Power & Market

Issues in the Development of the ASEAN

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN for short, does not seem to usually draw much attention in modern global media. This is despite the ASEAN having a total population bigger than that of the United States or even the entire European Union, and that the resources of its ten members combined make it one of the largest economies in the world. Constantly overshadowed by the rapid economic growth in China and India, or perhaps even the development issues in Africa, the ASEAN looks to be off the radar to most, which is a shame.

The most news from the region that might appear in international headlines this year is about the coup in Burma, a condemnable humanitarian disaster that exemplifies the sheer brutality a state could potentially inflict on its own citizens. In a rather rare political consensus between member states—rare in the sense that ASEAN members, as a matter of principle, do not generally meddle in each other’s internal affairs—ASEAN leaders called for an end to this violence.

However, economic and development issues in Southeast Asia go well beyond the ongoing military rule in Burma, even as Zachary Yost wrote about how the United States incoherently fights for democracy there. This article will look into some of the challenges that the ASEAN members face which continue to hinder growth and development from flourishing in the region, and posits that free market economics can alleviate and even solve these issues if harmful politics are removed first.

History and Economy

Like other regional blocs, the ASEAN came to be from a particular context. Interestingly, when its founding five members signed the Bangkok Declaration in 1967, one noble principle of the ASEAN’s establishment was to act as a galvanized force against the rapid spread of communism, aside from fostering peace and prosperity among all its members. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand took these steps in the joint interest of containing China as well.

That was the time of the Cold War, after all, and Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which would eventually become members, were particularly vulnerable to the communist ideology. The latter two states have dominant political parties that are still regrettably endorsing it to this day, but this also comes across as strange and inconsistent, considering that they also participate in the ASEAN free trade area along with the rest of the members. It could have been worse: without trade agreements, these states might have closed off their economies completely.

A common respect for individual sovereignty through the noninterference policy on local matters prevents the ASEAN member states from directly prying into each other’s policies. It also helps that, in comparison to the massive staff of, say, the European Commission in Brussels, which acts as the executive branch of the European Union, the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta is relatively small, and consequently allows the bloc freedom to continue acting as independent and self-determining states.

Thus, historically and economically speaking, the ASEAN is conceptually and theoretically a good thing: a promoter of free trade, a bulwark against communism, and a mostly decentralized regional body that coordinates the economies of member states without political imposition. In practice, though, some of the bigger problems faced by the ASEAN come from beyond an economic scope.

Disasters, Diseases, and Democratic Deficits

Lipton Matthews wrote about how Africa’s geography is a factor to consider in its lack of growth, and the same insight applies to countries in Southeast Asia as well. Indeed, geography is one of those things that could potentially stifle a country’s economic growth, setting it at a disadvantage through no fault of its people. It is hard to develop economically when setbacks in the form of natural calamities happen practically every year, as is the case with ASEAN countries.

However, the existence of developed yet landlocked countries in the world, such as Austria or Switzerland, proves that unfavorable geography can be overcome, and Singapore among the ASEAN states also demonstrates that tropical countries near or within the Pacific Ring of Fire—even while prone to catastrophes and disasters such as typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis—can also rise and become wealthy through the promotion of a robust and open economy.

While developing functioning and efficient societies and markets can potentially offset geographical issues, political problems pose a far more complex threat. Of concern is the perceived deterioration of democracy among ASEAN states, something that has been sadly exacerbated by strict lockdown policies imposed by their respective governments since 2020, under the argument of curbing the spread of the horrible disease that is COVID-19.

Aside from the dire situation in Burma—which can be regarded as symptomatic of regional democratic decline—fellow nations such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand are either on the verge of or already under authoritarian and illiberal rule. Storms and other nature-based phenomena are troublesome, for sure, but systemic issues within governments are an entirely different beast altogether.

In theory, the ASEAN could make great strides in showing the world that it is possible to have a free trade area that fosters peace and stability while also allowing each member to decide their destiny. This vision for the ASEAN is, in practice, marred by issues, such as violations of human rights, that critics often use to argue for more political intervention, not less. However, as we see with the European Union, political unions also create issues in the long run.

Deplorable as some political crises in the area have become, multiple wrongs do not make a right: rather, the ASEAN members should recognize that moving forward with their economies means earnest cooperation through both stable democracies and free markets. Economics and peace should go hand in hand, and a common desire for growth and development for the total population of over 600 million people should begin by putting individuals—and their rights—at the forefront.


While the ASEAN might be a good example of politically decentralized economic integration, humanitarian issues faced by its member states threaten to destabilize the development of the entire region. If the individual ASEAN states cannot overcome their respective woes, the bloc will likely continue to struggle with development troubles, all while continuing to go largely unnoticed on the global stage.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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