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ASEAN at 50

ASEAN at 50

By Ariane Combal-Weiss

24 November 2017


A region which can stand on its own feet, strong enough to defend itself from any negative influence from outside the region.” This is how Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik envisioned ASEAN at the organisation’s inaugural conference on 8 August 1967. Faced with the threat of communism, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand agreed to establish the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to promote regional peace and prosperity. Later, five other countries Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam joined the project. Over time, the ASEAN has equipped itself with stronger institutional mechanisms to broaden cooperation in an ever-growing array of fields. This has been helpful in promoting peace and stability and fostering trust in the region, despite huge economic differences and recurring tensions between the members. ASEAN is struggling to deal with the rise of China and currently faces a major challenge in its response to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.


ASEAN: A Limited Success Story


The last twenty years have seen a growing recognition of ASEAN as an important regional organisation both within its borders and beyond. It has steadily developed cooperation and has achieved limited success according to its own criteria. Cooperation has been successful in a number of non-traditional security areas, such as the response to the SARS outbreak in 2003.[1] The launch of “ASEAN Lanes” in airports in some member states is an additional step towards the creation of an ASEAN sense of belonging, although progress remains slow.  


The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), launched in 2015, is seen as the pillar that has made most progress. Many tariffs have been reduced[2] but non-tariff barriers remain a significant impediment to trade. ASEAN has also moved forward in integration into the global economy, one of the main goals of the AEC. Several free trade agreements have been agreed, including China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India.


ASEAN has been in the forefront in establishing regional security architecture partly because it is viewed as more neutral than other powers.[3] It has created platforms such as at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+) bringing together major stakeholders. This engagement with third partners is essential for ASEAN to meet its aspirations and goals as a regional organisation. In addition, alleviating tensions, building understanding and promoting dialogue on key common security challenges has contributed to a more stable environment.[4] The increased frequency of meetings socialises the member states, eases recurring tensions between them [5] and can eventually create a sense of belonging.


These achievements have been fuelled by a strengthening of its institutional framework. The ASEAN Political Security Community (APSC), the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) have all opened up several new avenues of cooperation.[6] 2011 saw the establishment of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA). The ASEAN Charter (2007) established the ASEAN as a rules-based legal entity and strengthened the role of the Secretariat [7]. More significantly, it increased the number of meetings to discuss the diverse areas of cooperation. The biannual ASEAN Summits attended by Heads of States or Governments, as the supreme policy-making body of the ASEAN, provides guidance to the Communities and appoints the ASEAN Secretary-General. Ahead of each Summit, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers prepare the summit decisions, coordinate implementation and ensure overall policy coherence of ASEAN activities.


The Charter also strengthened ASEAN’s capacity to conclude agreements with external partners. Each Member state on an annual rolling basis leads the dialogue with an ASEAN strategic partner. More non-ASEAN ambassadors have been accredited to the grouping since the adoption of the Charter.[8]  Despite these achievements, several elements are missing to call the ASEAN “a region which can stand on its own feet” (Malik).


More institutional mechanisms: Much Ado about nothing?


Despite fifty years of institutionalisation, the regional integration process seems to be at a standstill, as ASEAN is struggling with internal and external challenges. Without any sense of “we-feeling” (Acharya), ASEAN will not be an integrated region.[9] The lack of a common ASEAN identity and mind-set results from continuing historical animosities and territorial disputes.[10] Their mutual distrust impacts significantly on internal relations. Nation-building and state consolidation prevails over the regional integration process, as governments have to come to terms with challenges to domestic stability. As a result, pooling sovereignty is not seen as the main priority. Furthermore, a strong common identity needs to build on sustained participation at the grassroots level, which is missing within ASEAN.[11] In its report in December 2006, the ASEAN-commissioned eminent persons group (EPG) on the ASEAN Charter recommended using the expression “people-centred ASEAN”, but ASEAN officials opted for a “people-oriented ASEAN”.[12]


Despite the launch of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) and regional professional associations, there is little awareness about ASEAN among the people. Even the Southeast Asian Games do not provide any real impetus. ASEAN largely remains a government-driven organisation, whose policy-making involves civil society only at the implementation stage. [13] Furthermore, the tome of ASEAN working groups further impedes the work of civil society organisations (CSOs) accredited to ASEAN. They struggle to find a unique point of contact within the ASEAN bodies to garner support for their activities.[14]


