ASEAN: A blueprint for the Middle East?

Mostafa Ahmed
Tuesday 21 May 2024

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations could represent a model of successful integration, consensus-building, and the pursuit of shared interests for the Middle East, writes Mostafa Ahmed


The history of Southeast Asia, which has been marred by prolonged conflicts since the 1950s, offers pertinent lessons for other strife-torn regions seeking stability.

The Cold War transformed countries like Vietnam into battlegrounds for over two decades, pitting communist and capitalist ideologies against each other in a gruelling contest. Laos, too, bore the scars of proxy warfare, enduring a protracted struggle between the communist Pathet Lao forces, backed by a sizable contingent of North Vietnamese troops of Laotian descent, and the country’s royalist government in a conflict that spanned more than two decades.

The region has grappled with internal strife fuelled by ethnic divisions, exemplified by Myanmar’s protracted conflict with its ethnic minorities and the ruthless reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which inflicted genocide and displacement for over seven harrowing years in the 1970s.

Lingering vestiges of European colonialism have further exacerbated tensions, notably evidenced in the konfrontasi spanning 1963 to 1966, in which armed opposition forces launched an undeclared war primarily along the border between Indonesia and East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. The Philippines also staked claim to a significant portion of Sabah State in eastern Malaysia.

Border disputes have persisted in the region, including in the contentious Bukit Jeli region between Malaysia and Thailand encompassing an 8.5 km stretch of land along their shared boundary. The South China Sea, a strategic maritime thoroughfare facilitating approximately $5 trillion in global trade, has witnessed simmering territorial disputes among regional powers for years even as it is crucial for funnelling roughly 80 per cent of these countries’ needs for crude oil to destinations like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Untapped reservoirs of fossil fuels in the region boast 11 million barrels of oil and 190 billion cubic feet of natural gas, rendering them coveted prizes that have fuelled decades-long tensions and rivalries. Central to the discord is China’s nine-dash line that asserts its dominion over more than 90 per cent of the sea in the Southeast Asian region and intensifying competition and exacerbating regional anxieties.

However, amidst this tumult, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has emerged as a beacon of hope, offering a blueprint for peace, stability, and economic prosperity in a landscape scarred by conflicts and civil strife. ASEAN’s genesis was humble, and it started as a loose coalition of developing nations in 1967 comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, these countries already established as independent following centuries of colonial rule and foreign domination.

In its nascent stages, ASEAN faced scepticism about its viability, particularly in the light of the vacuum left by the major powers that had often exploited the region for proxy conflicts and geopolitical rivalry. Yet, the vision of a regional organisation served as a bulwark against such concerns and provided a platform for collective self-help among newly sovereign states, allowing them to prioritise nation-building and economic advancement. ASEAN also offered a unified voice on the global stage, amplifying the region’s influence within the international community.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, ASEAN embarked on a gradual path, prioritising trust-building and fostering avenues for communication among its members. Recognising the symbiotic link between economic integration and security, its member states championed initiatives to deepen economic ties and laid the groundwork for initiatives such as preferential trade agreements.

The establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992 marked a pivotal point and ushered in an era of reduced trade barriers and bolstered intra-regional commerce and foreign investment. As a result, AFTA today is the world’s second largest customs union and contributes to the prosperity of a formidable economic bloc with a combined GDP of $3.9 trillion in 2022, according to data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and only trailing behind the US, China, and the European Union.

The ASEAN nations maintain robust ties with multiple stakeholders through the East Asia Forum that encompasses not only regional players but also global heavyweights such as the US, China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2022, the ASEAN countries collectively exported approximately $862.5 billion worth of goods, marking a notable 13.9 per cent surge from the previous year. Meanwhile, intra-regional trade within the ASEAN countries reached around $335.4 billion in goods in 2022, reflecting a significant 21.4 per cent uptick compared to 2021.

ASEAN has spearheaded efforts to counter the encroaching threat of communism and quell active communist movements within the region. In order to foster regional stability, it extended invitations for membership to Vietnam in 1995, followed by Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. ASEAN was also pivotal in facilitating China’s peaceful ascent and has helped to foster a harmonious environment that has curbed aggressive inclinations.

China’s adherence to the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation underscored a commitment to “non-alignment, non-militarisation, and non-exclusivity” in its relations with ASEAN, and bilateral trade volumes had surged to $975 billion by 2022. China leveraged insights gleaned from this pact and applied them to its engagement with Central Asia, epitomised by the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001.

The bedrock of ASEAN’s success is the pivotal role of leadership propelled by unwavering political resolve, particularly during the organisation’s early years. The visionary leadership of Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman, a founding figure, proved instrumental in fostering unity among these neighbouring nations, for example.

Khoman orchestrated pivotal negotiations and dialogue among counterparts from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore at a tranquil Thai retreat, envisioning an organisation that would fortify regional bonds, foster peace and prosperity, and defuse conflicts through diplomatic channels. This seminal gathering culminated in the historic signing of the Bangkok Declaration in 1967.

Later, ASEAN instituted regular summits and ministerial meetings among its member states, fostering coordinated efforts and bolstering cooperation across diverse domains, including economics, security, culture, and sustainable development. Through collaborative leadership, it forged an efficient organisational framework and mechanisms for decision making. This collective stewardship has underpinned ASEAN’s resilience and cohesion over the years and has helped it to navigate member state diversity and surmount multifaceted regional challenges.

Embracing a doctrine of “unity in diversity,” ASEAN champions a profound respect for individual disparities and promotes an ethos that has galvanised a robust sense of regional identity and collaboration amid the rich tapestry of cultures and civilisations within its borders. The unparalleled breadth of cultural, religious, linguistic, and ethnic diversity within the ASEAN countries sets the organisation apart globally. Within its relatively compact geographical area, they live approximately 240 million Muslims, 130 million Christians, 140 million Buddhists, and seven million Hindus, with these communities exemplifying the mosaic of beliefs and traditions that define the ASEAN landscape.

While there may be no one-size-fits-all solution for stabilising the Middle East, the model of regional integration seen in Southeast Asia presents a compelling case study. In 1967, and at the same time that conflict was plaguing the Middle East, the Southeast Asian nations were grappling with their own internal strife. Despite such challenges, ASEAN emerged as a paragon of successful integration, leveraging consensus-building, dialogue, and the pursuit of shared interests.

 ASEAN stands as a testament to the efficacy of regional cooperation in which peace serves as a guiding principle and economic collaboration as a pathway to prosperity and well-being. The ASEAN paradigm also prompts a pertinent question: could the ASEAN blueprint serve as a model for fostering stability and development in the Middle East?


The writer is a senior researcher at Al-Habtor Research Centre.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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