“IS ASEAN A COMMUNITY” by Barry Desker

A Critique by Ferry Angelyne M. Sisracon

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) holds a unique position among other regional integration organizations as it was established to accelerate economic growth, social progress, and cultural development regional integration. In August 0f 2017, ASEAN celebrated its 50th founding anniversary and have created an environment good for political-security, economic and socio-cultural developments over the last five decades.

Barry Desker, a Distinguished Fellow from Nanyang Technological University gave quite a fair valuation of the accomplishments and failures of ASEAN as a regional organization. First, he claimed that ASEAN is the most successful regional body after the European Union (EU). It has preserved peace by maintaining to settle intra-regional differences. It also had expanded the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) as foundation of inter-state relations endorsed by 35 states within and outside Southeast Asia. Second, he noted that despite the consensus among the members of United Nations (UN) Security Council; the adoption of the ASEAN Charter; and the promotion of trade liberalization, ASEAN and its members states were still facing with collapsing economies during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-1998. Third, he sees ASEAN as a two-tier organization where policymakers focus only on their own sectors for better economic performance while inferior member countries are left underdeveloped which could have been due to poor cross-sectoral interaction and lack of “ASEAN approach.” Lastly, he recognized the ASEAN limits to regional institution building where most member states are young and just got independent after World War II so, loyalties were only centered on local levels—clans, villages and religious factions because education brought economic and technological improvements has just begun in recent years. Therefore, the idea of the ASEAN Community remained a wish and an unfulfilled aspiration. (Desker, 2017).

However, it must be well-noted that ASEAN is a diverse community with 10 member states and 27 (affiliate) parties, including some major powers. So, even though it boasts that it is successful in its economic development while maintaining peace, ASEAN failed to resolve conflicts brought by issues concerning the West Philippine Sea although ASEAN and China already penned a framework for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in 2017. (ASEAN Secretariat, 2018). Hopefully, it will be finalized the soonest possible time to lessen the risks imposed by this conflict. Moreover, ASEAN adopted Common Effective Preferential Tariff (CEPT) and joined the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to motivate good economic relations among its members. Other sub-ASEAN blocs such as Greater Mekong Sub-region, and Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) were also created to address poverty and alleviate economic development even before the signing of the ASEAN Charter in 2007.

Meanwhile, I agree with Desker that more work needs to be done to achieve a shared ASEAN identity, but it is not an illusion consumed by elite-driven programs and mechanisms. He was also right about issues on clans and wars in various ASEAN states. With this, ASEAN upholds its principle of non-interference. And this remains to be a tough challenge. The responsibility to make everything work shall not be given to scholars, policymakers, and leaders only. ASEAN must preserve its unity in the Indo-Pacific.


Bowles, P., & MacLean, B. (1996). Understanding Trade Bloc Formation: The Case of the ASEAN Free Trade Area. Review of International Political Economy, 3(2), 319-348. Retrieved April 3, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4177188

Desker, B (2017). Is ASEAN a Community. ASEAN Focus. ISEAS. 

Layador, M. G., Mahiwo, S. D., & Luhulima, C. (2013). ASEAN Studies II: Advanced ASEAN Studies. Quzon City, Philippines: University of the Philippines.

Mahiwo, S.D., Aros, A.M., Huong, N., Truy, N. K., Binh, C.N., Dung, N.X., & Thang, L.Q. (2013). Introduction to ASEAN Studies. UPOU.

Pakpahan, Beginda. (n.d.) ASEAN at 52: Achievements and Challenges Ahead. https://www.globalasia.org/v14no3/feature/asean-at-52-achievements-and-challenges-ahead_beginda-pakpahan

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