Asia was so grim the mass media kept comparing it with the European region that would eventually hand down the horrible legacy of “ethnic cleansing”-the Balkans. “The media described us as dominoes about to fall at any time,” he says. “Indeed, there was no optimism on the future of the countries of Southeast Asia. But now, 30 years later, the situation is very different. The countries in Southeast Asia now constitute one of the most peaceful, stable and prosperous regions in the world. I don’t think this would have been possible if it were not for ASEAN”.

Former ASEAN Secretary General, Narciso G. Reyes, once suggested that in order to measure ASEAN’s worth, one should ask what could have happened to Southeast Asia without ASEAN. “Southeast Asia minus ASEAN,” he said, “equals greater political instability, more widespread economic deterioration and, almost surely, the ascendancy of expansionist forces that thrive on the weakness, isolation and disunity of others.” He said this in 1981 when ASEAN was proving to be a bulwark of political cohesion and solidarity in the face of the situation in Indochina and he was then anticipating only that the ASEAN countries would show excellent economic performance during the rest of the decade. Optimistic as he was, it was beyond his expectations that the ASEAN countries would prove to be among the world’s most dynamic economies going into the 21st century.

And even today, ASEAN’s political achievement tends to be cited more spiritedly than its considerable role in the economic development of its members. Says Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo L. Siazon Jr : “ASEAN has transformed itself from a small subregional organization into a major influence in world affairs. During the last 30 years, ASEAN has been able to maintain peace and stability among its Member Countries despite the many territorial problems and other issues among them. ASEAN today is the only subregional organization in Asia that provides a political forum where Asian countries and the world Powers can discuss and consider problems related to security, political issues and military concerns”.

The relative peace, security and stability that ASEAN has helped achieve and maintain in Southeast Asia as well as in the entire Asia-Pacific has been good for business. It created a favorable environment where rapid and sustained economic growth became possible. Economic development, in turn, brought about social progress and human development.

Just how was ASEAN able to achieve its phenomenal success? Malaysian Foreign Minister Abdullah Haji Ahmad Badawi explains it convincingly. “ASEAN has been successful,” he says, “because there is a very strong commitment among ASEAN members to cooperation. Cooperation for the benefit of all and cooperation for stability and peace of the region. This is a very important hallmark of ASEAN… (Second), there is also a very strong commitment to pragmatism. ASEAN has been pragmatic in ways that develop cooperation among the members in undertaking various projects. And ideology has never been a problem to ASEAN. Ideological differences have never interfered in efforts to cooperate positively for the common good of all and for regional prosperity. And, third, I think the ASEAN Leaders and Ministers are never tired of seeking consensus. We work hard, we work with full commitment to seek consensus on any particular issue, on any particular program we wish to develop and when we do this, we are very very aware of one another’s sensitivity.”

ASEAN has acknowledged that periods of rapid social and economic progress are often accompanied by fundamental shifts in power relations among States. If not managed well, such realignments can lead to conflict. At the same time, increased economic globalization, accompanied by structural adjustments of national economies, can create challenges to social order. With its rapid economic development, ASEAN also faces some issues related to resource conservation including environmental protection. Greater mobility of people, goods and capital also demands sophisticated border security measures and closer collaboration among States. All these concerns ASEAN must continue to address. It helps that the nations of the Asia-Pacific delight in their prosperity and realize that tensions and armed conflict make bad economics. It helps that ASEAN, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the recently established Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) processes are effectively promoting a more constructive and cooperative approach to international relations in this part of the world.

The establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) also represents a breakthrough in the history of the region and, as stated in the Chairman’s Statement of the ARF’s inaugural meeting in 1994, “signified the opening of a new chapter of peace, stability and cooperation for Southeast Asia”.

The expansion of ASEAN “shall pave the way for a new synergy, maximizing the cooperation potential for growth of the entire region”, Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam envisions. He expresses caution, however, that “In the face of a greater ASEAN which comprises countries at different levels of economic and technological development and with different cultures and historical backgrounds, there emerges a need on how to keep those differences from slowing down the ASEAN growth pace and concurrently from creating difficulties for those countries of lower levels of development.”

The virtual realization of the vision of the Founding Fathers of ASEAN to have an association of all Southeast Asian countries is by no means the end of ASEAN history. It is a call for a renewed commitment towards broader regional solidarity among the peoples of Southeast Asia. As Foreign Minister Prachuab Chaiyasan of Thailand stated: “As we move towards the year 2020, ASEAN will have derived its strength not only from unity among governments but unity among its diverse peoples. The ASEAN experience and the ASEAN process must reach out to all spectrum of our societies. Through ASEAN, this region will become a grassroot- supported and close-knit community bound together not only by common interests, but by shared values, identity and aspirations among our peoples.”

ASEAN faces the future with confidence. Its strong foundation and remarkable achievements will serve ASEAN well as it pursues higher goals at the dawn of the new millennium. The ASEAN Heads of Government have reaffirmed succinctly that Cooperative peace and shared prosperity shall be the fundamental goals of ASEAN. Towards these goals, ASEAN shall remain a driving force in building a more predictable and constructive pattern of relationships among nations in the Asia-Pacific region to ensure lasting peace and security. Economically, ASEAN shall move towards greater economic integration with emphasis on sustainable and equitable growth. Finally, ASEAN shall nourish a caring and cohesive ASEAN community, whose strength lies in fostering a common regional identity and a shared vision for the future.