In February 2016, the United States hosted its first ever ASEAN Summit. ASEAN stands for Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The meeting was part of President Obama’s efforts to strengthen economic and security ties with Southeast Asia. The US’s interest in ASEAN has grown significantly in recent years as tensions rise over the highly disputed South China Sea. So, what is ASEAN and why is it important for Southeast Asia? Well, ASEAN is a political and economic alliance of 10 countries. The group’s five original member states – Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – founded ASEAN in 1967, during the height of the Vietnam war.
At the time, many Southeast Asian governments were at war with their respective communist-led guerilla groups, and leaders became increasingly concerned over the region’s political vulnerability. So, they formed an alliance to not only secure the region against the threat of communism, but to give Southeast Asia a cohesive voice on Cold War issues . Since the fall of the Soviet Union, ASEAN has shifted its focus to international trade, border security and collaboration with neighboring countries like China and South Korea. For instance, ASEAN member state’s GDPs range anywhere from roughly $11 to roughly $888 billion dollars, but collectively their GDP is about $trillion dollars, rivaling that of France and the United Kingdom. When it comes to military strength, each ASEAN member state is relatively powerless on its own. Some countries, like Laos and Brunei have less than 40 thousand active military personnel. Although ASEAN has not fully integrated its military, they have already begun to collaborate on regional security threats, like North Korea’s nuclear program and the territorial dispute over the resource-rich South China sea.
For decades, China has tried to take ownership of much of this area, despite conflicting claims from several member states, including the Philippines and Vietnam. ASEAN has repeatedly attempted to resolve the issue, but has thus far failed. The South China Sea conflict has jeopardized diplomatic relations between member states, as several are heavily influenced by China. ASEAN’s lack of coherence on the issue has led to criticism of the group’s supposedly weak leadership and disjointed priorities. Despite these differences of opinion over the the South China Sea dispute, ASEAN is striving to create a distinct “Southeast Asian identity” by 2020. Meaning that citizens belonging to these member states would identify themselves not by their nationality, but by calling themselves ASEAN.
So how important is ASEAN? Well this powerful economic alliance, coupled with Southeast Asia’s growing consumer base, has attracted interest from the United States. When President Obama took office in 2009, the US made a strategic pivot to strengthen relations with Asia, even hosting ASEAN’s bi-annual summit on US soil. And as China continues to expand its military and territorial claims, a united Southeast Asian front is more critical than ever. This is brought to you by Domain dot com.