The Association of Southeast Asian Nations turns 50 this year, and at no point in its history has the region it represents been more attractive to outside powers or more indispensable to the global system than it is today. The 10-member bloc’s combined gross domestic product is on pace to reach nearly $3 trillion. It receives more investment than China, the country in whose shadow Southeast Asia has historically lived, and boasts a humming manufacturing sector manned by low-cost workers. Its position gives it stewardship over some of the world’s most prolific trade routes and makes it strategically valuable to navies vying for control of the increasingly crowded waters of the Western Pacific. It has become the front line in the competition between the United States and China. It is globally relevant in the fight against terrorism.
And yet Southeast Asia is best described not as a coherent region but as a loose affiliation of disconnected states, economically d