What Is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional organization of 10 Southeast Asian and Pacific Rim countries whose governments collaborate to promote socio-cultural, economic, and political advancement in the region.

ASEAN is an official observer of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), a 21-member economic group that promotes free trade and sustainable development in Pacific Rim countries.

Key Takeaways

  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a group of 10 nations in Southeast Asia that work together to promote political, economic, and cultural growth and solidarity.
  • Since 1995, the ASEAN members have enjoyed a free trade zone with each other after a successful tariff-cutting effort.
  • Squabbles over trade routes and fishing rights in the South China sea have undermined ASEAN’s global influence and have been blamed in part for the failure of the Trans-Pacific partnership (TPP).
  • ASEAN is a 10-nation organization but there exists an extension called the ASEAN Plus Three which includes China, Japan, and South Korea.
  • The organization is divided over their relationships with both China and the United States, which creates a delicate political environment.

Understanding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

ASEAN was formed in 1967 with the signing of the Bangkok Declaration. The association was initially composed of the following five members:

  • Indonesia
  • Malaysia
  • The Philippines
  • Singapore
  • Thailand

The original purpose of the group was to calm tensions between its members and to contain the spread of communism in the region. However, ASEAN’s priorities shifted. In the 1990s, the association incorporated the communist states of Vietnam (1995) and Laos (1997) as well as quasi-communist Cambodia (1999). Brunei joined in 1984 and Myanmar in 1997. A 1995 agreement created a nuclear-free zone in Southeast Asia.

Since 1993, the bloc has been cutting tariffs in an effort to create an ASEAN Free Trade Area, which the group’s website describes as «virtually established.» As a result, according to the ASEAN report, «ASEAN Key Figures 2021,» ASEAN total merchandise trade increased from $790 billion in 2000 to $2.6 trillion in 2020.1

ASEAN’s 10 economies represented $3 trillion in combined gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, and the group is considered the world’s fifth-largest economy. The group’s combined population was 661.8 million in 2020, according to the ASEAN report.1 https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/rxQUk/1/

In the ASEAN Declaration, ASEAN states that it aims to achieve the following:

  • Regional economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region
  • Regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region
  • Collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, cultural, technical, scientific, and administrative fields
  • Mutual assistance through training and research facilities in the educational, professional, technical, and administrative spheres
  • Agricultural collaboration among the ASEAN member countries.2

Member Countries

At first, ASEAN was only five countries but it has since expanded. The dates the country joined are in parentheses below, and in 2022, those countries are:

  • Brunei Darussalam (January 7, 1984)
  • Cambodia (April 30, 1999)
  • Indonesia (August 8, 1967)
  • Myanmar (July 23, 1997)
  • Lao PDR (July 23, 1997)
  • Malaysia (August 8, 1967)
  • The Philippines (August 8, 1967)
  • Singapore (August 8, 1967)
  • Thailand (August 8, 1967)
  • Vietnam (July 28, 1995)

The member countries in bold are the original five.3 These are the formal ASEAN countries, but there is another organization called the ASEAN Plus Three which includes the countries in the list above, while adding the People’s Republic of China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).4

ASEAN Fundamentals

The organization is one aiming to retain control of the region and increase its economic advantage and security on the world stage. ASEAN also promotes the development of the individual cultures of each country while offering a cross-border network of support.

Economic

The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) was established in 1992 and has the goals of creating a single market between nations aimed at increasing intra-ASEAN trade and investments. The area also seeks to attract continual foreign investment, but in such a way as to not forfeit control of the area where the investment is made.

The AFTA has made trade significantly less expensive than in previous years. In 1996, tariffs in the ASEAN zone were around seven percent. In 2021, they are effectively zero. AFTA focused its efforts of intra-ASEAN trade around the eleven sectors but with significant emphasis on electronics, automotive products, rubber-based products, textiles, tourism, and agricultural products.

To extend beyond their own geographic borders, ASEAN members signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2020. The agreement doesn’t have a pronounced effect on tariffs but extends the economic area of the ASEAN nations.

The pandemic had a strong effect on the ASEAN economic situation, with potential tourism and trade losses amounting to almost $400 billion.5

Security

Economic trade is easier to coordinate than security due to each nation’s individual stance on military issues and domestic security policy. The focus of ASEAN nations on security concerns China’s South China Sea claims, human rights abuses, political repression, drug trafficking, refugee issues, natural disasters, and both domestic and international terrorism.

These issues have been complicated by the coup in Myanmar in 2021. The violent overthrow has been supported by some ASEAN countries and not others, causing a divide in the organization.

