An Introduction to ASEAN

This unofficial introduction to ASEAN is prepared by CIL staff.  For official information on ASEAN, please visit the ASEAN Secretariat Website and its “About ASEAN” section.

ASEAN’s Founding

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded on 8 August 1967 when the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines completed negotiations on the 1967 ASEAN Declaration (also known as the Bangkok Declaration). Against a backdrop of the Cold War and the tumultuous transition to independence occurring in many Southeast Asian states, ASEAN’s objective at its founding was “to accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavours in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of South-East Asian Nations”.

Such a commitment was of great importance for building trust in a region divided by stark differences of ethnicity and a scant history of inter-state cooperation during the period of colonization.  As Southeast Asian countries struggled with newfound independence in the 1960s, differing visions of fiery nationalism and what shape the region should take in the post-colonial era gave rise to territorial disputes and confrontations amongst members even as neighbouring countries in Indochina were in the throes of war and internal conflict.  In fact relations between two founding members, Malaysia and the Philippines, were not normalised until 1969. The 1967 Bangkok Declaration was an initiative to ensure peace and stability in the region, through a commitment to work together and deal peacefully with mutual differences.  Member states hoped to forge an independent bloc in Southeast Asia, which would not be dominated or exploited by external powers.  Today, the notions of sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and non-interference among member states remain central tenets of ASEAN unity and cooperation.

ASEAN’s primary mode of activity is inter-governmental meetings among the representatives of the ten member states.  ASEAN institutions do not include any sort of assembly representing the people of ASEAN, although various ASEAN institutions maintain contact with civil society organizations in the region and the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly.  The latter is not officially a part of ASEAN as to date, only eight member countries’ political systems incorporate representative legislative bodies.

Expansion of membership

While ASEAN was established with five members, its founders had a vision of a larger regional body, including all states in the Southeast Asian region.  This however, had to await the country’s independence (as in the case of Brunei), the resolution of the Vietnam War and civil conflicts in Indochina.  Countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar also waited to be satisfied of ASEAN’s neutrality.  The current ten-nation membership was completed with the admission of Brunei Darussalam in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999.  View a ASEAN member states here.

ASEAN’s Objectives

At the time of ASEAN’s founding, the primary objective of furthering regional cooperation was couched in general terms in the 1967 Bangkok Declaration.

Some of the earliest ASEAN initiatives were those that pertained to norms of peace and security in the region, including the 1971 Declaration on the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) and the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.  This was later supplemented by the 1995 Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) and the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

In the early years, ASEAN also initiated cooperation on economic and cultural projects, which were seen as means to enhance regional stability.  Some early initiatives were in the areas of preferential trading agreements, industrial complementation, agriculture, tourism, cultural and media cooperation, and the promotion of Southeast Asian studies.

The objectives of ASEAN were broadened with the notion of an “ASEAN Community” encompassing security, economic, social and cultural cooperation.  The idea of the ASEAN Community was seeded in the 1976 Declaration of ASEAN Concord (also known as the “Bali Concord”), and further developed into the three specific areas of security, economic and socio-cultural cooperation in the 1997 ASEAN Vision 2020, and the 2003 Declaration of ASEAN Concord II (Bali Concord II). ASEAN continues to work towards the attainment of these goals, guided by a series of specific targets and work plans for each of the three communities.  ASEAN’s official work plans include the Hanoi Plan of Action 1997-2003 (HPA), Vientiane Action Programme 2004-2010 (VAP), and now the Roadmap for an ASEAN Community (2009-2015) comprising the ASEAN Political-Security Blueprint, ASEAN Economic Blueprint, ASEAN Socio-Cultural Blueprint and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration Workplan II.

Recent priorities for the ASEAN Community in 2009-2010 include enhancing connectivity, financial stability, sustained development, responses to climate change and the implementation of the ASEAN Charter.

ASEAN Political-Security Community

The objectives of the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) are to ensure that the peoples and Member States of ASEAN live in peace with one another and with the world at large in a just, democratic and harmonious environment. Activities in this community include cooperation on building norms of peace and security, strong relationships with external partners, the promotion of political development in areas such as good governance and human rights, as well as specific sectoral meetings on defence, law, and transnational crime.  Traditionally the APSC also includes the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, who serve core coordinating and decision-making functions in ASEAN.  As the first ministerial body created at ASEAN’s founding in 1967, the Foreign Ministers’ meeting was termed the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM).  In 2009 with the implementation of the ASEAN Charter, the Foreign Ministers functions were separated into their roles as the ASEAN Foreign Ministers (which retains the acronym AMM) and the ASEAN Coordinating Council.

ASEAN Economic Community

The objective of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is to transform ASEAN into a region with free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labour, and freer flow of capital.  The AEC envisages a single market and production base making ASEAN more dynamic and competitive with new mechanisms and measures to strengthen the implementation of its existing economic initiatives; accelerating regional integration in the priority sectors; facilitating movement of business persons, skilled labour and talents; and strengthening the institutional mechanisms of ASEAN.  Initiatives under the AEC include the ASEAN Free Trade Area, ASEAN Investment Area, and sectoral cooperation in the specific areas of energy, finance, agriculture and forestry, minerals, science and technology, telecommunications and IT, tourism, and transport.

Enabling economic development throughout ASEAN is also an important objective of the AEC. With the enlarged membership of ASEAN came a new set of challenges.  Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam were the last four members to join and were acknowledged to have a significant development gap with the first six members.  “Narrowing the Development Gap” thus became an additional priority of ASEAN.  Projects under the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) are designed to enable new ASEAN members to accelerate the pace of economic growth, and to enable them to participate on a similar level with the first six members.

ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community

The ASEAN Social-Cultural Community (ASCC) contributes to realising an ASEAN Community that is “people-centred and socially responsible with a view to achieving enduring solidarity and unity among the nations and peoples of ASEAN by forging a common identity and building a caring and sharing society which is inclusive and harmonious where the well-being, livelihood, and welfare of the peoples are enhanced.” Areas of cooperation in this community include culture, arts and information, disaster management, education, environment, health, labour, rural development and poverty eradication, social welfare and development, youth and civil service cooperation.

External Relations

Another essential aspect of ASEAN’s activities today is the development of close partnerships with other countries.  The simultaneous engagement of many important countries with an interest in South East Asia forms part of ASEAN’s strategy to remain in the driver’s seat in regional developments – ensuring that the region is stable and prosperous, and free from domination by any single external power. The main instruments of ASEAN’s relations with its partners are the promotion of norms of peace and conciliation, and the creation of  a network of economic agreements in the region.

Today, ASEAN has established official dialogue relations with ten external partners including Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Russia, and the USA.  ASEAN also has relations with the United Nations and a sectoral partnership with Pakistan.  At the regional level, ASEAN is the driving force for forums including the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN+3 (with China, Japan and Korea) and the East Asia Summit (with Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and New Zealand).

The ASEAN Charter

The 2007 ASEAN Charter is a landmark constitutional document for ASEAN, reaffirming ASEAN’s status as an intergovernmental organization, establishing its legal personality, codifying ASEAN’s purposes and principles, and setting up an institutional framework to allow ASEAN to better coordinate its many areas of cooperation and operate effectively in a rules-based system.  ASEAN is distinct from other regional and international organizations in that this “basic” document was created not upon its founding, but instead created only after forty years of confidence-building and cooperation, and signed at the association’s 40th anniversary.

The ASEAN institutional system set out in the Charter incorporates key existing institutions, while creating new structures which are being phased in to ASEAN’s operations. The key features are as follows:

The ASEAN Summit. The ASEAN Summit is the supreme policy making body of ASEAN. It has been convened since 1976 and comprises the heads of government of the ten member states.  As the highest level of authority in ASEAN, the Summit sets the direction for ASEAN policies and objectives. Signing or endorsement of agreements, and the issuance of declarations by the ASEAN Leaders at the Summit signify the highest level of commitment of ASEAN member states.  The Summit authorizes the establishment or dissolution of ASEAN sectoral bodies for specific areas of cooperation. It also functions as final decision-making body in matters referred to it by ASEAN ministerial bodies or the Secretary-General, and plays the role of an appellate body for disputes and cases of non-compliance that cannot be resolved by ASEAN’s dispute settlement mechanisms.  Under the Charter, the Summit meets twice a year.

ASEAN Ministerial Councils. The Charter established four important new Ministerial bodies to support the Summit.  They are the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) which takes over the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting’s functions of support for the ASEAN Summit’s meetings and to oversee overall implementation and coordination in the ASEAN Community, the ASEAN Political-Security Community Council, ASEAN Economic Community Council, and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Council to ensure coordination of the activities under each of the three areas. Together, the Councils supervise the sectoral activities of ASEAN – over 700 meetings each year in the various sectoral areas of the ASEAN Community.

ASEAN Secretariat (ASEC). Administrative support for ASEAN’s official activities is provided by the ASEAN Secretariat, which was established in 1976. ASEC is headed by the ASEAN Secretary-General, staffed by nationals from ASEAN member states and located in Jakarta.  ASEC is also responsible for monitoring implementation of ASEAN commitments and maintaining the organisation’s official records.

Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR). For the day-to-day working level coordination of ASEAN activities, the Charter established a Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) in Jakarta, comprising ambassadorial-level representatives from the member states. The CPR will take over the work of the ASEAN Standing Committee, which was established in 1967 to perform the coordinating role for ASEAN.

Dispute Settlement. The Charter calls for the resolution of disputes between ASEAN members in a peaceful and timely manner through dialogue, consultation and negotiation, in which the Chairman of ASEAN or the Secretary-General may be called upon to offer their good offices, conciliation or mediation.  The Charter further mandates dispute settlement mechanisms for all fields of ASEAN cooperation.  Whereas the economic community is covered by the 2004 ASEAN Protocol on Enhanced Dispute Settlement Mechanism, the other two communities will be addressed through new dispute settlement institutions currently under negotiation.   Unresolved disputes and non-compliance with the findings of dispute settlement mechanisms are to be referred to the ASEAN Summit. For further information please see CIL’s resource page on dispute settlement in ASEAN.

Decision Making. The primary mode of decision-making in ASEAN is consultation and consensus, a tradition that ensures that ASEAN initiatives have the full support of its members and that no member state will feel discriminated against.  However, the Charter enshrines the principle of ASEAN-X in implementation.  This means that if all member states are in agreement, a formula for flexible participation may be used so that the members who are ready may go ahead while members who need more time for implementation may apply a flexible timeline.  In cases where consensus cannot be reached, the Charter provides for the ASEAN Summit to decide on an alternative method of decision-making.

Human Rights. Article 14 of the ASEAN Charter called for the establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights Body.  Accordingly, ASEAN officials completed negotiations on the Terms of reference for the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which was established at the 15th ASEAN Summit in October 2009. The AICHR can be seen as a culmination of discussions on the establishment of a human rights mechanism in ASEAN that began at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in 1993 and continued with the work of the ASEAN Working Group for a Human Rights Mechanism. For further information please see CIL’s resource page on human rights in ASEAN.