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).

Understanding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

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 2018," ASEAN total merchandise trade increased from $790 billion in 2000 to $2,574 billion in 2017.

ASEAN's 10 economies represented $2.8 trillion in combined gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017, and the group is considered the world's fifth-largest economy. The group's combined population was 642 million in 2017, according to the ASEAN report.

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

ASEAN and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)

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 is 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.