ASEAN has succeeded against all odds

Kishore Mahbubani Kishore Mahbubani

Nicholas Gordon interviews Kishore Mahbubani, author of The ASEAN Miracle.


What do you believe are the core elements of the ASEAN model? What defines ASEAN and its principles, and what differentiates it from other regional organizations?


I think the key differentiating factor within the ASEAN regional organization is its unique culture. In the book I talk about what I call the culture of musyawarah and mufakat—“consultation” and “consensus”. Over the years, ASEAN’s members have evolved a capacity to talk to each other, resolve differences and reach agreement.

Unlike the European Union, which is very legalistic and negotiates thick agreements, ASEAN is very loose and does not believe in trying to force through an agreement if people are not yet ready. This of course means that ASEAN moves very slowly, but this may be its competitive advantage.


You mentioned a “unique culture”. There’s the “culture” of Southeast Asia, which you describe as uniquely diverse, and then there’s the “culture” of the organization, which focuses on consensus and consultation. How does one influence the other?

ASEAN has succeeded against all odds.

That is actually a very deep question. Southeast Asia is in some ways the most interesting region of planet Earth. Out of around 600 million people, you have around 240 million Muslims, 130 million Christians, 140 million Buddhists, and Taoists, Confucianists, Hindus and even Communists. It’s an amazingly diverse corner of the world.

In fact, if there was one region of the world that should be falling apart, it’s Southeast Asia. What’s amazing is that it’s instead hanging together peacefully. That’s why the book is called “The ASEAN Miracle”: it has succeeded against all odds.


Does the uniqueness of Southeast Asia and of ASEAN limit its applicability to other regions of the world? Or are there ways in which ASEAN has handled its diversity than can be applied to other regions like the Middle East or Latin America?


One mistake that other regions have made is to use the European Union as a model. For example, the Africans changed the name of their organization from the OAU—the Organization of African Unity—to the “African Union”, thinking they’d be like the Europeans. They wanted to create a tight, legalistic organization. This was a mistake, because when you have a diverse group of members, it’s better to have looser rather than tighter arrangements to bring countries together. The African Union can certainly learn lessons from ASEAN.

In the same way, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) can also learn lessons from ASEAN. One big lesson mentioned in the book is that ASEAN’s success happened because Indonesia, its biggest member, decided to take a back seat. Indonesia did not try to dominate ASEAN, which gave the other members opportunities to provide leadership and have a greater sense of ownership over the organization. Whereas the perception is that SAARC is dominated by India. It would be in India’s interest to change this perception and develop among the other members of SAARC a greater sense of ownership of the organisation. This would enable SAARC to become stronger.


You suggest that ASEAN has had a “smoothing” role in the great power relationship between the United States and China by giving a neutral platform for them to meet and discuss issues. Is this a lesson that can be applied elsewhere in managing great power relations in other regions?


You know, it’s funny, even though I wrote a book on ASEAN, I don’t know how the tradition of inviting other leaders to attend ASEAN meetings started. It started quite early, and began initially with its neighbors: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and so on. It grew as a club. You started off with ASEAN Plus One, then ASEAN Plus Three, then ASEAN Plus Six… it just kept growing.

After a while, people found it useful to come to the ASEAN meeting because they found it was the only place where they could meet the leaders of the entire Asia-Pacific region. If you wanted to do “one-stop shopping” for great power engagement, you would go to an ASEAN meeting. It’s like going to a mall where you could buy everything— a “diplomatic mall”.


And ASEAN is neutral. The other example would be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has “Shanghai” in the name.


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is one that is doing good work, but whose sense of ownership is clearly felt by China in many ways. ASEAN’s strength comes from its weakness. It is not a threat to anybody, and because of that, people feel comfortable attending ASEAN meetings.

Australia tried to create an Asia-Pacific Forum that would bypass ASEAN. It failed because everyone knew that Australia was a reliable and good defense ally of the United States, and so Australia would never do anything against American interests. That’s why you needed a neutral party like ASEAN.

The trouble about peace is that it is a non-event.

The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, Kishore Mahbubani, Jeffery Sng (NUS Press, July 2017)
The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, Kishore Mahbubani, Jeffery Sng (NUS Press, July 2017)

The book calls for ASEAN to win the Nobel Peace Prize. What are some of the internal conflicts that ASEAN prevented? And to pose the counterfactual: how might the history of Southeast Asia have been different if ASEAN never existed?


