The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has just wrapped up another summit, and while admitting several key failures, leaders hope that the  future can bring increased prosperity and regional integration.

Asean logo

ASEAN had set the goal of a more complete economic integration by 2015 that would bring about a free trade zone similar to NAFTA in scope. Barring radical developments, however, the regional bloc won’t achieve this goal in time. Still, ASEAN leaders are confident that trade barriers can be slowly rolled back and economic and political integration can continue its forward momentum.

ASEAN consists of Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. Initially formed as a response to the growing power and influence of regional super powers and the increasing development of regional Super Blocs, ASEAN seeks to leverage the power of its individual member states and offer a united front of the comparably weak South East Asian nations.

ASEAN has become an essential block and platform for the various nations of South East Asia. With the exception of Indonesia, most ASEAN nations are relatively small and all of the nations lack the clout to challenge the United States, Japan or China.  While the United States is clearly not an Asian nation, its network of bases and massive naval presence makes it a regional super power.

And while ASEAN nations have been among the fastest growing nations in the world, individual member states lack the power to effectively challenge, and even represent themselves against the super powers. ASEAN is a diverse block, with uber rich Singapore resting comfortably as a first world nation, while poorer nations, such as Myanmar, lag far behind.

Still, while ASEAN offers a potential platform to leverage the various small states of South East Asia and the growing clout of Indonesia to challenge the regional superpowers, it remains a fractured alliance. While relations have been growing among the various nations, the level of integration pales in comparison to the European Union and in some respects even NAFTA.

For example, so far China has proven effective with a  divide and conquer strategy of playing the various ASEAN nations against one another in the South China Sea dispute. In short, China has played disinterested nations, such as Cambodia, which has no interests in the South China Sea conflict, against invested parties, such as the Philippines.

And while a united ASEAN could seriously challenge China; Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other smaller nations stand little chance on their own.

Will ASEAN nations be able to over come their differences to form a truly united regional bloc? The jury is still out, but increased coordination and economic integration does seem to be achievable.

Over time, ASEAN may be able to evolve into a truly united regional bloc but before that can happen, ASEAN nations will have to see a mutual future that is brighter than any single nation’s individual prospects, and that might require a major political conflict with China or another super power.