ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

A map of the ASEAN network shows the connections between Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

inmoon / Getty Images

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a group of ten member countries that encourages political, economic, and social cooperation in the region. In 2006, ASEAN tied together 560 million people, about 1.7 million square miles of land, and a total gross domestic product (GDP) of US $1.1 trillion. Today, the group is considered one of the most successful regional organizations in the world, and it seems to have a brighter future ahead.

History of ASEAN

Much of Southeast Asia was colonized by western powers prior to World War II. During the war, Japan took control of the region, yet was forced out afterwards as Southeast Asian countries pushed for independence. Once independent, the countries found that stability was hard to come by, and they soon looked to each other for answers.

In 1961, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand came together to form the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), a precursor to ASEAN. Six years later, in 1967, the members of ASA, along with Singapore and Indonesia, created ASEAN, forming a bloc that would push back at the dominating western pressure. The Bangkok Declaration was discussed and agreed upon by the five leaders of those countries over golf and drinks (they later dubbed it "sports-shirt diplomacy"). Importantly, this informal and interpersonal manner characterizes Asian politics.

Brunei joined in 1984, followed by Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Burma in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. Today the ten member countries of ASEAN are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

ASEAN Principles and Goals

According to the group's guiding document, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), there are six fundamental principles members adhere to:

  1. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations.
  2. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion.
  3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another.
  4. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner.
  5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force.
  6. Effective cooperation among themselves.

In 2003, the group agreed on the pursuit of three pillars or "communities":

  • Security Community: No armed conflict has taken place among ASEAN members since its inception four decades ago. Each member has agreed to resolve all conflicts by use of peaceful diplomacy and without use of force.
  • Economic Community: Perhaps the most vital part of ASEAN's quest is to create a free, integrated market in its region, much like that of the European Union. The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) embodies this goal, eliminating virtually all tariffs (taxes on imports or exports) in the region to increase competitiveness and efficiency. The organization is now looking towards China and India to open up their markets in order to create the largest free market area in the world.
  • Socio-cultural Community: To combat the pitfalls of capitalism and free trade, namely disparity in wealth and job loss, the socio-cultural community focuses on disadvantaged groups such as rural workers, women, and children. Various programs are used to this end, including those for HIV/AIDS, higher education, and sustainable development, among others. The ASEAN scholarship is offered by Singapore to the other nine members, and the University Network is a group of 21 higher education institutes that aid each other in the region.

Structure of ASEAN

There are a number of decision-making bodies that comprise ASEAN, spanning from international to the very local. The most important are listed below:

  • Meeting of the ASEAN Heads of State and Government: The highest body made up of the heads of each respective government; meets annually.
  • Ministerial Meetings: Coordinates activities in many areas including agriculture and forestry, trade, energy, transportation, science and technology, among others; meets annually.
  • Committees for External Relations: Made up of diplomats in many of the world's major capitals.
  • Secretary-General: The appointed leader of the organization empowered to implement policies and activities; appointed to ​five-year term. Currently Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand.

Not mentioned above are over 25 other committees and 120 technical and advisory groups.

Achievements and Criticisms of ASEAN

After 40 years, many consider ASEAN to be very successful in part because of the ongoing stability in the region. Instead of worrying about military conflict, its member countries have been able to focus on development of their political and economic systems.

The group has also made a strong stance against terrorism with regional partner, Australia. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Bali and Jakarta in the past eight years, ASEAN has focused its efforts to prevent incidents and capture perpetrators.

In Nov. 2007, the group signed a new charter that established ASEAN as a rule-based entity that would promote efficiency and concrete decisions, rather than simply a large discussion group as it has sometimes been labeled. The charter also commits members to advocate democratic ideals and human rights.

ASEAN is often criticized for saying on one hand that democratic principles guide them, while on the other allowing human rights violations to occur in Myanmar, and socialism to rule in Vietnam and Laos. Free market protestors who fear the loss of local jobs and economies have appeared all over the region, most notably at the 12th ASEAN summit in Cebu in the Philippines. Despite objections, ASEAN is well on its way to full economic integration, and is making great strides to fully assert itself on the world market.

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Stief, Colin. "ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Stief, Colin. (2020, August 28). ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Retrieved from Stief, Colin. "ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).