For years, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) was criticized and seen as stumbling block for the improvement of diplomatic relations. Today, this multilateral organization is only a few steps away of forming an economic community and has already concluded free trade agreements with China, Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and India. Have we now been proven wrong in our criticism of the ‘ASEAN Way’?

ASEAN consist out of ten countries, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and is quite unlike most western multilateral organizations. European organizations such as the EU, for instance, perceive (qualified) majority voting as a prerequisite to the success and effectiveness of such an organization. The ASEAN Way, on the other hand, is based on consensus-building and principles such as non-intervention. Its informality and the lack of rulemaking abilities caused its critics to believe that such an organization would never be able to integrate into an economic and political union.

One should nevertheless be wary on fully accepting the truth of these projections, as ASEAN’s progress differs among its ‘three pillars’ of security, sociocultural integration, and economic integration. In the latter pillar, ASEAN actually attained significant momentum and an Asian Economic Community (AEC) should officially be installed by 2015.

Some claim that this progress is merely achieved due to the ‘continued competitive pressures from regional competitors’ and not due to its institutional foundations. Other critics have argued that the AEC is an elitist project and argue that non-state actors must be included. Moreover, the diverse political and cultural systems would prevent any substantial integration in the security and sociocultural integration ‘pillar’.

Critics believe that such an organization would never be able to integrate into an economic and political union

Advocators argue that these different systems are actually the key to ASEAN’s economic integration, as they will ‘waste no time dreaming of a political union.’ This single minded concentration of economic benefits differs with the ECSC’s underlying goal of preventing another world war, yet we must not forget the long road that led up to today’s EU. In retrospect, economic motives were always a cornerstone of EU integration and to some degree this progress spilled over into other areas, either intentionally or unintentionally.

With the EU and the US currently discussing future free trade agreements through the AEC, one can easily see that the creation of an internal market will strengthen their position on the negotiation table. Whether or not the ‘ASEAN Way’ will eventually lead to an organization that mirrors today’s EU remains to be seen. But for now, the current rate of progress will make anything seem possible.


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