The rise of ASEAN and its "strongmen"

ASEAN LEADERS L-R: Joko Widodo (Indonesia), Mahathir Mohammad (Malaysia), Lee Hsien Loong (Singapore) Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines)


To those accustomed to viewing geopolitics and history from a western eye, the rise of Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammad, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, Lee Shien Loong of Singapore, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, herald the coming of age of southeast asia, forcing many to view them, and the world in a totally different light. 

In today’s hyped up, fickle political atmoshpere fueled by fast moving online media, they all built have a wide support base, and are known to be articulate and able to drive pragmatic foreign policy and strong domestic policies that are tough on crime. Likewise, they have their own set of detractors, often from the western educated liberal elites within their own countries that are critical of such strength.

They all profess beginnings that nurture unique fires in their bellies to define their strong outlook. All baby boomers, they came of age in the post colonial era of their respective nations and saw the rapid, and painful growth their countries had to engage to be the states they are today.

They are able to translate word into deed, commanding their people’s, and the world’s attention in every small movement or decision. Their articulate and sometimes outspoken nature grabs the imagination of their domestic audience. This sets the agenda, frames what matters and leaves their oppositors two steps behind, groping in the dark they find themselves trapped in. This astuteness gets the attention, often admiration of other world leaders. 

These four men lead the majority of the  surging Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). They lend character and prominence to the regional bloc, and command global attention since they can today define policies of their successors  long after their terms are up. This will serve the regional group well as their combined economies effectively form three fourths of the estimated 2.6 trillion total ASEAN Gross Domestic produst, forecast to be the world fourth largest economy by 2050.

The camaraderie between them betray a kinship that aligns their common desire for strong independent states free from foreign(read: western) interference, with shared propositions for a pragmatic set of policies that will guide multilateral efforts and push growth, lower poverty and increase southeast asian prominence well into the next decade. This new unity, long in coming will help the bloc achieve its potential, deal with interregional concerns and external issues.

That said, despite slight differences in some of their statements, they are aligned in building a pragmatic approach to China. It is noted that until 2016, only the Philippines has a clearly adverse position to China in the wake of events in the South China Sea. Apart from them, all other ASEAN countries adopted  a careful, if not pragmatic stance that takes into account the fact that  China is a major, if not dominant trading partner of most ASEAN countries. Even Vietnam, widely seen as a critical oppositor to China within the region,  to this day receives millions of chinese tourists.

Moreover, ASEANs failure to issue joint communiqués on the South China Sea issue in the wake of the UN Arbitral Tribunal Decision in 2016, and focus instead on achieving stability in the region reflects the pragmatism and realism  that the four leaders, and the rest of ASEAN is likely to continue.

Recent triumphs include tricountry naval patrols that helped control the entry of ISIS into the region after the Marawi siege in the Philippines.


The recent 50th Anniversary of ASEAN also bodes well for developing tighter multilateralism in the wake of ASEAN Economic integration commenced in 2015. Agreements on civil service coopertion, migrants workers rights and other declarations forging consensus on more sensitive issues suggest a bloc that is maturing as a forum for deeper dialogue beyond discussions on cuisine and study tours.

Perhaps more than in any other time in its 50 year history, ASEAN leaders had two summits in 2017, and several summits with dialogue partners from outside the region, with 16 agreements covering the economic , security and socio-cultural communities achieved through years of consensus building, which is the regional blocs slow but sure approach to achieving multilateral agreements.

This suggests that more than ever, the principle of ASEAN Centrality in determining multilateral action  is slowly gaining importance. As world leaders attend these summits, this centrality is slowly affirmed, and its importance as a regional bloc rises.  Once derided as a post colonial talk shop for western educated Asian leaders, ASEAN is coming into its own.

With the steady economic growth of their countries, their particular leadership styles add character, depth and influence to the Asian century that is emerging as western influence declines. As they continue to make waves outside the region, expect the world to focus on their countries, and ASEAN as a stable, growing bloc in an Asia that will lead this increasingly complex world. 


Columnist and author John Carlo Tria is currently pursuing a masters degree in ASEAN Studies from the University of the Philippines