When The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967, its primary purpose was to end territorial disputes between nations who had only shed of colonial servitude in the last two decades and as such looked to develop a renewed purpose of fraternal neighbourly relations in a new era. Over time, ASEAN has blossomed into a respectful partnership between Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, The Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Brunei, Los and Cambodia. Taken in totality, ASEAN represents one of the most diverse, dynamic and most rapidly growing markets in the world as well as a place where human development continues to grow at both rapid and sustainable rates.
By contrast, the African Union has been held back by internal conflicts which have prohibited developmental unity while the European Union has if anything become a victim of its own overly ambitious centralising tendencies. While the Eurasian Economic Union continues to grow, because of the geopolitical dynamics of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russian superpower is clearly playing a de-facto leadership role in helping far smaller and weaker nations to develop in a post-Soviet world.
Unlike the aforementioned examples ASEAN is a group of nations with rich and diverse cultures but whose 20th century development in a post-colonial world has occurred within a similar space in time. Likewise, because ASEAN has not forced rapid integration at the rate of the European Union, ASEAN is increasingly seen as a co-equal partnership while European unity initiatives continue to be dominated by Germany and France at the expense of many other nations.
One of ASEAN’s main achievements of the last 20 years has been pooling the strength of its member nations in order to facilitate and implement free trading agreements with major non-ASEAN states. In addition to trading freely within ASEAN, the bloc as a whole currently has free trade agreements with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Other nations, including Turkey whose prominent Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is attending the Foreign Ministers ASEAN summit in Singapore throughout this week also look to expand trade with the south east Asian bloc. A free trading agreement between ASEAN and Ankara looks to be the medium term logical conclusion to the rapidly intensifying relations between Turkey and ASEAN. Likewise, as Pakistan’s new government looks to diversify its trading relations across global regions, I have suggested that an ASEAN-Pakistan free trading agreement could be mutually advantageous in both the near and long term.
Taken in totality, ASEAN has a bright future. The key for ASEAN leaders at this stage in time is to work more intensely than ever on continuing the development of an internal single market while singing free trading agreements with a combination of developed and moderately prosperous economies. Positive trading relations with others can help ASEAN not only to resolve its own conflicts but to also reach a Montreux Convention style agreement with China regarding the South China Sea.
In an age where the United States, a long time partner of many ASEAN states is retreating behind walls of economic protectionism, China has helped to foster a spirit of reinvigorated optimism regarding free trade as has been made clear by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to Malaysia and his visit today to neighbouring Singapore within the framework of the ASEAN summit. Speaking with Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Wang stated
“With growing uncertain and unstable factors in the world, we should make concerted efforts to ensure East Asia’s peace and stability as well as maintain its momentum of marching forward”.
Balakrishnan later said,
“China has been ASEAN’s top trading partner for the past eight consecutive years. We upgraded the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement in 2015 and we’re working to fully implement this upgrade protocol. We are also striving toward a joint target of $1 trillion in trade and $150 billion in investment by 2020”.
In spite of China having a difficult relationship with ASEAN member Vietnam, China recently overtook the US as the number one export market for Vietnamese goods while a new urban railway in Vietnam constructed by China Railway Sixth Group Co. Ltd has already taken a successful test run before welcoming passengers.
These developments are indicative of a spirit of peace through prosperity that is possible both within ASEAN and between ASEAN and both near and distant partners. The diverse group of foreign ministers attending the current ASEAN summit in Singapore which includes those from China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United States is a further testament to the fact that south east Asia is increasingly forming a new global epicentre for trade and sustainable development initiatives that are increasingly formed on the win-win model that defines the principles of Asian authored, owned and executed connectivity initiatives in the 21st century.
While modern history has seen the rise and fall of many well-intentioned blocs of nations, the ASEAN model of strength through cooperation and prosperity through peaceful trading initiatives is clearly the way forward in a new global era of freer and fairer trade.