Regional integration and culture: the case of ASEAN

This article discusses the role of culture to promote regional integration. The case of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) shows how states keep a central role within such a multilateral framework.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an intergovernmental organisation founded on 8 August 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. It now consists of ten Southeast Asian countries, with the inclusion of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Together, these countries have a total population of 640 million people and a total GDP of nearly 3 trillion dollars. The ASEAN Declaration stated that the organisation’s aim was to contribute to the economic, social and cultural development of the region, to support regional peace and stability, and to foster cooperation among member countries. As the Foreign Minister of Singapore, S. Rajaratnam, said: “We must think not only of our national interests but posit them against regional interests”.

The ASEAN represents strategic interests for its members:

  • Promote peace. Like in other regional integration processes, preventing conflicts among members is a central aim, which can be achieved through an increased interdependence and a sense of common identity.

  • Limit external influences. ASEAN countries are in fact aware of the influence of external powers, like China and the U.S., in the region, and are willing to join forces to reduce their dependence on them .

  • Have a weigh on the world stage. Individually, ASEAN countries do not have enough economic or military clout to have a global influence. By associating countries – through ‘ASEAN + 3’ with China, Japan and South Korea, and ‘ASEAN + 6’ with Australia, India and New Zealand – the organisation has enabled the region to emerge as a strategic space in world affairs.

In 2003, ASEAN leaders decided to go a step further in the integration process by planning the creation of the ASEAN Community (established in 2015), which consists of three pillars: the Political­Security Community, the Economic Community and the Socio­Cultural Community.

With the creation of the ASEAN community, the Ministers for Culture of the member countries have strived to strengthen the cultural dimension of the organisation and launched the ASEAN Strategic Plan for Culture and Arts 2016-2025 to foster intercultural dialogue among them.

Let us now look at what ASEAN has achieved in terms of cooperation in the fields of education and culture. In November 1995, the ASEAN University Network, a consortium of 30 Southeast Asian Universities was created to foster cooperation among academics of member countries. The organisation developed also a scholarship programme funded by Singapore and targeted to both secondary education and university levels.

Cultural cooperation projects have been set up to promote cultural practices that are common to different countries of the region,. This is the case, for example, of the workshop on ASEAN Textiles that promoted the common tradition of batik production across the region. Similarly, in 2014, the ASEAN foundation started a programme of bilateral exchanges on the practice of puppetry, a tradition which is present in various forms in different ASEAN countries.

Other projects focus on the circulation of information among ASEAN countries. In 2007, the ASEAN Media Portal was created to gather documentaries, games, and other contents related to the cultures of ASEAN countries. In 2009, the ASEAN NewsMaker Project was launched to offer training opportunities to produce videos on ASEAN heritage. In addition, ASEAN set up exchanges among young people on traditional cultural expressions, as well as collaborative projects in the fields of music and art.

As the organisation disposes of few resources for cultural cooperation, the projects depend highly on states for their funding. In 2011, Indonesia was chair of ASEAN and promoted events like the ASEAN Fair and ASEAN Jazz Festival through its Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy. Indonesian companies have also played an active role in promoting ASEAN culture. This is the case of Metro TV, an Indonesian TV channel that produced “ASEAN Today”, a monthly programme on Southeast Asia, with the support of the ASEAN Secretariat, ASEAN Indonesia, and the airline company AirAsia.

In sum, rather than a supranational organisation that implements a common cultural policy throughout the region, ASEAN is a framework that member states can use to facilitate cultural cooperation.

Do you think cultural cooperation can enhance the sense of belonging to a region? Share your experience!

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Cultural Diplomacy

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