Building an ASEAN Identity: A Proposal

Building an ASEAN Identity: A Proposal
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

What you need to know

Here are several policy proposals for the United States to help ASEAN countries build a common identity and strengthen ties with the bloc.

By Blake Ammerlaan, Hannah Barrett, Milo Hsieh, James Kwon, Tammy Nguyen, Wisdom Matsuzaki

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long sought to consolidate an identity and a common vision across its member nations. Vietnam, which chaired ASEAN in 2020, was a major proponent of building greater economic integration and a common ASEAN identity. 

Major powers with economic interests in the region, such as China and the United States, are also interested in taking part in the formation of a pan-ASEAN identity. 

The U.S., for example, has made robust efforts to help strengthen the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, one of the communities that form the ASEAN Community. The community comprises three pillars: the Political-Security Community, Economic Community, and Socio-Cultural Community.

Launched in 2013, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) is the U.S. government’s flagship program to foster people-to-people ties between young American and ASEAN leaders. 

Despite ongoing efforts to strengthen U.S.-ASEAN relations, both Americans and people from ASEAN countries lack an understanding of the association’s purposes and goals.

Murray Hiebert, the head of research at Bower Group Asia, an Asia-focused consulting firm, who was based in Southeast Asia as a journalist, said that it is “tough” to develop a pan-ASEAN identity, given the region’s diverse history, languages, and colonial experiences. 

Young people in ASEAN countries, he noticed as he was writing a book on China, are a little bit more adaptive to the idea of a common ASEAN Identity. Hiebert attributed this sense of cohesion to the U.S.-led YSEALI program, noting that young people do not have enough resources and opportunities to learn about ASEAN.

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Photo Credit:AP / TPG Images
U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien (center, left screen) and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc are seen on screen as they attend the 8th ASEAN-U.S. meeting as part of the 37th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam November 14, 2020.

While the U.S. has been sponsoring the YSEALI program, Hiebert noted that similar people-to-people connectivity programs by ASEAN member states are underfunded. He suggested that the European Union or Japan could help finance such exchange programs.

Professor Pek Koon Heng-Blackburn, the director of the ASEAN Studies Center at American University, believes that the ASEAN socio-cultural community is “the weakest of the three” pillars of the ASEAN community. “The motto — ASEAN, one vision, one identity, one community — has a long way to go, when it comes to the grassroots,” she said.

To heighten pan-ASEAN consciousness, Heng-Blackburn suggested that ASEAN countries promote the intergovernmental organization’s presence at a symbolic level. For example, they can fly the ASEAN flag alongside national flags at schools.

We believe the Office of Multilateral Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs should establish formal contact with ASEAN student organizations at U.S. universities. It should support organizations that facilitate exchanges between students of a common cultural heritage within the U.S. border, and the U.S. government can reinforce its understanding of ASEAN identity without interfering in the internal affairs of ASEAN countries.

We also suggest that the U.S. work with the European Union to expand the EU-ASEAN SHARE program and the ERASMUS+ program. The former will help strengthen ASEAN educational infrastructure, and the latter will create international educational opportunities for ASEAN students. Potentially costly as it is, this proposal points to multilateral cooperation with other actors in the region as a key to helping ASEAN form its identity.

The U.S. can also help ASEAN countries set up academic competitions and exchange programs for students studying in the bloc. For example, Robotics competitions, young entrepreneur conferences, and math Olympiads can help ASEAN youth less interested in politics connect with each other. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. should train young leaders in ASEAN countries to help them pursue a career in politics on top of the existing YSEALI program. In addition to providing funding, the government can set up a civic engagement program, where they can discuss topics key to the ASEAN community. The new generation of political leaders, who have experience building consensus with their national counterparts, will strengthen U.S.-ASEAN ties.

This article is a summary of a research project conducted by American University students in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Office of Multilateral Affairs (EAP/MLA) between September and December 2020. These papers were prepared as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomacy Lab program and do not represent the views of the Department.


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