Asean at 50. A club that agreed it’s better to be dull and to be together


As the Association of South-East Asian Nations marks its 50th birthday with sober celebrations , it’s worth asking how it remained a club when many others have fallen out amongst themselves.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, for instance. And the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation. The Maghreb Union, from way back. Trade blocs that once seemed solid are now a bit less so. NAFTA is a case in point.

But ASEAN continues its unflashy way. In 50 years, it has doubled its founding membership (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) to 10. It has stayed grimly focussed on development, rightly judging politics to be too divisive. It keeps to consensus – a head-in-the-sand approach that may be a maddening contortion but is decidedly stabilising.

But half-a-century on, the world is changing even if ASEAN is not. Its members are feeling the pressure to pick sides – the US or China.

The next 50 years may be more of a challenge than the first.