Can ten countries with different cultures, languages, political systems, and levels of economic development act in concert to expand their collective potential? That is the question with which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been wrestling for decades. ASEAN was formed in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, with five members: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The nations of Indochina were entangled in geopolitical competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Thanat, the former Thai foreign minister and one of ASEAN’s founding fathers, lists four primary motivations behind the establishment of ASEAN. The first was to prevent external powers from exploiting the power vacuum left after rapid decolonization of the region. Second, the founders of ASEAN saw an opportunity to foster cooperation among countries with common interests in the same geographic region. Third, the founders were convinced that the countries of Southeast Asia would have a stronger voice in addressing major global powers if they could speak together. Finally, ASEAN’s founders believed “cooperation and ultimately integration serve the interests of all—something that individual efforts can never achieve.”
East Asia has experienced major shifts of power in the 21st century. The United States and China have moved from close collaboration in the Cold War years to a new pattern of competition and collaboration. The Sino–Japanese relationship has been a tempestuous one. ASEAN has played an important role in reducing geopolitical tension by providing an annual platform for all the great powers to meet and resolve outstanding issues.
In addition, each year the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) plays host to 27 different countries to discuss security issues in the region. Many major powers attend, including the United States, the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, and South and North Korea. This institutionalizes interactions among them, even during diplomatically tense periods. Sensitive topics that have been discussed on the sidelines of the ARF include North Korea’s nuclear program and maritime disputes in the South China and the East China Seas. Few other international venues bring together so many different stakeholders for frank discussions on delicate security and strategic issues.
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