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The End of ASEAN as We Know It

During the 2010s, Southeast Asia’s economy was the fastest-growing region in the world, and there were high hopes for political, economic, and socio-cultural integration. But geopolitical shifts have exposed new divisions, and the group’s continued relevance will depend on its ability to set more realistic goals.

BANGKOK – As Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand gear up to host major world summits in November, the 55-year-old Association of Southeast Asian Nations is facing an existential crisis, owing to severe internal splits over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Myanmar’s military coup, and other issues. The 2007 ASEAN Charter’s vision of deeper political, economic, security, and socio-cultural integration is no more. Salvaging what’s left will require accepting this reality and regrouping accordingly.

Notwithstanding past bureaucratic and functional pledges to do more together, ASEAN’s regional integration has always been shallow. Intra-regional trade in goods remains low, at 21.3%, and trade in services trade is under 12%, according to data from the ASEAN Secretariat. Moreover, 88% of investment in the region comes from outside sources. Unlike the European Union, with its economic integration through a single market, ASEAN has emphasized cross-border connectivity through hard and soft infrastructure, from roads and railways to tourism and people-to-people contacts.

True, for a while after the ASEAN Charter took effect, the organization appeared to be going places. At the time, the region’s economy was the fastest-growing in the world, and its promising trajectory coincided with Myanmar’s post-2011 decade of political opening and economic reform.

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