2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional intergovernmental organisation comprising ten Southeast Asian states. Since its formation on 8 August 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, the organisation’s membership has expanded to include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.
But what would happen if every ASEAN country united today to form a United ASEAN Superstate? As improbable as it sounds, it would still be interesting to explore this hypothetical scenario to shed some light on the true scale of ASEAN’s economic power and influence on the world stage.
ASEAN would be the third most populous country in the world.
The 10 member countries of ASEAN have a combined population of approximately 625 million people or about 8.8% of the world’s population. If ASEAN were a single country, it would have the third largest population in the world behind India (1.31 Billion) and China (1.39 Billion).
ASEAN would be the seventh largest country in the world by land area
ASEAN covers a land area of 4.4 million square kilometers, 3% of the total land area of Earth. When put on the world stage, it would be the 7th largest country in the world surpassing India (3.29 Million Square kilometers) but behind Australia (7.68 Million Square kilometers)
Undoubtedly, ASEAN as a country would have a rich bio-diversity and geography, ranging from the rainforests of Sumatra, the picturesque beaches of Thailand to the majestic peak of Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia. Given its proximity to the equator, The climate of ASEAN would be mainly tropical–hot and humid all year round with plentiful rainfall. Northern Vietnam and the Myanmar Himalayas would be the only regions in Southeast Asia that feature a subtropical climate, which has a cold winter with snow.
ASEAN would be the world’s sixth largest economy
A united ASEAN Superstate would have a combined nominal GDP of over US$2.8 trillion. As a single entity, it would rank as the sixth largest economy in the world, behind the USA, China, Japan, India and Germany. It is projected to rank as the fourth-largest economy by 2050. The ASEAN economy would also have the third-largest labor force in the world, behind China and India.
ASEAN would have an incredibly diverse racial and religious make-up
A united ASEAN Superstate would be incredibly diverse. No single religion or race would constitute an outright majority of the population. With about 240 million adherents or 42% of the total population, Sunni Islam would be the largest religion in ASEAN. Buddhism would be practiced by 18% of the population followed closely behind by Christianity at 17%. The remaining 23% is a diverse mix of adherents of Folk Religions, Confucianism, Hindus, Agnostics and Atheists.
As a single entity, ASEAN would be the world’s largest Muslim country, the second largest Buddhist country and the fourth largest Christian country by population.
ASEAN is even more racially diverse. Centuries of influence from India, China, the Arabs and the West produced an environment where no one people or religion is homogeneous. The largest ethnic group would be the Javanese with a population of 100 million or 16% of the population. This is followed by the Viets (75 Million / 12%), Thais (51 Million / 8%), Sundanese (39 Million / 6%), Chinese (33 Million / 5%), Bamars (30 Million / 4.8%) and Malays (28 Million / 4.5). The challenge facing the Government of a united ASEAN would be to somehow unite the hundreds of ethnic groups, each with its own unique culture and language.
ASEAN would have the world’s second largest military
With 1.827 Million active duty personnel, a united ASEAN would have the world’s second largest military, behind China (2.33 Million). With a combined military expenditure of US$38.2 Billion, ASEAN would have the world’s tenth largest military budget in the world, behind Germany (US$41 Billion). Interestingly, Singapore alone would contribute 26 percent of ASEAN’s total military spending despite only having 0.8% of the total ASEAN population.
The people of ASEAN would be relatively poor
A single ASEAN state would have a nominal GDP per capita of roughly US$4,160. This would put ASEAN at 103 in the world, behind Albania (US$4,203) but ahead of Guatemala (US$4,089). With a Human Development Index of 0.684, ASEAN would be ranked the 110th most developed country, on par with Gabon, Africa. A united ASEAN would also be plagued with endemic corruption. With an average Corruption Perception Index rank of 102.8, ASEAN would be ranked on par with Ethiopia.
This would present the hypothetical ASEAN Government with unique challenges. Unlike the European Union, ASEAN lacks strong institutional rule of law. Endemic corruption would divert billions of dollars in public money to line the pockets of public officials and their cronies. Worker exploitation and underground slavery would also be commonplace amid ASEAN’s relatively weak labour laws. Income inequality would also be a pertinent issue, given the rural – urban divide. The lack of proper infrastructure such as highways, railroads, power lines and schools constitutes a barrier to social mobility. To uplift millions from poverty, the Government would have to improve access for ASEAN’s rural population to the cities.
As improbable as it sounds, entertaining the scenario of a single ASEAN superstate would give us a wider perspective of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of this institution. ASEAN’s strengths lies in its young, vibrant and diverse population. It is an emerging economy endowed with resources and a large labour force. However, it needs to strengthen its laws and institutions to stamp out corruption, human rights abuses poverty and income inequality.
If done right ASEAN, integration has the potential to propel Southeast Asia to become the next global superpower along with India and China.