Asean: From battlefield to marketplace

Asean: From battlefield to marketplace

The term "Asia" - coined by the 5th century BCE Greek historian Herodotus to describe what lay east of Anatolia - can be used only in referring to the continent, the world's largest and most diverse by far, but not in the context of any particular attributes.

The values of, say, a Syrian are so very different from those of, say, a Korean, that any talk of the erstwhile, much-ballyhooed "Asian values" is meaningless.

The "Asian economic miracle" is all right so long as it is clear we are talking about maybe just over a half-dozen economies that have escaped poverty and the middle-income trap. Vast swathes of the Asian continent remain mired in poverty.

Furthermore, in many cases, Asians of a particular country or region do not know other Asians well. The average educated Indian will know much more about the United States and even Britain than he will know about China; ditto the average educated Chinese with respect to India. My Indian students know virtually nothing about Indonesia, Asia's second-biggest democracy, including even the approximate size of its population.

While all of the above is true, it is also true that arising from a variety of forces - China's rise, technological transformations, development of global supply chains, urbanisation, rising middle classes, consumption patterns of energy and raw materials, et cetera - Asia is more economically integrated than it ever was, even if it remains culturally and geopolitically fragmented.

Another generalisation that can, alas, be safely made is that much of Asia is in turmoil within its various regional neighbourhoods. The new year is hardly three weeks old and already we have, at the western extreme of Asia, a sudden intensification of the Saudi-Iranian conflict and, at the eastern extreme, the North Korean testing of what Pyongyang has called the "Hydrogen Bomb for Justice".

Thus, a non-exhaustive list of Asian geopolitical hot points would include the various conflicts in West Asia; the unfinished war in Afghanistan and its impact on Central Asia; the tensions between Pakistan and India and between India and Nepal in South Asia; border disputes between China and India; and in North-east Asia, apart from the potentially explosive situation in the Korean peninsula, there is also the deep animosity between China and Japan.


In looking at this Asian panorama, comparatively speaking - and I stress "comparatively" - South-east Asia, the ASEAN region, stands out as an oasis of stability. For one thing, South-east Asia is the only Asian region that has no nuclear weapons; in West Asia, there are nuclear arsenals in Israel and possibly in Iran, in Central Asia in Pakistan, in South Asia in India, and in North-east Asia in China and in North Korea.

In contrast, at the end of last year, the ASEAN Economic Community was established, aiming to bring about further integration in the markets of the 10 ASEAN member nations. Next year, on Aug 8, ASEAN will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding as the Association of South-east Asian Nations.

Back in 1967 - when I was in the first year of my doctoral studies at the Far East Centre, St Antony's College, Oxford - no one in his wildest dreams could have dared hope that, one day, South-east Asia would be deemed the most peaceful and stable region of Asia.

In the course of the 1960s and 70s, South-east Asia was a disaster zone.

In no particular order, the region experienced the following tragic calamities: the Vietnam War (1965-1975), with some 1.5 million killed; riots in Singapore (1965 and 1969); massacres in Indonesia (1965-1966), with the number of estimated deaths ranging from 0.5 million to two million; Konfrontasi (confrontation) between Indonesia and Malaysia (1963-1966); the establishment (1969) of the Philippines Bagong Hukbong Bayan (New People's Army), which waged active guerilla warfare for much of the ensuing decade and beyond; the Perang Insurgensi Melawan Pengganas Komunisi (Communist Insurgency War) in Malaysia, launched in 1968, that lasted well into the 1980s; and one of the greatest tragedies to befall humanity, the Khmer Rouge genocide in the period 1975 to 1979, during which an estimated 2.2 million people were killed, many in the most gruesome circumstances.

A snapshot of recent history shows how incredibly far South-east Asia has come. Things were beginning to change in the 1980s, the economies were opening up and foreign investment began pouring in.

But it was tentative. ASEAN was not making the progress that could have been hoped for in economic integration. There was a story, possibly apocryphal, that it was only after days of intense negotiations that the governments of the original five ASEAN founding members - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - finally reached an agreement to abolish tariffs in the trade of snowploughs.

I remember listening to a speech at Chatham House in London given by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee when he was Deputy Prime Minister (from 1973 to 1984), in which he had not mentioned ASEAN once and, when asked about it, dismissed it as a "foreign ministers' club".

The Vietnam War had ended in 1975; then in the late 1970s, Hanoi invaded Cambodia and seemed to be embarking on an imperialist course which threatened Thailand. In the meantime, the Thai economy was booming with all that that implies, both positive and negative. So a "joke" circulating in bars in Bangkok was that the Vietnamese would never succeed in invading Thailand because Vietnamese tanks would not be able to get through Bangkok traffic jams!


By no means is South-east Asia today an unadulterated bed of roses. There have been and are considerable challenges.

There was the shock of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 that, ultimately, the region weathered reasonably well.

Still, there are acute problems of political governance and transitions; there are ethnic clashes - notably the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority by Buddhists in Myanmar; there are still deep pockets of poverty; there are egregious violations of human rights, including the practice of slavery; there is widespread corruption; and terrible pollution.

It is also not clear how ASEAN will manage the challenge posed by China in the South China Sea.

It is because of these challenges that I insisted on underlining the word "comparatively" when speaking about ASEAN stability.

The ASEAN "model" cannot, of course, be transplanted lock, stock and barrel elsewhere in Asia. Still, leaders in other Asian regions, especially in the currently extremely turbulent South-west Asia, should study closely the South-east Asian experience for possible inspiration and lessons in transforming their regions from battlefield to marketplace.

Perhaps one might envisage in 2017 the creation of Aswan - the Association of South-west Asian Nations - as a first step in that direction.

The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland, and visiting professor at Hong Kong University. He is founder of The Evian Group, which promotes the development of open, sustainable, global market economies within a rules-based multilateral framework.

This article was first published on January 23, 2016.
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