What Is ASEAN And Why Is It Important For Southeast Asia?
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 $2.5 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
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