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Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)


The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967 by Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration in Bangkok. ASEAN’s objectives were to accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region. To promote regional peace and stability, active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, cultural, technical, scientific and administrative fields. ASEAN was subsequently expanded over the years to include Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia making up the ten member states of ASEAN today.

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Despite the expansion, the objectives and working principles of ASEAN have remained unchanged throughout the years. The “ASEAN way” of informal networking had been effective in creating a cohesive, peaceful and economically successful ASEAN bloc.

This essay will address the question of ASEAN’s relevance to stability, security and prosperity of Southeast Asia in three parts. First, the essay will attempt to examine the power-balancing role of US in Southeast Asia. Secondly, the essay will analyze the conditions under which ASEAN was created to illustrate how ASEAN’s objectives are aligned with stability, security and prosperity of Southeast Asia. Lastly, this essay will explore in more depth how ASEAN remains essential to the stability, security and prosperity of Southeast Asia. The essay shall then conclude why the interpretation of MM Lee’s words is not accurate in current context and why ASEAN is not merely a supplement to the power-balancing role played by the US.

Power-Balancing Role of US in Southeast Asia

The strategic presence of US in Southeast Asia has not prevented US’s allies and partners in the region from low-intensity conflicts and non-traditional threats. For example, there is still a high incident rate of piracy activities in the Malacca straits, Singapore straits and South China Sea.

The strategic presence of the US has also not provided any security to the states in Southeast Asia from the attack by terrorist groups. Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia had all fallen victim to terrorist bombing, not once, but on several occasions. The attacks might even be triggered by the close ties between US and the states in Southeast Asia. The terrorist would have view the states as being pro-US thus became a target for the terrorist groups.

The third Indochina War was officially brought to a close with the October 1991 agreements at the Paris Conference (PICC). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the regional role of the US is no longer being shaped by the American Cold War imperatives in Southeast Asia.

Impetuses for the Founding of ASEAN

Most Southeast Asian states, less Thailand, attained political independence after centuries of foreign domination and colonization after the end of World War II. As such, nation building was the primary focus of ASEAN during its early years of formation. Furthermore, forming a regional organisation could fill the power vacuum left by the major powers, which used the region for proxy wars and major power rivalry. ASEAN provided a platform for the newly independent states to concentrate in their nation building and economic development. ASEAN was thus formed to create a peaceful and stable environment for nation building and growth among the Southeast Asian states.

Despite the wish for peace and stability, the world in the 1960s era was embroiled in the war against communism. Communist threat to existing governments at that time was severe. The region was overwhelmed with communist insurgencies and there were imminent danger of communism spreading across Southeast Asia. Economic growth, a means to prevent the spread of communism was thus another important objective for the formation of ASEAN.

Although Southeast Asia faced a common enemy, suspicions and distrust caused by “Konfrontasi”, the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation was prevalent among the member states. With the change in political leadership in Indonesia in 1966 with Suharto’s replacement of Sukarno as Indonesia’s President, this spells the end of Sukarno regime and the end of “Konfrontasi”. It was also the beginning of Suharto’s “New Order” regime and “Good Neighbour” policy. In order to achieve peace and stability in the region, it was important to first restore confidence and reassure Southeast Asia of Indonesia’s peaceful intentions. As a result, ASEAN was formed under the principle of non-interference in each others’ domestic affairs to create a tolerant environment for members to engage without suspicion and doubts.

Given the above conditions, ASEAN was formed with the objectives to promote regional peace and stability, co-operation, economic development, and generating social and cultural progress. Defence arrangement such as SEATO was deliberately avoided to prevent being seen as overly pro-Western and provoking to Vietnam.

ASEAN’s Achievements

It has been four decades since ASEAN was founded. The achievements of ASEAN cannot be downplayed, for the fact that ASEAN is the one and only permanent regional association in Asia.

Stability of Southeast Asia

ASEAN had provided the framework for regional stability. The “ASEAN Way” of doing things had proven its strength based on how far ASEAN have came since its founding. The specific features of “ASEAN Way” are: informal process of interaction, informality, quiet diplomacy, dialogue and consultation, self-restraint, flexible consensus, lowest common denominator emphasis, conflict avoidance. They also respect each other’s National sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-use of force etc. – standard Int’l Relations principles. Their mode of operations is process-orientated and network-based model of co-operation that avoids bureaucratic arrangements.

The Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in Southeast Asia (TAC) was signed by the member states of ASEAN in Feb 1976. The purpose of this Treaty is to promote perpetual peace, everlasting amity and co-operation among their peoples which would contribute to their strength, solidarity and closer relationship. This treaty has seen a growing number of countries outside Southeast Asia accepting it. In 2004, four more countries acceded to the treaty, namely, Japan, Pakistan, Republic of Korea and Russia.

The ASEAN Social and Cultural Community (ASCC) was form to achieve a “socially cohesive and caring ASEAN”. It is intended to foster co-operation in addressing a grab bag of social and cultural problems associated with rural poverty, population growth, unemployment, human resources development, education, environment, and health.

An example of the level of co-operation the member states have can be seen in the incident of SARs outbreak in Asia. ASEAN has been proactive in seeking to contain infectious diseases, which know no border. During the outbreak, a special ASEAN Leaders Meeting in Bangkok was called in Apr 2003; the ASEAN heads of government mandated a comprehensive regional response to the threat posed by the disease, the spread of which was wreaking havoc on their economies. Although the actual job of fighting the spread of the disease fell to the public health officials of the states, the coordination of measures was carried out at the health minister level of the ASEAN +3.

