We are Asean
Ceremonies were held in Davao City kicking off the Philippines’ hosting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in its 50th year. Over the next few months, we will have dozens of technical panels and ministerial meetings convening all over the country. Everything will culminate in the Leaders’ Summit later this year.
As hosts, we will be supervising all these meetings, looking after the creature comforts of the guests, and securing the delegates. Apart from matters on their respective agenda, we hope to familiarize our guests with the sounds and sights and gustatory wonders of our beautiful islands. The meetings are spread all over. But the most important meetings will be held in Davao City. It will be easier to secure VIPs in President Duterte’s hometown. Besides, there will be less traffic flow to aggravate in the country’s southernmost city.
It is hard to believe that Asean is now 50 years old. It was an idea put together in the mid-1960s by the region’s senior diplomats, including our own Carlos P. Romulo and Narciso Ramos. Asean began with five members, and later expanded to six with the inclusion of Brunei. The core Asean countries were subsequently joined by the nations of Indochina to form a larger regional bloc.
The forerunner of Asean was a short-lived association called Maphilindo (for Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia). It was a largely Malay club with no clear strategic agenda, explaining its early demise.
Seato (or Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) was born in the early part of the 1960s as the Vietnam War began to intensify. Modeled after Nato (or North Atlantic Treaty Organization), this was a principally military alliance effectively influenced by the Western powers during the Cold War. Soon many regional leaders, some of whom were participants in the Non-Aligned Movement, became uncomfortable with the pro-Western military alliance.
As Seato was quietly put to rest, Asean was organized. Its founders were careful that the new association did not acquire the character of a military alliance. They were careful, as well, to act only on a clear consensus and avoid stepping into the internal affairs of member-countries.
In its first two or three decades, Southeast Asia was not quite ready for the idea of building a regional economy. The member-nations were as different as any grouping of nations could be. Historically, we were separated by the colonial experience and were in the post-independence period more closely linked to the former colonizers than to regional neighbors. Asean’s potential remained latent in its first three decades.
Over the past two decades, however, the member-countries became more comfortable with the idea of regional economic integration. In the 1990s, the basic outlines of the Asean Free Trade Area were drawn up and a schedule for lowering tariff barriers to encourage intraregional trade and investment flows was agreed upon. Asean began to resemble the European Economic Community, the forerunner of what is now the European Union.
While the idea of building a regional economic community was fairly easy to grasp, the matter of evolving a common identity proved more difficult. This is, after all, a region where all major religious and cultural streams intersected. Asean brings together Christian, Buddhist and Muslim countries. Its members were former colonies of Spain, the United States, Britain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands. A clear regional cultural identity remains elusive to this day. By contrast, the European Community is characterized by great homogeneity rooted in the Greco-Roman heritage.
On its 50th year, Asean should begin to evolve into a regional identity. It will be based on the common regional interests that evolved into place in its framework. It will be sustained by increasingly intensive regional exchanges and more comprehensive corporate integration. The Asean identity will be based on the vision of a shared future sustained by the emerging regional economy.
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