The ASEAN Miracle observes that Southeast Asia is the world’s most diverse region. Although obvious once mentioned, it still seems novel. Southeast Asia’s history is a mix of Chinese, Indian and Islamic influences, with sizable populations of several of the world’s major religions. Yet despite this and its complicated colonial and postcolonial history, Southeast Asian countries have fought no major wars between them over the past half-century. The most significant war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War, involved an extra regional power: namely, the United States.
Professor Kishore Mahbubani (current dean of the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School and formerly Singapore’s representative to the United Nations) and his co-author Jeffery Sng point to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (or ASEAN) as the reason for this regional peace: in their view, ASEAN manages both the relations between its member nations and Southeast Asia’s relations with great powers outside the region. They argue that ASEAN’s much-maligned lack of speed towards integration is in fact an asset, given the region’s economic and cultural diversity. A slower, less centralized drive to integrate allows more developed states like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to integrate first, leaving the door open for less developed economies like Vietnam and Myanmar to follow later.
Mahbubani and Sng contrast ASEAN with the European Union, which more tightly knits European states together. As the European Union stumbles, The ASEAN Miracle presents ASEAN as a different path towards regional organization.
The ASEAN Miracle is a readable, optimistic book. Mahbubani notes that Southeast Asian populations are young and growing, and that the region’s economy is growing fast—ASEAN’s economy is the world’s 7th largest, and will soon be 4th largest. Mahbubani suggests that ASEAN’s success should act to counter more pessimistic views of world history, in particular the “clash of civilizations” thesis.
The book is not without moments of political advocacy, perhaps best shown by its call for ASEAN to win the Nobel Peace Prize in time for the organization’s fiftieth anniversary. This does perhaps lead the book to overstate its point at times. However, some overstatement is forgivable, given the fact that Mahbubani and Sng’s arguments are not made very often.
One interesting benefit presented in The ASEAN Miracle may have increased relevance given today’s increasingly multipolar world. The authors argue that ASEAN has “smoothed” the relations between great powers (namely China, the United States and India) by acting as a politically neutral platform where world leaders could meet.
ASEAN also helps prevent geopolitical shenanigans in the region by allowing the region to speak with one voice. Several issues are dealt with as a group, making it more difficult (though certainly not impossible) for either China or the United States to pick countries off individually.
ASEAN is one of a small number of international organizations that does not include a great power as a member or sponsor. Most organizations, be it the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Organization of American States, include one or more of the great powers. Even when institutions—such as the World Bank or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank— are meant to be benign, they can be perceived as vehicles for great power interest. International organizations have often been paralyzed, or seen their legitimacy diminish, the more a great power tries to dominate.
ASEAN is different: its largest state, Indonesia, did not take a dominant role (a decision that Mahbubani and Sng praise in The ASEAN Miracle). ASEAN instead sits between the great powers: a buffer zone that all the great powers accept as truly neutral.
The “buffer state” is an old idea, mostly applied in the context of the European balance of power. Being a buffer state is generally not seen as a positive thing: it meant being a pawn on the international chessboard, sitting between two powerful countries with tense, if not hostile, relations.
ASEAN’s experience may give us a model for how being a buffer can be empowering. ASEAN is not built to act like a “great power” (unlike, say, the European Union). But ASEAN is large enough so that the other powers must pay attention to it, and organized enough to make it difficult to play individual member states off against each other. ASEAN states may lean one way or the other (e.g. Cambodia towards China, Vietnam towards the United States), but ASEAN keeps these tilts within acceptable tolerances.
As the world becomes more multipolar with differing “spheres of influence”, these buffers may become more necessary to give powers a neutral space to meet and talk with other. The ASEAN Miracle shows how an “ASEAN model” can be one way to create a buffer zone that might be beneficial to all the parties involved.
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.