ASEAN: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Authors: Isabella Bennett, Program Coordinator, International Institutions and Global Governance, Julie Ginsberg, and Beina Xu
Updated: October 8, 2013

Beawiharta Beawiharta/Courtesy Reuters

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an alliance promoting economic and political cooperation by fostering dialogue among its ten members: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. ASEAN is becoming a major economic powerhouse in the region, having signed free-trade agreements (FTA) with China, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, and Korea. But the regional organization faces distinct challenges of late, including, most notably, member countries' disputes over maritime sovereignty in the South China Sea. Experts say the group's lack of diplomatic coherence, differences in strategic priorities, and weak leadership has prevented it from making meaningful progress in negotiating a resolution to the tugs-of-war with China, whose blanket claims over territories in the region have inflamed diplomatic relations in recent years.

Despite the territorial tensions, ASEAN has proved a vital and welcoming partner in Asia for the United States as Washington makes its strategic pivot toward Asia. Anxiety over Chinese economic and military expansion has also motivated the United States to deepen engagement with ASEAN and other multilateral institutions to secure U.S. influence in the region. In recent years, Washington has strengthened economic and security ties with ASEAN by joining the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, attending ASEAN summits, and formally establishing a U.S.-ASEAN annual summit. It has also made strong diplomatic assurances of its commitment to the region with high-profile state visits to countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

Addressing Regional Security Issues

ASEAN was formed in 1967 amid the Vietnam War, uniting Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand against the potential threat of a communist-led insurgency. It was originally intended to serve as a security community, promoting social and political stability during a turbulent time in the region, says CFR Senior Fellow Sheila A. Smith.

In addition to preventing intraregional flare-ups, ASEAN provided a way for the countries to create "a voice for themselves in the broader Cold War arena so the Southeast Asian area would speak as one on particular issues," Smith says. To that end, ASEAN signed the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality [PDF] accord in 1971. The resolution signaled ASEAN's refusal to be divided along Cold War lines, says Sheldon Simon, a professor of political science at Arizona State University.

The fall of the Soviet Union left ASEAN "searching for a new organizing principle for security," Simon says, and ASEAN has since established these forums to address more contemporary challenges:

  • ASEAN Regional Forum: Launched in 1993, it aims to promote security in the broader Asia-Pacific region, although the group's contribution has entailed more discussion than action, says Zachary Abuza, a professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston. Still, white papers, military exchanges, and the creation of a register of experts who can be consulted during conflicts have increased transparency and defense cooperation.
  • ASEAN Plus Three (APT): Initiated in 1997, it aims to foster collaboration between ASEAN, Japan, China, and South Korea, and was characterized as "the most coherent and substantive pan-Asian grouping" in a recent CFR Council Special Report.
  • East Asia Summit: First held in 2005, the summit aims to promote security and prosperity in the region and is attended by heads of state from ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Since 2009, China has taken a more aggressive tack in regional disputes over borderlands with India, maritime sovereignty, and the Mekong River, say analysts. CFR's Fellow for Southeast Asia Joshua Kurlantzick warns that countries like Vietnam and Malaysia are "arming up" to protect strategic interests and energy resources in areas like the South China Sea. Investment in arms purchases in Southeast Asia nearly doubled between 2005 and 2009 alone, writes Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

One of the most contentious regional issues has been the escalation of disputes between China and ASEAN members over territorial claims to the resource-rich South China Sea. China, which lays claim to most of the area, has been in a standoff with the Philippines since April 2012 over a reef known as the Scarborough Shoal. It has also disputed overlapping territorial claims with Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, all of which lay various claims to the clusters of uninhabited islands spanning the sea. While ASEAN has made repeated attempts to resolve the long-standing issue, multilateral discussion has yielded little progress; the group failed, for the first time in its history, to issue a joint communiqué at its annual meeting in July 2012 that would have presented a code of conduct for the region to avoid potential contingencies. China's preference to discuss such issues bilaterally has often exacerbated stalemates, although Beijing's new government has recently expressed willingness to negotiate a code of conduct with ASEAN.

In the face of China's growing assertiveness, ASEAN nations have upped their military cooperation with the United States in recent years. At a CFR meeting in September 2010, Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa expressed that in the interest of building a "dynamic equilibrium" in Asia, Indonesia wanted to ensure participation of the United States and Russia in the "evolving regional architecture." Philippine president Benigno S. Aquino III echoed the necessity of an ongoing U.S. presence in the region. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reaffirmed the Obama administration's support for the Asia pivot during a speech at Shangri-La in June 2013.

Despite the rising level of engagement, experts have pointed out that considerable hurdles to multilateral cooperation remain. Security priorities vary among members, who tend to treat military and counterterrorism issues more bilaterally. Still, as Andrew Chau of the University of Queensland's School of Political Science and International Studies writes in Asian Survey, ASEAN's consensus-based decision-making and policy of noninterference in members' affairs have created a "state-centric approach to foreign policy behavior" that undermines regional integration initiatives.

Human Rights Concerns

The alliance's noninterference principle came under scrutiny when the group drafted a 2007 charter, which all ten members ratified by October 2008. Early drafts included provisions for charter violation sanctions and a system of compliance monitoring for ASEAN agreements, but these elements were cut after deliberations revealed conflicting visions of ASEAN's continued role in the region.

