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 that was set up to promote cultural, economic, and political development in the region. 

ASEAN is an oficial observer of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

Understanding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

ASEAN was formed in 1967 with the signing of the Bangkok Declaration and initially consisted of five members: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The original purpose of the group was to calm tensions between its members and to contain the spread of communism in the region, but ASEAN's priorities shifted, and in the 1990s it incorporated the communist states of Vietnam (1995) and Laos (1997), as well as the 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, intra-ASEAN trade has risen from 19% in 1993 to 24% in 2015. As of 2016, ASEAN's 10 economies represent $2.5 trillion in combined gross domestic product (GDP), around 3% of the global total, according to the World Bank; their combined population is 639 million people, around 9% of the global total.

Key Takeaways

  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a group of ten 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 among 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 TPP.

ASEAN and the TPP

Many ASEAN neighbors claim territories in the energy-rich South China Sea, bringing them into competition with each other and most of all China. Failed attempts to sort out these claims have undermined the group's influence, as has the Trump administration's decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade pact that would have linked the U.S. to Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia – along with non-ASEAN Pacific Rim nations such as Japan, Mexico, Canada and Australia.