Asean as a regional organisation marked its 50th anniversary last year. Year-round events were organised to celebrate the functioning of an organisation that was predicted to wither away or collapse by political analysts at the time of its formation.
Narciso G Reyes, who served as secretary-general of the grouping during 1980-1982, once remarked that success of Asean should be quantified by imagining a "Southeast Asia minus Asean" which would have resulted in greater political instability, widespread economic stress and the rise of expansionist propaganda by actors thriving on disunity among states.
The miracle of Asean lies in the politically and ideologically diverse constituent members and yet, functioning on the much talked about principle of consensus and not the method of a majority. It is also committed to the principles of cooperation and pragmatism. It was reasons like these that reputed academics like Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng recommend the organisation's work as "a catalyst for peace" to be recognised for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In an interesting play of geopolitical events starting from 2016, with some similarity to the events of 2012, the centrality of Asean unity has been projected in a tainted light. Amidst the emerging turmoil in the global order with a distorted hegemonic picture and a shifting focus of the global audience towards the Indo-Pacific region, the importance of a united Asean has become the central point of discussion.
In 2016, a joint statement on the South China Sea disputes was issued by Asean expressing "serious concerns" over the disputed waters. However, the communique was shortly retracted citing "urgent amendments" to be made to the statement and later an amended statement was not issued. Although the statement did not mention China, it did indirectly imply that China was to be blamed for the rising tensions.
The two countries reported to have withdrawn their support were Cambodia and Laos. A similar play of events was witnessed in 2012 where under the chairmanship of Cambodia, the Asean summit was unable to release a joint statement mentioning the concerns over the South China Sea despite the insistence of the Philippines and Vietnam.
With the 2016 arbitration resulting in negative assertions over China's activities in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, the inability of Asean to bring member states in consensus highlights the extent of Chinese inroads into the regional community of Asean.
China with its strong cheque-book diplomacy already has a strong hold over the political affairs of Cambodia and Laos, by which both countries have avoided commenting on the South China Sea disputes. China is now expanding its political influence to other players in the community by investing in economic diplomacy. For example, Indonesia and Myanmar have considerable exports to China.
Brunei devastated the consensus by not participating in the first Asean Claimants Working Group in 2014, which was organised by the Philippines to foster Asean consensus among the overlapping claims of its constituent members. This move came right after the huge investment by China in Brunei when it was on the verge of an oil crisis in 2014.
Singapore, on the other hand, is the largest importer from and second-largest exporter to China. More so recently, the Philippines changed its stance. President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed Chinese investments in infrastructure, unlike his predecessor President Benigno Aquino, who was a staunch critic of Chinese hegemonic designs and claims over the disputed waters. With each country's self-interest at stake, forging an Asean consensus especially against the Chinese aggression seems highly implausible.
The economic projections for Asean in the near future appear to be bright and promising. According to the World Economic Forum on Asean 2017, the overall yearly growth rate of Asean is 5%. Collectively the Asean member countries form the seventh-largest economy in the world and this is expected to improve to fifth by 2020. At 5%, Asean countries are expected to double their income in 15 years.
With the continuance of this growth trajectory, a minor increase of even 2% in the annual growth rate will cause Asean nations to double their income in a matter of 10 years. This growth rate can be achieved by the implementation of the Asean Economic Community which still stands as a distant dream. Further, the Asean members can reap the benefits of a demographic dividend only until 2025. The propensity to achieve these economic benefit is contingent on the pretext of a united Asean community. Thus, the centrality of Asean unity is more relevant than ever before.
Asean today stands at an odd crossroads where a divergence can be seen in its united appearance on the one hand and possibility of fragmented consensus in the near future on the other. Recently in January 2018, India hosted the 10-nation community for the India-Asean summit where the communique issued spoke of the united front of Asean and India to counter regional challenges.
Another opportunity to project Asean unity was the summit held in Singapore in late April this year where the issue of the South China Sea disputes was on the agenda. However, the summit concluded on April 28 with full display of differences among member states, including issues such as the legal and diplomatic processes and a proposal by Vietnam and the Philippines to welcome the July 2016 arbitral tribunal award.
Simultaneously, the Philippines is fostering very close ties with China where talks are also being held on the potential sharing of water resources in the disputed areas of the South China Sea. China is also making strong inroads in Vietnam. It will be interesting to see if an Asean consensus can be formed or at least attempted especially when the Philippines takes over the role of Asean country coordinator for Asean-China dialogue in August 2018.