A World Without ASEAN


They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. ASIAN Geographic asked five experts to imagine a future where the effects of the decades-old regional bloc simply vanished from history, to shed light on what losing it could mean for us



“It is tempting to say, ‘There’ll be no difference’, but ASEAN’s influence runs deeper than meets the eye”


It seems whimsical to envision an alternative future without ASEAN. But in fact, the current global climate – where the ASEAN countries face uncertainties that challenge their futures – tempts countries to doubt the benefits of regional cooperation and magnify its constraints. Transactional “me first” attitudes and shifting power balances have magnified petty differences between countries. Narratives of nationalism are on the rise, together with critical views of whether governments can ensure the security and development of their population. Without the weight of regional commitment, natural differences would heighten suspicions and inhibit travel and trade.

Economically speaking, countries with high numbers of unemployed youth, poverty, natural disasters, or conflicts have the most to lose without ASEAN. Smaller economies would be increasingly dependent on larger powers outside the region for their survival, affecting the region’s niche as an entrepôt and thoroughfare. And with tariffs and barriers to trade and investment back in place, only countries with more open systems can effectively negotiate a space in the global trade environment.

Life in Southeast Asia would also see large differences in how people interact across borders. The region – both before and after colonisation – has had to contend with rivalries and conflict between nations, but ASEAN’s efforts at dialogue prevent all-out war between member states when tensions flare, as they do from time to time. Without a platform to iron out differences, mistrust and narrow self-interests would lead to a fragmented region, vulnerable to external threats. Perhaps in the end, countries might still find themselves thinking along the same lines: to form a regional grouping to create a zone of stability, within which they work together to prosper.

Moe Thuzar
Head of Human Development,
ASEAN Secretariat, 2004–2007,
Lead Researcher (Socio-Cultural Affairs),
ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute


Aerial view of rice terraces, Tegallalang, Bali, Indonesia



“Can we imagine a peaceful and stable Southeast Asia without ASEAN?”


It is tempting to criticise ASEAN because of its shortcomings, but can we imagine a peaceful and stable Southeast Asia without it? Southeast Asia will be less able to manage external influences, less competitive, more expensive to do business in and more dangerous to live in without the regional bloc.

Instead, we might have a region fragmented by religion, ethnicity and geography. Member states might work with external powers to preserve their own interests. There could be increased foreign influence to help maintain peace and stability. Defence budgets could very well soar. Limited exchanges of information might hamper member states tackling terrorism, natural disasters and pandemic outbreaks on their own. (Southeast Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions of the world to natural disasters.) Without ASEAN cooperation and coordination, there would be no network of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and no dialogue partners like America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand to assist in emergency situations.


Related: The Casual Beginnings of ASEAN


ASEAN has focused on economic integration, with import and export tariffs reduced or eliminated based on free trade agreements. Without the grouping, restrictive regimes make it more complicated and time-consuming to move professional workers across the region and for multinational companies to set up ASEAN-wide production chains. Without the ASEAN Economic Community, regional production bases – such as auto manufacturers producing different motor vehicles and component parts in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – would no longer be viable. Jobs could vanish. Businesses could no longer access free online information on cross-border customs processes and procedures, and the lack of information and transparency in business activities could affect the private sector, especially small and medium-sized enterprises dependent on ASEAN for survival. For example, the region’s growing café culture may never have sprung up as quickly as it did without ASEAN’s lower tariffs on coffee bean imports. And without ASEAN, Southeast Asia cannot adjust itself expeditiously to the digital, inclusive and sharing community without its regional knowledge of what is transforming industry, trade and world development.   


Related: The Koreas at ASIAD : A Fraught Combination?


At the beginning, ASEAN was a smaller grouping of five anti-communist countries. It was political ideology and forceful leadership that motivated ASEAN’s diverse member states to work collectively to tackle common challenges. None of them wanted to be alone in dealing with the major powers wanting to dominate Southeast Asia for their own interests. Today, the world’s eyes are on ASEAN because it is a region with a promising future. Geopolitics in the region have shifted with a risen China and a distracted US, and to be sure, ASEAN member states are diverse: Their culture, ethnicity, history and politics are all different. Yet there is an energy to cooperate and collaborate with one another. The bloc has demonstrated its ingenuity by hanging together and keeping peace in the neighbourhood.

Ong Keng Yong
Secretary-General of ASEAN, Jan 2003–Jan 2008
Executive Deputy Chairman, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies



Bangkok Declaration, ASEAN, Thailand
The five foreign ministers signing the Bangkok Declaration on August 8, 1967


“We’d lose the opportunity to explore freely in the region’s diverse, rich destinations”


For the tourism industry, the existence of ASEAN as a governing body has been an immense blessing. Ounethouang Khaophanh, the Laotian Deputy Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, said it best in April’s ASEAN Tourism Committee Meeting in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang: “Tourism is one of the most significant and [highest] priority sectors. It contributes to economic development and generates a huge amount of income and jobs in the ASEAN region and worldwide.”


Related: The Politics of Sports in the Asian Games 


Being part of ASEAN means being part of a bigger pool of resources and support when it comes to cross promotions, airport controls, and new tourist destinations. If ASEAN didn’t exist, there would be no more intergovernmental body to support the tourism industry. Less developed economies would have a harder time attracting regional tourists. Costs of travel would increase without the ASEAN umbrella that waives tax and duties. Local jobs, like tour guides, drivers, hospitality workers and small merchants, would all be greatly reduced. Travellers would no longer be able to take advantage of dedicated lanes for ASEAN passport holders….

Jonathan Chang
Executive Director, Lien Centre for Social Innovation



For the rest of this article and other stories from this issue, head to  Asian Geographic Issue 131, 2018



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