Another example is the Singapore-Malaysia dispute over Pedra Branca islands. Both countries laid claim to the Pedra Branca islands although Singapore had been the custodian of the Horsburg Lighthouse situated on the island throughout the last century. The dispute could not be resolved within ASEAN; however, both Singapore and Malaysia had agreed to bring it to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2007. This dispute came to an end with the ICJ ruling sovereignty of Pedra Branca to Singapore and that of Middle Rocks to Malaysia.

ASEAN also manage to resolve the Cambodian crisis during the 1980s thru the ASEAN-Post Ministerial Conference (ASEAN-PMC) which assumed its current form when the US, Canada and Japan joined in 1978.

Security of Southeast Asia

TheZone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN)declaration was signed in 1971 by the Foreign Ministers of theASEANmember states (Indonesia,Malaysia, thePhilippines,SingaporeandThailand). In the declaration, the parties publicly stated their intent to keepSouth East Asia”free from any form or manner of interference by outside Powers” and “broaden the areas of co-operation”.

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The ASEAN Regional Forum was formed in 1994 with the objective of promoting peace and security through dialogue and co-operation in the Asia Pacific. It is important that ARF continue to play its role in the political and security dialogue as well as confidence building.

TheSoutheast AsianNuclear-Weapon-Free ZoneTreaty(SEANWFZ) of 1995, orBangkok Treaty, is anuclear weapons moratorium treaty between 10 Asian member-states under the auspices of theASEAN. It entered into force on March 28, 1997 and obliges its members not to develop, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapon. This is crucial to both confidence building in Southeast Asia and to worldwide nuclear disarmament.

Vietnam has joined ASEAN in 1995 and the ARF, and the long overdue normalization of relations between the US and Vietnam has finally happened, under the influence of ASEAN.

The Vientiane Action Programme (VAP) adopted at the 10th ASEAN Summit contained several measures to guide ASEAN’s effort in countering terrorism from 2005 – 2010. These measures form the preparatory steps to the establishment of an ASEAN Extradition Treaty as envisaged by the ASEAN Security Community (ASC) Plan of Action.

Prosperity of Southeast Asia

One of the main objectives of ASEAN is to improve economic development. ASEAN has since negotiated for Free-Trade Agreements (FTA) with various dialogue partners of ASEAN. The FTAs were established with Australia & New Zealand, China, India, Japan and Republic of Korea.

Since 2000, European Commission and ASEAN are already discussing trade and investment issues at Ministerial (EC-ASEAN Economic Ministers) and official (Senior Economic Official Meeting) levels. The key challenge is to promote region-to-region economic relations, particularly by addressing non-tariff barriers through regulatory co-operation using the framework of TREATI (the Trans-Regional EU-ASEAN Trade Initiative), and ultimately to lay the foundations for a preferential regional trade agreement in the future. The Trans-Regional EU-ASEAN Trade Initiative (TREATI) is a framework for dialogue and regulatory co-operation developed to enhance EU trade relations with ASEAN. Study for an EU- ASEAN FTA was then initialed in 2005 and making good progress.

In 2006, EU-ASEAN trade represented 5% of total world trade. The EU is ASEAN’s 2nd largest trading partner, accounting for 11.7% of ASEAN trade (2006).

Significantly, 13% of ASEAN exports are destined for the EU, which makes it ASEAN’s 2nd largest export market after the US. ASEAN as an entity represents the EU’s 5th largest major trading partner, accounting to 127 billion EUR, just ahead of Norway and equivalent to Japan. ASEAN’s trade with the EU has been growing steadily over the past five years, with an average annual growth rate of 4%.

On average, EU companies have invested 5.1 billion EUR a year for the period 2003 to 2005. EU is thus by far the largest investor in ASEAN countries: 27% of total FDI inflows from 2001 to 2005 come from the EU, compared to 15% for the US.


ASEAN was formed during the era of inter-state distrust and the uprising of communism. ASEAN was thus established with the objectives of promoting regional peace, stability and economic progress to facilitate nation building among member states. The working principles, the “ASEAN Way” of non-interference, informal understanding and consensus building based on lowest common denominator have been effectual in attaining the objectives of ASEAN.

The introduction of new member states including Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, had fulfill the dream of including all the countries in Southeast Asia into ASEAN.

It can be seen that the strategic presence of US in the region can no longer guarantee the security of the states in Southeast Asia, especially in the current era of non-conventional threats – piracy and terrorism. As such, the interpretation of Mr Lee’s words is not accurate in today’s context.

Over the last four decades, ASEAN have certainly achieved plentiful in all areas of stability, security and prosperity of Southeast Asia. The “ASEAN Way” has been successful in promoting regional co-operation and economic development. The nations of Southeast Asia were able to leave their historic rivalries behind them in the name of ASEAN unity. They have also taken the lead to create the ASEAN Regional Forum to engage all their Asia-Pacific neighbours for the first time, to discuss in a structured dialogue on wide-ranging Asian security issues.

The Prime Minister of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mr Bounnhang Vorachith, 29 Nov 2004, said, “The role of ASEAN has been increasingly recognised in ensuring peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region, through the ARF, with ASEAN as the primary driving force.”

In conclusion, ASEAN have proven its commitment and achievements through all the ministerial meetings, Communities and forums that it is still relevance to the stability, security and prosperity of Southeast Asia. The fact that EU and the Asia-Pacific states are willing to co-operate with ASEAN; is a testimonial and recognition of ASEAN’s achievements. It is not merely an “adjunct” or supplement to the power-balancing role played by the United States. The role of ASEAN is indeed central to the region’s well being.


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