ASEAN: 50 years of peace and prosperity with tough challenges ahead

ASEAN: 50 years of peace and prosperity with tough challenges ahead

Regional stability and economic prosperity are hallmarks of the ASEAN way, but on its fiftieth anniversary the association faces a demanding security environment that will surely test it, writes Sue Thompson

Fifty years ago, when formal regional cooperation in Southeast Asia began, it was clear that non-interference had unanimous support. In its inaugural declaration of 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations stated that it would focus entirely on economic, social and cultural matters.

The five founding member nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines—all indicated that any form of outside interference would not be welcome.

However, with the development of the Cold War, the communist victory in China, and the intensification of the war in Vietnam, the unspoken objective of security was obvious from the onset. Each member state continued to rely on foreign power security guarantees.

ASEAN at the start

ASEAN was loosely structured in the early years. There were major barriers to economic cooperation as member nations continued to value tariff protection to foster industrialisation, and Japanese investment assisted with this industrialisation process.

An abundance of natural resources in some member states meant they had no need to import products that they already grew or manufactured themselves.

Only Singapore had major trading links with the other ASEAN states.

Some tensions did exist within. Manila’s ongoing claim to Sabah caused the breakdown of Philippine-Malaysian diplomatic relations in 1968. ASEAN encouraged a resolution of the crisis, essentially keeping the dispute outside of the association’s framework. Tensions were resolved through bilateral engagement.

This reflected the way that ASEAN was evolving, as an organisation that tackled both external and internal pressures through a philosophy of non-interference and consensus.

An unspoken objective that ASEAN would build its own security through regional solidarity

During 1968-69, Britain announced it would withdraw its military base from Singapore and US President Richard Nixon stated that the US expected Asian nations to assume more responsibility for their own defence. Nixon stressed that Washington would encourage Asian leaders to meet their own internal security needs with American material assistance. These developments contributed to ASEAN’s unspoken objective to build its own security through regional solidarity.

In general, Southeast Asian leaders viewed the so-called Nixon Doctrine as a warning signal overall, and that regional allies had to assume greater responsibility for their own security. For some, the American policy announcement was in step with existing aspirations. Bangkok was moving towards a more independent foreign policy and Manila was wanting to move beyond the traditional mould of strategic client of the US.

Differing positions on security

The Thai Government seemed to recognise at that point that regional cooperation alone had no prospects as an alternative security backing in the immediate future. This was because of disparity in power between countries in the region, and internal instability in many Asian nations.

Thailand secured additional financial assistance from Washington. In August 1971, Nixon directed that a US$45 million special assistance package be negotiated with Bangkok to strengthen the Thai economy and defence capabilities.

Jakarta emphasised the need for extensive foreign aid to counter the military weakness of the countries in the region, and was quick to point out that Indonesia lacked the capacity to contribute to joint defence and military security.

Indonesia’s first priority was economic development. It also became the beneficiary of an expanded American military aid program, receiving approximately US$15 million per year—an increase of US$10 million on the original budget.

Ideas were fomenting about some sort of neutral zone to meet the changed security environment, alongside these increases in American military and economic aid. Malaysia proposed a ‘neutralisation’ concept, while Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore showed their preference for a ‘zone of peace, freedom and neutrality’.

Neither US military planning nor the flow of American economic and military assistance seemed seriously affected by ‘neutralisation’

These were first discussed at a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in November 1971. The Malaysians sought agreement that all foreign powers should be excluded from Southeast Asia, that the region should not be used as a theatre for international power struggles. And that the great powers—the US, Soviet Union and China—would guarantee this.

But this proposal was unacceptable to the other four. They did not want to see specific reference to ‘neutralisation’ or great power guarantees.

ASEAN headquarters, Jakarta Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the end, it was agreed that the ASEAN nations would make all necessary efforts to enable Southeast Asia to be recognised as a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality. That it was free from any form of interference by outside powers and that the regional nations would make every effort to increase cooperation amongst themselves.

By 1973, ZOPFAN continued to exist as a mere statement of intent rather than any concrete framework. It reflected the different aspirations of ASEAN member states on regional security, and their own existing bilateral relationships.

Indonesia, in particular, was in no hurry to see the implementation of the neutralisation proposal. It wished for a continued US military presence. Singapore also supported the American military presence in the region and emphasised the benefits to achieving a long-term objective of a quadripartite balance between US, Soviet Union, Japan and Western naval forces.

In turn, neither US military planning nor the flow of American economic and military assistance seemed seriously affected by the concept of neutralisation.

Closer cooperation post-Vietnam War

The end of the war in Vietnam paved the way to closer cooperation. At the first meeting of heads of ASEAN governments in February 1976, and at a subsequent meeting of economic ministers, members reiterated their commitment to the organisation.

It was agreed to establish an industry in each member country where there would be joint equity participation that would be developed to benefit the region.

The Philippines then suggested setting up an ASEAN common market. The proposal was only supported by Singapore. Discussions commenced instead on whether to set up a system of preferential tariffs.

‘Easier to deal with external partners than sort out intra-regional arrangements between the partners themselves’

After the second summit meeting of the heads of government in August 1977, ASEAN leaders maintained existing cooperation in economic areas and took steps to increase cooperation in cultural and social fields.

There was substantial progress in discussions on ASEAN’s external relations, on common foreign policy and especially foreign economic policy. These were conducted with the prime ministers of Australia, Japan and New Zealand.

By the late-1970s, ASEAN members had also started cooperating closely in international bodies, coordinating votes at the UN and making representations to the European Economic Community on economic matters.

Trade and investment, which transformed the economies of some ASEAN member countries, also increased with external nations. ASEAN also saw more success on the diplomatic front through negotiations to end the war between Cambodia and Vietnam.

Ongoing disagreement over security cooperation

Despite closer economic and diplomatic cooperation, ASEAN member states continued to differ, ten years after the association’s inauguration, about whether the organisation should pursue security objectives.

Indonesia was one of the stronger supporters of security cooperation amongst members, but was also concerned about the organisation looking like a defensive alliance.

So, most military cooperation in the region remained bilateral. At the 1976 ASEAN summit, leaders agreed to continue to cooperate on security matters ‘on a non-ASEAN basis’.

In 1977, Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew pointed out that ‘it is psychologically easier to deal with ASEAN’s external partners than to sort out intra-regional arrangements between the partners themselves’. This sentiment reflects the nature of how the organisation has evolved.

Since its inauguration, ASEAN has clearly brought Southeast Asian nations closer, however regional peace and security has not been achieved through collective security arrangements.

It remains to be seen how, in the developing security environment, existing bilateral foreign relations and a philosophy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states will evolve.

Featured image: President Rodrigo Duterte receives a token from Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha during the state dinner in Bangkok, March 2017 Photo: GOVPH Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dr Sue Thompson is a researcher at the Australian National University, specialising in the evolution of regionalism in Southeast Asia. She is working on her second sole-authored book on the topic.

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