Individual countries are finding it difficult to support all the ASEAN initiatives as each country has its own relationship with its largest trade partner, China. This has led to an increase in military development in some ASEAN nations and with the U.S. support for the prevention of an encroaching China, ASEAN nations are understandably concerned with their position within the two jockeying superpowers.6

U.S. and ASEAN Relations

Many ASEAN neighbors claim territories in the energy-rich South China Sea, which creates competition among the neighboring countries and, most of all, China. Failed attempts to resolve these claims have undermined the group’s influence as has the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP was a free trade pact that would have facilitated trade between the United States, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, and Malaysia and non-ASEAN Pacific Rim nations such as Japan, Mexico, Canada, and Australia. Trump removing the U.S. involvement in the partnership had significant economic impacts on the other member nations as the U.S. was by far the single largest entity in the partnership.

Another major North American trade partner saw that China was applying to become a member of the TPP after the United States withdrew, and so Canada joined the TPP in the wake of the U.S. exit. The partnership formerly known as the TPP renamed itself the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).7

Although they withdrew from the TPP, the United States still has a strong relationship with ASEAN, and is the fourth-largest trading partner of the organization. The first three are China, the EU, and Japan. In 2020, more than $307 billion was traded between the U.S. and ASEAN.5

China and ASEAN Relations

Considering the People’s Republic of China is one of the additional three members of ASEAN in what is called the ASEAN Plus Three, it is safe to say China both has a major effect on ASEAN, as well as being its largest trading partner. In 2021, China and ASEAN commemorated the 30th anniversary of their cooperative partnership.

There are multiple declarations signed between both China and ASEAN, such as the Joint Statement of 1997 and the Joint Declaration on the Strategic Partnership of 2003. China seems to be extremely interested in the development of ASEAN and its integration into the region, and has made statements that they are interested in political-security cooperation, economic, and socio-cultural cooperation.

However, this is not to say that all ASEAN countries are always at peace with China. Some military exercises in the region have created some tension between nations such as China and the Philippines. Three Chinese Coast Guard ships had blocked the passage of two Philippines supply ships transporting military equipment and personnel were fired on with water cannons mounted on the Chinese vessels. China claimed the ships from the Philippines were operating outside of their naval jurisdiction. The Philippines disagreed, stating that the incident «does not speak well of Philippines-China relations.»8

Writing in the original ASEAN declaration reads «the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom, and prosperity.»9

History of the ASEAN

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was formed in 1967 by the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. the document they signed in Bangkok marked the beginning of ASEAN. The five foreign ministers are considered the founding fathers of an organization of inter-governmental nations that is one of the strongest allegiances in the modern world.

The original ASEAN document was based on only five articles aiming to establish cooperation in the economic, social, cultural, technical, educational, and other fields between the nations. The ASEAN declaration brought the member nations together to not only address the aforementioned developmental aspects of the alliance but do so in a way that aided the respect for justice and rule of law that existed within the principles of the United Nations Charter.

ASEAN came into existence due to a dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia, a dispute that Thailand was brokering. The nations had a collective moment of clarity that unless they banded together to combat the influence of other growing powers, the strength of their individual nations was at risk.

According to a party to the conception of the idea and the signing of the charter, the entire process from an initial idea to the drafting of the documents only took a few months. Singapore was considered last, but was brought into the fold considerably due to its geographic and economic importance. The member nations convened for four days near Bangkok and all literature points to the negotiations being rather smooth, and without anger or unfair treatment of any of the member nations. From the idea of the ASEAN alliance to the signing of the document took only 14 months.10

What Is the ASEAN Vision 2025?

The ASEAN Vision 2025, also called the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, is a declaration signed by ASEAN leaders in 2015 that charts the path of the ASEAN Community from 2015 to 2025. It aims to «realize further consolidation, integration and stronger cohesiveness as a Community» by emphasizing the peoples of ASEAN, awareness, dedication to fundamental freedoms, human rights, and better lives for ASEAN people.11

What Does ASEAN Centrality Mean?

ASEAN centrality is a concept of regional security and economic processes focused on ASEAN member nations as a result of the perceived threat of outward nations like China and the United States. The idea is that as Chinese and U.S. competitiveness in the area intensifies and alliances are made between ASEAN nations and the two aforementioned superpowers, ASEAN nations need to stand together in order to not lose power through assimilation. As the ASEAN nations and the geography grow in importance, the nations will adapt to the intensifying regional pressures in order to remain a strong, unified community.12

What Are the ASEAN Plus Three Countries?

The ASEAN Plus Three (APT) is a group of nations comprising the ASEAN nations of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam (ASEAN nations) plus the People’s Republic of China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). ASEAN Plus Three began in 1997 and promotes cooperative frameworks in the nation in order to broaden and deepen political security, trade, investments, finance, energy, tourism, agriculture, forestry, environment, education, health, culture and arts, and others. The APT supports the efforts of meeting the goals of the ASEAN Vision 2025.13

The Bottom Line

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a bloc that is a large player on the world stage, both in terms of its economic influence and positioning between China and the United States. The organization’s developments and goals are rooted in prosperity, but international differences make harmony within the organization a difficult task.