Experts say the concept of noninterference has become a tool for protecting human rights transgressors. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam—countries with contentious human rights records—balked at the proposition to give the charter's human rights commission the power to monitor or investigate abuses (Brunei and Singapore also expressed reservations, fearful of opening the door to intervention). The commission was rendered virtually powerless, dismaying Indonesia and the Philippines, the last members to ratify the charter.

ASEAN finally adopted a Human Rights Declaration in November 2012. However, Human Rights Watch has condemned the draft process for being secret and closed to outside consultation, saying it "undermines, rather than affirms, international human rights law and standards." The group wants ASEAN foreign ministers to publicly commit to a declaration that complies with international human rights standards and for the current draft to be released to civil society organizations.

The Myanmar Question

While the charter did not change ASEAN's conflict resolution tactics, the group's response to events in 2008 revealed willingness to use tougher diplomatic pressure on members. Such was the case after Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in May 2008, when the country's ruling junta allowed only limited international aid and insisted that it be distributed through its military. In response, ASEAN called an emergency meeting and issued a statement that "Myanmar should allow more international relief workers into the stricken areas, as the need is most urgent, given the unprecedented scale of the humanitarian disaster." After Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan continued to press for cooperation on a trip to Yangon, Myanmar's ruling junta finally allowed the entry of international aid workers.

In November 2010, Myanmar held its first elections since 1990. Though critics complained the elections were marred by rampant corruption and fraud [PDF], reform-minded Thein Sein was elected president and took office in 2011. Sein began implementing reforms, and the country has started moving toward democracy. ASEAN's treatment of Myanmar was a significant factor in that democratic shift, wrote Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak in an April 2012 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. While most countries treated Myanmar with sanctions and isolation, Razak wrote, ASEAN members believed "constructive engagement and encouragements were just as effective."

Growing Trade

Despite rapidly burgeoning trade ties, ASEAN's diverse membership has presented difficulties in dismantling barriers to trade, Surin said in a CFR meeting. He explained that the process of creating a single economic community was complex in an organization whose members' average per capita incomes ranged from $209 to $50,000 per year, requiring trade standards to cater to a wide range of economic needs. Still, annual intra-ASEAN trade ballooned from $376 billion in 2009 to $598 billion [PDF] in 2011, and is projected to comprise 35 percent of the group's total trade volume by 2020.

"They don't have a dispute-resolution mechanism, nor do they have a central authority to take disputes to." —Catharin Dalpino, Georgetown University

The United States and ASEAN have a trade and investment framework (TIFA), though talks have been relatively ineffective, wrote Ernest Bower [PDF] of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in 2010. Japan was ASEAN's principal trading partner in 2009, but China overtook Japan in 2010 to comprise 11 percent of ASEAN's external trade, increasing 21 percent to $280 billion in 2011. The EU is ASEAN's second-largest trading partner after China, accounting for around 11 percent of total trade.

Catharin Dalpino, a visiting associate professor of Southeast Asian studies at Georgetown University, cautioned that the recent free-trade agreements may not solve institutional hurdles to free trade. For example, ASEAN doesn't yet have the legal framework to support a fully implemented free-trade agreement. "They don't have a dispute-resolution mechanism nor do they have a central authority to take disputes to," Dalpino says. Government corruption and unreliable judicial systems in the region also create roadblocks to trade because they make contracts hard to enforce.

Relations With the United States

In 2012, ASEAN was the United States' fifth-largest trading partner, with goods trade totaling $198 billion. A stronger China, freedom of navigation in Southeast Asian sea lanes, and U.S.-China currency disputes have all given the United States an impetus to secure tighter diplomatic and trade ties with ASEAN, said former CSIS fellow and current U.S. ambassador to Myanmar Derek J. Mitchell.

The Obama administration has increased U.S. participation in ASEAN activities, naming an ambassador to ASEAN and establishing the U.S.-ASEAN annual summit. U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton has attended all ASEAN regional forums during her time in office, a marked departure from the sporadic attendance of former diplomats in her post, say analysts.

In July 2012, Clinton began a series of high-profile visits to Southeast Asian states, culminating in a meeting in Cambodia with ASEAN foreign ministers. But Washington's commitment to the region was sharply questioned when an October 2013 U.S. government shutdown forced President Obama to cancel a Southeast Asia trip that included visits to Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The tour included attendance at APEC and ASEAN summits, where parties anticipated progress on negotiations for the highly-touted Trans-Pacific Partnership. The president's absence would be a "serious loss of face" for the administration, writes CFR fellow Joshua Kurlantzick.

Nevertheless, the U.S.-ASEAN relationship will prove increasingly strategic as Asian powers vie for influence in Southeast Asia; visits to regional countries by China, South Korea, and Japan—whose prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has visited Southeast Asia three times since returning to office in 2012—have upped the ante for U.S. engagement in the region.

Additional Resources

CFR's Josh Kurlantzick discusses ASEAN's future and Asian integration in a 2012 International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) Working Paper.

This CFR InfoGuide on China's Maritime Disputes delves into the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea and examines what's at risk for the region.

Walter Lohman speculates on the future of the Asia pivot in this 2013 National Interest piece.

This 2012 article in the Economist asks whether Indonesia can act as a mediator for the mounting intra-ASEAN rifts.

In this 2009 Asian Affairs article, Stephen McCarthy discusses Burma and the evolution of human rights in ASEAN.

This 2011 Foreign Policy article by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton outlines the vision for the United States' strategic pivot toward Asia-Pacific.

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