ASEAN After 50: Social Integration and the Challenges of New Geopolitics


Ahmad Rizky M. Umar and Karina Larasati B. Riyanto

What should ASEAN do in the next 50 years? For ASEAN, its survival for the last 50 years is a great achievement. Although some people said that ASEAN has undergone slow and steady development, its survival during the last 50 year has proved ASEAN’s resilience to political changes in global.

But could ASEAN survive for another 50 years? ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada has presented a series of article on “ASEAN after 50”, which comprises reflections on what has ASEAN achieved in latest 50 years and what should be done in the future. Many authors shared optimism –alongside critical viewpoint—on the future of ASEAN.

Ahmad Rizky M. Umar kicked-off by arguing that the future ASEAN integration needs to move beyond political and economic integration. He suggests that ASEAN needs to take into account broader issues other than traditional free trade, security, or political integration issues. ASEAN needs to deal with oft-neglected issues such as Middle Income Trap, Sustainability, Human Rights, or Gender.

Suraj Shah, for example, argues that ASEAN needs to rethink its approach to development and industrial strategy in order to escape the Middle Income Trap. Economic integration attempt to pave the way for such initiative, but the perceived ASEAN way among the member states constrained the implementation.

Taking a more critical stance, Jakkrit Chuamuangphan calls ASEAN to pay more attention to Human Rights defender. The case of forced disappearances in many Southeast Asian states (most notably, the Sombhat case in Laos) should be tackled by ASEAN by functioning its Human Rights Commission, which has been established since 2009. Farieda Ilhami Zulaikha highlights the many languages of gender discrimination in the region, which ASEAN is still unable to respond with proper policy frameworks.

From a sustainability perspective, Ibnu Budiman reflects the need for ASEAN to rethink its approach to agricultural sector due to the danger of climate change. Moreover, he suggests that ASEAN should start to protect the rights of smallholder farmers through investing in climate action. A more participatory approach with farmers in each ASEAN member states is therefore necessary.

Dendy Raditya Atmosuwito raises more questions as to how we should reconsider ASEAN studies in the future, given the existing social and political challenges in the last 50 years. For example, as Dio H. Tobing has critically asked, is such notion like ASEAN Way –a perceived diplomatic culture among ASEAN member states based on non-intervention principle—still relevant in the future? The answer yes, given the historical importance of such norm in the past.

Nevertheless, according to Rifky Maulana Iqbal Taufik, ASEAN should also consider establishing a more complex form of collective identity to bring the idea of ASEAN Community ‘down to ordinary people’. This is where paradiplomacy is increasingly important for ASEAN. Ario Bimo Utomo explains that which the practice of diplomacy is not only dominated by the central government, but also the local government. This new framework should also be considered by ASEAN in the future. This necessitates further capacity development and inclusion of ‘good governance’ in ASEAN’s institutional design, according to Pinto Buana Putra.

In the end, the trend of Asian international politics in the 21st century shows geopolitical challenges that ASEAN cannot deny. The geopolitical context in Asia is changing. The rise of China after nearly forty years of reforms evokes the signs of uncertainty, security instability and also, expectation, within the region.
On the one hand, China’s presence as the new global economic force altered the direction of bilateral relations in Asia by reducing the dominance power and influence of the United States within the region. China rise to power succeeded in providing new nuances in regional cooperation including export activities of Southeast Asia countries. On the other hand, as suggested by many analysts, rising power usually emerges as revisionist rather than status quo powers or simply maintaining the balance of power. With China outgrowing as a regional power and on its way through the global stage, its opening up the possibility of creating a new order in the international system.

China’s economic ascent and therefore, military strengthening raises concerns about the possibility of war outbreak between the two great powers and the deteriorated conflict in the South China Sea, involving China and most of the ASEAN member states. As a matter of fact, what is seen to date, instead of peace and stability as promised, there is an increase of tension and China’s arrogance in securing its state’s interests.

Another challenge for ASEAN in this geopolitical shift is to maintain the neutrality and unity of ASEAN member states. It is worth noting, China’s growing economic relations with ASEAN member states is remarkable but the US is an irreplaceable element of regional balance because it is the US that has brought prosperity to the region. The competition of two or more great forces within the region has, indirectly, divided regions over different frontiers. With the faded unity among ASEAN member states, ASEAN has increasingly lost its relevance and power to act as a stabilizer between the competition of the two great powers.

The geopolitical shift and the rise of China are inevitable. To deal with this challenges, ASEAN needs to wisely benefit on the opportunities and fight against any possibilities that might deteriorate regional peace and stability. The generous goal of China in establishing Asia as an independent region should be put to good use.

This is where ASEAN needs to strengthen its cooperation with China as well as the other countries to counterweight China’s power in the region, as argued by Gabriel Lele,  ASEAN should not become a ‘passive actor’ in crafting cooperation with China. Rather, ASEAN should negotiate in many relevant aspects, one of which is the cooperation based on history past and similarity on culture.


*) Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar is the Executive Secretary of ASEAN Studies Center UGM and
Karina Larasati is a Researcher at ASEAN Studies Center UGM