When the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was created in 1967, it had half the number of member states that it does today, and its challenges were immediate, obvious, and shared.1

Dealing with the Vietnam War, the Cold War, Communism, the newly-created state of Malaysia, the Indo-China refugee crisis, and Vietnam-Cambodia border conflicts, among others, were early key priorities. The group agreed to principles and structures in both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of what it wanted to achieve.

The ASEAN way

ASEAN’s goals were stability via economic growth, social progress and cultural development (ASEAN Secretariat, 2009). The set of behavioural and procedural norms established to prescribe approaches to regional engagement, known as the ‘ASEAN Way’ were, and remain, consensus-based decision-making through effective cooperation and enhanced consultation amongst equally represented member states; non-interference in the internal affairs of other member states, respecting independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity; and peaceful dispute settlement including the renunciation of aggression and any use of force.2 The bloc’s values and processes managed the challenges of the time successfully – the region is one of the most stable in the world, and is considered to be a prosperous economic zone.

Over the past five decades, five more members have been added.3 The addition of new member states and the broader range of national interests that came with them raised new challenges to ASEAN’s cohesion and shared purpose. In addition, over that time the contextual landscape has also changed considerably. Cross-border, non-traditional risks to national wellbeing have come to the fore. As a result of these internal and external factors, the issues that once bound the group together have been largely replaced by very different considerations. In fact, over the past five decades, different Southeast Asian state actors have had quite different understandings of the meaning and practical application of the ‘ASEAN Way’, and the norms of non-interference, consensus, and peaceful dispute settlement have shifted over time.4 “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”5 is an ambitious official motto for such a diverse region, given the variations in populations, incomes, political systems, and levels of development.6

Anticipate, prepare, respond

Fifty years ago, sustainable development was not on ASEAN’s agenda, either for individual countries, or the bloc as a group. The environment as an area of concern was added after the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972.7 Today, all ten ASEAN countries are signatories to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and draw on the language and ideas of international approaches to sustainable development. As a bloc, ASEAN has explicitly committed to sustainability in the region. The 2015 ASEAN Charter sets out that ASEAN is committed to ensuring “sustainable development for the benefit of the present and future generations and to place the well-being, livelihood and welfare of the peoples at the centre of ASEAN community building process”.8 Likewise, the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 emphasises a regional focus on environmental protection for now and the future, adapting and responding to climate change, and green technology and development.

This determination to embed sustainability into ASEAN’s future development is positive. However, despite these declarations, according to the most recent United Nations review of progress, Southeast Asian countries are not on track to meet any of the 17 SDGs by 2030.9 The two goals showing the most potential to be realised are ‘quality education’ and ‘industry, innovation and infrastructure’.10 Indeed, the goals of ‘reduced inequalities’ and ‘peace, justice and strong institutions’ have regressed across the region. The values and processes that underpin the ASEAN Way, and which have done so much to maintain peace and stability in the region may also be undermining the ability of the bloc, and its member states, to pursue sustainable development.

Regional and global sustainable development

ASEAN’s local sustainable development challenges are magnified by the impacts of climate change at a global level. As ASEAN’s working group on climate change notes, Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change on development. The region relies heavily on agriculture, natural resources, and forestry for livelihoods. However many of these are threatened by rising temperatures, decreasing rainfall, and rising sea levels. Natural disasters like heat waves, droughts, floods, and tropical cyclones are increasing in their intensity and frequency.11 The IMF, among others, notes that the negative economic impact looks set to be considerable.12 Sustainable development cannot but also suffer.

Over the past 50 years, the principles of non-interference and consensus decision-making central to the ASEAN Way have evolved in how they are understood and applied by member states. Given the current global and regional environment and the cross-border nature of many of the major challenges facing a nation-state, it may be time for Southeast Asian governments to actively reconsider whether the ASEAN Way of consensus, non-interference, and non-violence will be sufficiently effective in response.13


This article was first published on the Asia Society website 17 August 2020.

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1. The original five member states were Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand. Brunei Darussalam joined in 1984, Vietnam in 10995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999.

2. FN

3. Membership is currently Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam

4. Yakuwa, Taku (2018).

5. https://asean.org/asean/about-asean/asean-motto/

6. Albert & Maizland, 2019

7. ASEAN Charter, 2015: 2[7] Koh and Robinson, p. 4

8. ASEAN Charter, 2015: 2

9. ESCAP, 2020: 57, https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/publications/ESCAP_Asia_and_the_Pacific_SDG_Progress_Report_2020.pdf

10. ESCAP, 2020: 57, https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/publications/ESCAP_Asia_and_the_Pacific_SDG_Progress_Report_2020.pdf

11. https://environment.asean.org/asean-working-group-on-climate-change/

12. https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2018/09/southeast-asia-climate-change-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions-prakash.html

13. Yukawa p. 310