McKinsey just published an essay arguing ASEAN’s and its 10 member nations needs to get its act together if the region is going to have the geopolitical and economic clout it deserves. That’s a big challenge because ASEAN is a diverse assortment of nations with vastly differing cultures, histories, forms of government, religions, and economies.
Simon Tay, of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, says a united voice would give ASEAN a bigger global role as it speaks with one voice. Particularly pressing are border disputes, especially in the South China Sea, East Sea, or West Philippine Sea, as various countries within ASEAN refer to one of the most strategically important shipping channels in the world.
Although ASEAN has had some success mobilizing regional support for free-trade agreements, the organization is divided on questions of human-rights violations, World Trade Organization negotiations, and climate change.
Tay contends a common voice for ASEAN would give the region more economic clout by positioning the ASEAN in the center of links with India, China and the US. ASEAN also has an opportunity to create a military alliance similar to NATO.
For ASEAN to reach its potential, Tay says, its members need to (1) appreciate the difference between consensus and unanimity (which is untenable), (2) frame its agenda in regional terms, (3) be flexible enough to modify its goals and positions as circumstances evolve.
Although Tay does not mention Vietnam’s role in ASEAN, it’s obvious that Vietnam and American companies are positioned to provide leadership to help ASEAN reach its goals. Vietnam is 3rd most populous among the ASEAN nations (behind Indonesia and the Philippines). And Ho Chi Minh City is positioned at the geographical center of this vast region of 600 million people.
An example of US corporate presence that can boost the region’s economy is General Electric. GE now defines itself as an infrastructure company that this year alone has sold ASEAN nations $5 billion worth of aviation, power, water, gas, and transportation products and services. That’s just a beginning.