“One vision, one identity, one community” is the motto that accompanies the logo of ASEAN on its website. It was the first thing I noticed when going through the various tabs on the main page of the website. I suppose not many people back in Europe – including me before I started this internship – would be able tell you exactly what ASEAN really is. In fact, I think I would still find it difficult, when asked, to give a clear and concise definition of what constitutes ASEAN.
So, what is ASEAN? Simply put an intergovernmental organisation which consists of ten Member States: Singapore, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia. What is most important, however, is that the organisation serves as a regular forum for its Members to meet and to exchange ideas on a variety of subjects, which, in turn, promotes understanding and develops ties between the countries that make up ASEAN. When the Member countries deem cooperation to be necessary, agreements are concluded to encourage cooperation or even integration in a certain policy area; in that sense we can definitely speak of an ASEAN community.
The motto “one vision, one identity, one community” might conjure up the image of a fully-fledged integrated regional organisation, something which is incongruous with the institutional set-up and workings of ASEAN; in short the ASEAN “community”. Principles such as respect for sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of its Members figure prominently in the ASEAN Charter. It also explicitly stipulates that the principal method of decision-making in ASEAN is by consultation and consensus. Thus, instead of having one vision and one identity, ASEAN has a conversion of ten different visions and ten different identities which may have overlapping interests. Still, the overlap of these different visions and identities may make up “one ASEAN community” as implied by the motto.
Therefore, to say there is no (sense of) community at all between the ASEAN Members would not do justice to the regional organisation. Its Members have been undertaking efforts to establish a single ASEAN economic market, similar to the one we are familiar with in the EU. Members also recognise the benefits of discussing and potentially addressing political issues in the Southeast Asian region together.
One thing I have learned so far – and I have been reminded of repeatedly – is that I should refrain from comparing ASEAN with the EU. My personal challenges for the upcoming six months of my internship will be to try to understand, firstly, why ASEAN is the way it is whilst keeping in mind that its history is unique and distinct from Europe’s integration story and, secondly, what role the EU could play in its relations with ASEAN: a challenge I look forward to and hope to overcome.