The trouble about peace is that it is a non-event. You can see war, but you cannot see peace. I lived for a year in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in ’73-’74. The city was shelled every day, so you knew the city was at war. Whereas when there was peace, there was no coverage.

The fact that there is no major threat of war between any two member states in the most diverse region of the planet is an amazing achievement. And I’m surprised the Nobel Prize hasn’t recognized that. ASEAN is a “living laboratory” to show how different civilizations can collaborate.

But apart from that, there was a conflict brewing at one stage between Thailand and Cambodia over the [disputed Hindu temple of] Preah Vihear. And that conflict was clearly prevented by ASEAN.

Here is another reason. Take two countries with long-time military governments: one was Syria, the other was Myanmar. Syria was handled by the West, Myanmar by ASEAN. The Western policy towards Syria was isolation, sanctions and bombing. The ASEAN solution for Myanmar was the exact opposite: it made Myanmar a member, it engaged Myanmar, it talked to Myanmar. The result is that Syria is a complete mess, which the West should take full responsibility for, while Myanmar is transforming slowly and peacefully.

I think it’s clear that if ASEAN was not around, there could have been all kinds of conflict. The Philippines still claims the [Malaysian] state of Sabah. Thailand had suspicions that Malaysia was supporting the southern Thai separatists. And then Indonesia and Malaysia have competing claims over the islands of Sipadan and Ligatan. Yet, because of ASEAN, they decided to refer the case to the International Court.


Why do you think Southeast Asia and ASEAN have been overlooked by mainstream Western media and commentary?


Everybody thinks that the Western mind is an open mind, but in fact it can be quite insular. The West finds it difficult to understand how different models work. If you look at the European Union, it’s tight, legalistic, well-organized. ASEAN is the opposite. I have described ASEAN as like a crab: it takes two steps forward, one step back, one step sideways. It can look like it’s travelling in circles, and thus you think it’s not going anywhere.

But slice ASEAN’s history decade by decade, and you see how ASEAN’s GNP has grown in each decade. ASEAN is now the 7th largest economy in the world, and is on its way to be the 4th largest. How did that happen?


One can think of a spectrum of regional organizations. On the one end, you have forums like the Organization of American States, and the European Union on the other, with its shared sovereignty. Where does ASEAN fall on this spectrum as an organization with no shared sovereignty, but some political integration and growing economic integration?


I think ASEAN is sui generis. There are many areas where ASEAN will never be like the European Union. There will be no surrender of sovereignty. There will be no single currency. Do you want to know the biggest difference between ASEAN and the EU? The EU’s combined GNP is only six times the size of ASEAN’s, yet the budget of the European Commission is 8000 times the size of the ASEAN Secretariat’s budget!

At one stage, everyone thought the European model was superior. But now with Brexit and the EU potentially breaking apart, it will show that ASEAN’s flexibility and looseness is something that people should study.

One of the most brilliant things ASEAN has done is what I call the “ASEAN minus X” principle. When all ten members cannot agree on a proposal for cooperation, eight may go ahead first, and the remaining two will say “We’ll join you later, as we’re not ready yet.” This facilitates cooperation. The EU does not have an “EU minus X” principle.


Many of ASEAN’s member states, with the exception of Indonesia, are small-to-medium sized, yet are important strategically, culturally and economically: Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, and so on. In an age of globalization, openness, and multipolarity, can these small yet significant states play a constructive role?


Individually, there’s a limit to what ASEAN countries can do. If they tried to operate individually, they would get nowhere. But if they come together as a group, then ASEAN’s weight in the world is high.

ASEAN is now one of the most highly respected organizations in the world. It used to be that the EU was always number one, and ASEAN was, at best, number two. But now, with the EU struggling so much, ASEAN looks like it is now the gold standard. Everyone wants to work with ASEAN. That’s a remarkable change.

But there’s another thing to remember. ASEAN does have a few small states: Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos. But look at the other members. Indonesia, of course, is large with about 240 million people. But you have the Philippines with 100 million. Vietnam has 90 to 100 million. Thailand has 60 million. Myanmar has 50 million.

These states are bigger than most European states! They’re not small!

Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He works at a think tank in Hong Kong. His writing has also appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin.