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[ASEAN ISSUE #18] Book Review: The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace

Book Review: The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace



The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace (2017)

Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffrey Sng

National University of Singapore Press

ISBN: 978-9814722490



On August 8th, 1967, a regional organization was newly founded in Southeast Asia, a battlefield of hot wars during the Cold War. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was originally established as a five-member state organization amid the frequent armed conflicts in the region. Over the past 50 years, ASEAN has contributed to bringing peace and stability in the region and accommodated additional members to make today’s ASEAN-10 under the motto of ‘unity in diversity’. There are contradicting assessments of its successes and failures as a regional organization. Some praise the association as the second most successful regional organization after the European Union (EU), while skeptics point out its institutional weaknesses and the harsh reality of smaller powers’ limitations.


Amid these conflicting assessments, Mahbubani and Sng draws attention on its successes over its flaws. The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, published in 2017 which commemorated the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, shed light on miraculous achievements of ASEAN, as its title suggests. The two authors are born and raised in multicultural Singapore with Indian (Mahbubani) and Chinese (Sng) backgrounds. Accordingly, they have vast experiences of Southeast Asia´s diverse cultures, growing up learning Malay language in schools and having lived in different parts of Southeast Asia. Based on their deep understanding of Southeast Asia, arguably the most culturally diverse region in the world, the two authors highlight the value of the “ecosystem of peace” created by ASEAN.


The first chapter titled ‘The Four Waves’  introduces the waves of external civilizations that shaped ASEAN’s multiculturalism and its core value ‘unity in diversity’. Chapter 2 narrates the birth of ASEAN and how the regional network has established an “ecosystem of peace”. Chapter 3 demonstrates ASEAN’s relations with external powers in the course of maintaining regional stability. Chapter 4 sketches the characteristics of the 10 ASEAN member states, and Chapter 5 examines the strengths and weaknesses of ASEAN undertaking a standard SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. In Chapter 6, the authors call for Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to ASEAN for its achievement in bringing peace and stability to the region.


Beginning with the background of Southeast Asia’s diverse culture, the book traces back to the inflow of four civilizations (India, China, Muslim and the West) that have greatly influenced shaping today’s Southeast Asian culture. From ancient times, Southeast Asia saw influx of external cultures through trade with surrounding regions (India, China and Middle East), and the Western colonial period which ruled the region in the modern era. Moreover, Southeast Asia is arguably the most culturally diverse region in the world as illustrated by many cases including Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago and a Muslim country; the Philippines which is the only Christian nation in Asia; Vietnam where vivid Chinese cultural influence can be witnessed; many traces of Hindu culture found across continental and maritime Southeast Asia; and the modern state systems established during the Western colonial era.


In this region of diversity, nations were divided under different colonial rules. After the World War II, many countries gained independence. However, the region found itself divided once again by the Cold War rivalry. In particular, spread of communism in Indochina states and rising communist insurgencies across region had concerned many leaders, and it was the fear born under such context that had motivated the establishment of ASEAN. The authors suggest five factors for ASEAN’s success: 1) fear of communism which brought the 5 founding members together; 2) strong leadership with willingness to maintain regional cooperation; 3) geopolitical luck of being anti-communist and pro-American to stand on the winning side of the Cold War; 4) market-oriented economy; 5) ASEAN Centrality promoted by the ASEAN-based regional networks.


ASEAN’s success in creating an “ecosystem of peace” is assessed by the authors in three stages. From its establishment in 1967 to 1990, when the Cold War came to an end, is classified as the first phase. During this time, the Indochina region was assimilated into the communist sphere, raising alarms across Southeast Asia. However, the communist powers were soon divided by the Sino-Soviet confrontations, and ASEAN, as a regional organization, played an important role in maintaining regional stability particularly through its institutional response to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. The second phase is the 1990s during which ASEAN had expanded as a regional organization and became today’s 10-member bloc. In particular, admission of Vietnam, which had been at the center of major conflicts in the region, was a key to building a foundation for peace and stability in the region. During the third phase which began with the 21st century, ASEAN sought to develop its institutional foundations by signing intraregional and external free trade agreements and adopting the ASEAN Charter.


Chapter 3, ‘ASEAN and the Great Powers’, demonstrates interesting insight with the analysis of ASEAN’s relationship with major powers, namely the United States, China, the EU, India and Japan, conducted through an insider’s perspective. In short, the two authors suggest that ASEAN seeks friendly relations with all countries to promote peace, given its nature as a coalition of the smaller powers which can easily become the victim of superpower rivalries. Hence ASEAN asserts that the United States should refrain from using ASEAN as a “weapon” for containing China, while China is recommended to develop friendly relations with ASEAN to demonstrate its peaceful rise. On its relations with the EU, the authors point out the EU’s past misjudgment to pressure ASEAN to place sanctions on Myanmar’s then military regime. ASEAN has done quite the opposite, accepting Myanmar into the bloc, and the authors suggest that ASEAN’s admission of Myanmar has in turn contributed to its peaceful democratization, which is a lesson for the EU to take note of. Regarding ASEAN’s relations with India, authors eye on vast opportunities to upgrade the bilateral relations given the cultural proximity between the two regions.


The discussions on ASEAN-Japan relations has many implications for Korea also. The authors note Japan’s early rapprochement with the region, particularly emphasizing the significance of the Fukuda Doctrine. However, such efforts had not been as successful as anticipated. The authors argue that since the Meiji Restoration, Japan has adopted an attitude to look West which continues to this day, and hence its policy toward Asia had not been given as much weight. Unlike Northeast Asia where history burdens have become stumbling block in foreign relations, ASEAN has a forward-looking attitude to strengthen relations with Japan. Quoting Fukuda’s speech in Manila, the authors call for “heart-to-heart” engagement, which will take ASEAN-Japan relations beyond the current strong economic ties.


While the authors appreciate ASEAN’s miraculous achievements, they also point out many rooms for improvement. In particular, they identify ASEAN’s weaknesses as 1) a weak ASEAN Secretariat with lack of budget and limited execution power; 2) the absence of a leadership role among the 10 member states; and 3) the lack of awareness among the general public of the ASEAN Community. ASEAN’s weaknesses are even more vivid when compared to the EU. The annual budget of the EU is about 8,000 times greater than ASEAN’s, and there is distinct leadership countries in the organization such as Germany and France, while there appears to be a lack of a “natural custodian” to perform such roles in ASEAN. Furthermore, raising awareness of ASEAN to the general public to share their identification as ‘ASEAN citizens’ along with their respective nationalities is imperative, just as people in Europe perceive themselves as Europeans, as part of the EU Community and are informed of the organization.


Yet despite such weaknesses, ASEAN has been the pioneer to bring peace in Southeast Asia for the past 50 years. It has brought the region out of absolute poverty through economic development and has also succeeded in bringing together major powers in world every year for an annual dialogue. Based on these achievements, the authors opine that ASEAN should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on the grounds that it has overcome the myriad of difficulties and kept the region in peace. The argument sees ASEAN deserving the same honor as the EU, which won the prize in 2012 as the first regional organization to be awarded.


The ASEAN Miracle observes Southeast Asia’s journey towards peace in depth. ASEAN’s achievements have not gained much attention from the international community to the extent that even ASEAN or member states themselves may not have been aware of. As the two authors point out, an outbreak of conflict draws worldwide attention from its background to future leadings, while a state of peace is easily taken for granted. In this context, this book highlights ASEAN’s unrecognized achievements as it should deserve.


From Korea’s perspective, it is unfortunate that only a few references to Korea can be found in this book. Nevertheless, the authors’ insights on the relations between ASEAN and external powers certainly have implications for ASEAN-Korea relations. As Korea seeks to enhance its relations with ASEAN based on people, prosperity and peace which have been the key focus areas of the New Southern Policy, Korea should try to read ASEAN’s mind, as can be observed from the book.


Since the establishment of the sectoral dialogue partnership in 1989, ASEAN-Korea relations have developed dramatically. Last year, the ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit was held for the third time and the Mekong-ROK meetings were elevated to summitry. However, economic cooperation still accounts for a great deal in the bilateral relations. Building a “people-centered” ASEAN-Korea relations will become more crucial in the future to avoid falling into the trap of becoming a “mercantilist partner”. For ASEAN and Korea to become true neighbors and friends, it is essential to understand each other and to promote common values based on inclusive partnerships for co-prosperity, which also suggests the way forward for the New Southern Policy 2.0 to take on. The late 20th Century saw ASEAN bringing about a miraculous “ecosystem of peace” in Southeast Asia, and Korea achieving the ‘Miracle on the Han River’. The two can together write a new history of miracles in the 21st Century.

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