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International Relations, PUBLICATIONS

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

Written by Martin Russell
ASEAN: building an Economic Community

© MasterLu / Fotolia

The Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) has long been one of the developing world’s most active regional organisations. Set up in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, it has — like the EU —helped to bring stability to a formerly turbulent region. Successive enlargements have added Brunei, former Cold War adversaries Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, and —most recently — Myanmar.

However, in contrast to the EU, ASEAN remains a mostly intergovernmental organisation. Decisions are non-binding, taken by national leaders at annual summits, based on the principles of consensus and non-interference in domestic affairs. ASEAN has no equivalent of the EU’s strong supranational institutions such as the European Commission. Partly because of this, progress towards regional integration has been slow.

After criticism of its weak response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, ASEAN decided to step up cooperation. Its 2007 Charter envisages an ASEAN Community, to be completed by 2015 on the basis of three pillars: economic, political-security and socio-cultural. Of these three pillars, it is the ASEAN Economic Community which has attracted the most attention, with its goal of creating a single market and production base. Considerable progress has already been made in terms of removing tariffs and harmonising customs procedures. However, this is a much less ambitious project than the EU’s Single Market. For example, there is no question of the ASEAN countries opening up their labour markets to one another, nor is a common foreign trade policy envisaged — in the absence of which SE Asia will continue to function as ten separate markets for foreign companies doing business in the region.

In the second pillar of political-security cooperation, ASEAN already had close cooperation before 2007 — for example, a treaty of non-aggression (the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation) and coordination of relations with key regional partners such as China. This joint approach has given ASEAN member states a stronger role on the world stage than they could have played individually. Since 2007, cooperation has been added in areas such as combatting terrorism and promoting human rights — though not always very effectively, as continued human rights abuses in Myanmar illustrate.

The third pillar of socio-cultural cooperation envisages a more people-centred ASEAN with an emphasis on sustainable development, however with little discernible impact so far.

In short, although the region will certainly benefit from closer cooperation in a wide range of areas, the building of an ASEAN Community remains a slow and incremental process, and despite the initial target of 2015 for its completion, we are unlikely to see a significant change of course in the near future.

Read the four At a glance here:

International cooperation in south-east Asia – ASEAN is southeast Asia’s equivalent of the EU – an organisation which promotes regional peace and prosperity through economic and political integration. There are also several other international organisations active in the region, some established by ASEAN, others independent of it.

ASEAN: building a Political-Security Community – Since its inception in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been a key foreign policy and security player in the region. Like the EU, it has helped to bring stability to a formerly turbulent region. In an effort to put cooperation on a more structured basis, ASEAN’s 2007 Charter establishes a Political-Security Community as one of the organisation’s three pillars (the other two being the Economic and Socio-Cultural Communities).

ASEAN: building an Economic Community – In 2007 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) decided to move towards closer integration by establishing an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015 as one of its three pillars. What will this mean and to what extent will the AEC resemble the EU’s Single Market?

ASEAN: building a Socio-Cultural Community – In 2007 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) launched a Socio-Cultural Community as one of three pillars comprising the ASEAN Community, to be completed by 2015. This represented a new departure for ASEAN, which in the past has cooperated mainly on security and economic matters. To date, however, progress on the Socio-Cultural Community has been limited.


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