When Southeast Asia emerged slowly from the clutches of colonialism in the last century it was a region riven with conflict and instability. On the domestic front, renewed nation-building was often a painful process that had to contend with insurgencies, secessionist movements, political unrest, civil strife and coups.
Relations among states were frequently bad too. Historical enmities bred by past conflict, territorial sovereignty issues and disputes over land and maritime borders undermined bilateral relations and regional peace. Border incidents, armed confrontations and disruptions in diplomatic ties were normal features of the prevailing environment. Vietnam even invaded its neighbor, Cambodia, in 1978 and occupied the country for a decade. Major power conflicts and the Cold War also divided Southeast Asia into communist and non-communist halves.
Southeast Asia is very different today. The countries of the region are largely at peace with themselves and with each other. There has been a sea change in the level of trust among them. The remaining territorial disputes are muted and are being handled peacefully through diplomacy, negotiations and international arbitration.
Applying the model postulated by Emanual Adler and Michael Barnett in their book Security Communities (1988), the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations has transformed itself from a “nascent” to a firmly “ascendant” security community. Indeed, war today between neighboring ASEAN states (such as the Indonesian “confrontation” with Malaysia in 1963–1966 and Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia) is generally unthinkable, and ASEAN is evolving into a security community in the classic Deutschian sense.
Despite some lingering problems aggravated by residual territorial disputes and other occasional bilateral issues, progress towards the creation of an ASEAN Economic Community by the end of 2015 and thereafter is set to further strengthen the bonds of trust and the emergence of a credible community in Southeast Asia.
There is another, profoundly significant dimension to the achievement of these Southeast Asian states. This is their remark-able ability to attract all the major, middle and lesser powers outside Southeast Asia to join various ASEAN-centered platforms for regional co-operation and trust- building in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.
The ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, ASEAN Plus Three process and the East Asia Summit all contribute to trust and confidence in the wider region, both directly and indirectly.