Alphabet Soup and the ASEAN Neighborhoods

In many respects the countries of Southeast Asia cooperate with each other quite well on matters of importance. There are still territorial disputes, problems over the illegal migration and the trade of controlled substances, and what to do with Myanmar, but certainly compared to a few decades ago, the countries of Southeast Asia have found ways to work together. One reward has been an expansion of trade and travel in the region.

This cooperation is undertaken in a variety of manners. Partly problems are resolved and new initiatives started on a bilateral basis. Indonesian officials meet regularly with Malaysia counterparts and so on. However, in some cases, the discussion is done on a multilateral basis, among more than two countries, and in an organized fashion.

ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is perhaps the most well-known organization in the region, being established in the late 1960s by five Southeast Asian countries and growing to include 10 by the end of the 1990s. The organization provides a forum for discussion, planning, and implementation of programs to enhance regional security, encourage economic growth, and foster a sense of community. The ASEAN Leaders recently met in Singapore, embracing a series of actions to accelerate an economic community starting in 2015.

Although likely the most well-known, it is by no means the only organization or initiative participated in by countries in this region to facilitate cooperative actions. Indeed there are a large group of associations, initiatives, and organizations; often known to the cognoscenti by their initials as an acronym.

Each of these brings together Government senior officials, sometimes the heads of states or governments, certainly ministers, to periodic meetings. This kind of cooperation is not free. The meetings alone absorb thousands of hours of efforts by staff, not to mention the expenses for airlines, hotels, and restaurants.

Are all these meetings worth it? Of course not every meeting is worth the effort, but Southeast Asia shows the impressive potential of regional cooperation. Especially in mainland Southeast Asia, the construction of all-weather highways and bridges connecting the countries has allowed trade to multiply by nearly 19 times in the past 15 years. Cooperating together has meant that isolated regions, such as in land-locked Laos, can become linked to regional markets, greatly expanding the potential for growth and poverty reduction.

Perhaps a harder question is 'why do we need all the different groupings?' Why this alphabet soup of initiatives? In some cases the answer involves simple politics, but a more fundamental reason for the proliferation of organizations is that each one represents a different 'neighborhood' and economic development properly requires that projects and programs be organized in different neighborhoods.

Development involves addressing a host of problems. Some of these can be tackled in the scope of action of an individual country; some need collective action through regional cooperation. This is particularly true for the often difficult issues of encouraging development in border areas: in many countries, the borders areas are far from the economic centers and lag in infrastructure and public services. Development in border regions often requires the active cooperation of neighboring countries-regional cooperation of at least two countries.

Not all problems will involve the same group of countries. Constructing or rehabilitating a cross-border infrastructure project such as an electricity transmission line or a highway involves only the two concerned countries. Protection of maritime areas that are open to use by communities from several countries requires a larger grouping of nations. At a higher level, insuring against regional financial panics or setting and putting into place common standards for financial services may call for collaboration among non-contiguous countries.

The last example shows that a development neighborhood does not depend on physical or geographic proximity. It depends more on the problem or the potential for easing costs and mitigating risks or enhancing economic potential. Southeast Asian countries each belong to a range of different neighborhoods with its own potential for regional cooperation activities.

The concept of the neighborhood provides some structure to deciding what set or grouping of countries makes sense in a given context and for clearly seeing why different groupings are needed for different issues or problems. This does not mean that all organizations make sense, lots of neighborhoods are dysfunctional, but there is some underlying method to the madness of organizational alphabet soup.

Moreover each initiative then needs to pass the neighborhood test: Is the grouping based on a workable organization with respect to the problems to be solved and the ability to work together? In this many of the existing groupings reflect true neighborhoods: countries that jointly share some geographic region or different aspects of Southeast Asian cultural and historical experiences. The best of these communities have shown a history of working together that reveals its own sense of a neighborhood-its own sense that working together is important and worthwhile.