20 years of mixing Asean old and new

When Asean doubled the number of its member nations to 10 in 1999, doomsayers at the time believed the grouping would not survive. This was because the expansion happened so quickly while new members were ill-prepared to join the capitalist economies.

Granted the prevailing regional environment, Asean leaders were quick to welcome Myanmar and the Indochinese countries Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos (CLMV), despite their deep-rooted shortcomings. Back in the leaders' minds, leaving them out would further widen the five-decade wedge between them.

At the time, two frequently asked questions were: Could the CLMV group integrate with the older Asean members? Would Asean-10 survive at all with such a huge gap among its member states in development, and vast differences in their political cultures? Two decades later, the answers are quite clear -- these new members are moving toward full integration in three key development pillars: economically, politically and security-wise, as well as in socio-cultural terms.

After various political twists and turns from 1997-1999, Cambodia was the last Indochinese country to join Asean in 1999 -- exactly two decades ago, realising the founding fathers' dream of One Southeast Asia with all members under the same roof.

In fact, the 10-member Asean group was originally mapped out in 1997 when Asean leaders were ready to embrace Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia at the same time after Vietnam's admission in 1995. Laos asked for a two-year delay to prepare. Much to the chagrin of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asean delayed Cambodia's membership due to concerns related to the grouping's political culture and best practices.

Asean's enlargement came during a time when the external landscape was no longer dominated by ideological struggles between superpowers. A new configuration of major powers began to emerge a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall created a regional economic and political landscape that allowed friends and foes to join hands and chase joint development and cooperation. It was an interesting time as the bloc's expansion gave Asean more bargaining power, which outweighed the negative repercussions, depending on the new members' ability to adapt.

When the Jakarta-based Asean Secretariat started to use the popular acronym CLMV in 1994, it was an easier way to collectively address the new, underdeveloped members. However, it now sounds a bit anachronistic as the economies of the newer Asean members have been pushing up the grouping's overall economic growth and performance in recent years.

The CLMV grouping that puts those four nations in the second tier of Asean members is no longer a good fit. Their integration into the regional bloc has advanced by leaps and bounds. Truth be told, in private, these new Asean members now insist their countries should be addressed in full, and not by the abbreviations employed previously. They would like to be perceived as equal partners.

Vietnam has proven beyond any doubt that since joining Asean in 1995, it has assimilated well into Asean's structure and processes. With its 24 years' experience as a member state, Hanoi is now leading the grouping that it once battled by strengthening Asean's cohesiveness and speeding up its decision-making processes. Hanoi inspires other new members to emulate its model. As the incoming Asean chair next year, along with its holding a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council (2020-2021), it is demonstrating the country's ambition and diplomatic vision. Vietnam's proactive Asean policy has already put the country in the front row of ties with the West.

During its first decade in Asean, Vietnam was busy adjusting to the "Asean way", which it quickly got accustomed to, and then excelled in. These days, some Jakarta-based Asean diplomats even talk about the "Vietnamese Way in Asean". Indications emerged in 2010, during Vietnam's first chairmanship of Asean, that Hanoi was able to chart the grouping's future ties with dialogue partners on key regional issues, including the South China Sea disputes. Vietnam has since pushed Asean to be bolder in engaging with external powers, an approach that sometimes proved inconvenient for more conservative Asean leaders.

As for economic integration, Vietnam has become one of most open economies in Asean. Since it undertook economic reforms in 1984, Vietnam has signed 17 free trade agreements -- even though its economic development model is still not classified as a market economy. As such, its membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership among 10 liberal capitalist economies has given the country a boost in terms of high-end free trade agreements. Vietnam is now aiming high and wants to be a middle-income country by the end of 2040.

The other new Asean members are also integrating well with Asean although they struggle with technical areas of integration, mainly trade facilitation and harmonising sets of rules and procedures. For Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, their recent efforts have focused on attracting much-needed foreign investment and expanding exports. For the time being, trade privileges from the United States and the European Union have given a boost to the newer Asean members' economic growth and development. These, in turn, translate into positive impacts on political and social reforms domestically. Of late, threats to withdraw both America's and the EU's preferential trade treatment of Cambodia and Myanmar due to their violations of human rights have raised concern.

In 2017, Cambodia, Laos were identified as young "tiger economies" with an average of 7.5%-8% GDP growth, according to forecasts by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Cambodia, a former war-torn country with 16 million people, has reaped huge economic windfalls from its membership in Asean. Despite criticism of the current government's governance and its gagging of media freedom, Cambodia's economic growth figures continue to move up, providing added confidence to foreign investors looking for stability. Cambodia now has one of the most open financial markets in Asean.

As a landlocked country, Laos has proven itself a special member of Asean. Against all odds, Laos has transformed itself into a land bridge between two Asian giants, China and India, through regional and global connectivity plans that involve the country of more than 7 million people. Of late, it new leadership team under Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has focused on diversifying its reliance on hydroelectric power exports to neighbouring countries, mainly Thailand. At the moment, Laos is serving as a catalyst for a hub of international linkages criss-crossing Southeast Asia. Vientiane hopes that by 2030 it will be able to graduate from the list of the world's least developed countries.

Myanmar's integration with Asean has been not been easy. It joined in 1997 and took over a decade to take full advantage of this by serving as the 2014 chair. Its transition to political and economic openness, starting in 2011, has yielded positive outcomes for the formerly isolated country in Southeast Asia. It has since become a centre of global attraction for foreign investment and tourism. Due to the internal political quagmire marked by the ongoing Rakhine crisis, and the difficult peace and national reconciliation process, Myanmar has had to cope with sporadic violence and clashes with ethnic armies. Internal insecurity has zapped the country's economic power. Without a proper resolution, its full integration with Asean will be delayed beyond 2025.

At 52, Asean is lucky -- its members have been implementing key action plans without jeopardising the association's principle of non-interference and respect for its consensus-based decision-making. Without the influence of unexpected disruptive forces, the integration of new and old Asean members will further improve in the years to come.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

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