There is a broad consensus on the weak capacities of the ASEAN Secretariat, hence its poor ability to give impetus to ASEAN projects. It is staffed with only 300 officers and funded with $20 million (2016 data).[15] Since the member states’ financial contributions to the Secretariat are equal - regardless of their resources, this limits the scope of the work of the Secretariat. In addition, the rotating ASEAN chair and the ASEAN governments play a much larger role in shaping the ASEAN than the Secretariat.[16] While it can convene meetings between member states, it does not have the capacity to undertake joint actions or programmes; which are coordinated by member states.[17]  


The EPG on the ASEAN Charter underscored that “The real problem is one of ensuring compliance and effective implementation of decisions. As ASEAN steps up its integration efforts, appropriate monitoring, compliance and dispute settlement mechanisms should be established.”[18] The absence of “effective implementation” largely comes from the ‘ASEAN way’. Based on non-interference, voluntarism, consensus-based decision-making, non-confrontation and respect for sovereignty, it prevents members from raising and tackling sensitive issues with legally binding agreements.[19] The provision laid out in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation to establish a High Council as a peaceful means of conflict resolution has gone unheeded. Multilateral cooperation on counter-terrorism also reflects the limitations of the ASEAN way.[20] While many ASEAN declarations and action plans have been endorsed,[21] intelligence sharing has mainly taken place at the bilateral level. This challenges ASEAN’s raison d’être as a driver for regional stability and peace.


This blockage is fuelled by contradictory principles enshrined in the Charter. While it calls for a collective responsibility to solve common problems, it insists on non-interference in members’ internal affairs. Yet calls to review the Charter among ASEAN member states have not borne fruit. [22]


The recent Rohingya refugee crisis is an example of this contradiction. Most ASEAN member states consider the crisis as falling under Myanmar’s domestic affairs and have been reluctant to discuss the problem. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have held bilateral talks with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to try and move towards a resolution of the crisis. The Malaysian foreign minister’s statement to the UNGA in September demonstrated the lack of unity on the Rohingya file. [23] For Malaysia, ASEAN and its non-interference principle are no longer the solution. But if nothing is done at the regional level, the Rohingya refugee crisis, deemed as the “fastest growing in recent years” by the UN,[24] can severely impede all efforts to boost the regional integration process. In addition, experts and analysts have warned that the refugee camps in Bangladesh could quickly become breeding grounds for jihadism, thus further undermining regional stability.[25] 


The worrying human rights situation also shows this contradiction. Despite the existence of an ASEAN Human Rights Body and a Human Rights Declaration,[26] the states often turn a blind eye at human rights violations taking place in the region (Myanmar, Philippines, Cambodia, etc) citing non-interference and respect for sovereignty. Throughout large parts of Southeast Asia, civil society, transparency and democracy are under threat without any reaction from ASEAN. The intergovernmental commission on human rights (AICHR) is purely consultative and lacks independence vis-à-vis member governments.[27]


External challenges can be a strong incentive for countries to unite and cooperate. Yet, the imbalance between national and regional interests within ASEAN increases the exposure to external influences.[28] China’s rise and ‘divide and rule’ strategy poses an existential challenge to ASEAN, as member states are increasingly divided when it comes to Beijing. At the ASEAN Summit in 2012, foreign ministers failed to reach an agreement after Cambodia, as the then Chair, blocked any reference to the disputes in the South China Sea. At the ASEAN retreat in February 2017, China used all means to convince the chair to issue a softer statement. ASEAN dependence on Chinese finance and investments is steadily growing.[29]

The disunity of ASEAN members on a growing number of security files, especially with regard to China, has had a negative impact on cohesion within ASEAN.[30] At the 20th ASEAN-China Summit on 13 November 2017, the leaders formally announced the start of the negotiations towards a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.[31] But many doubt whether ASEAN will be able to speak with one voice throughout the negotiations.


Prospects for EU-ASEAN relations


The EU Global Strategy (2016) acknowledges the interaction between Asian security and European prosperity. This has led the EU to support ASEAN-sponsored regional security frameworks. With the threat of American withdrawal from the global stage and China’s growing assertiveness in Southeast Asia, the EU has all the more reason to step up its cooperation with ASEAN. Without imposing its own approach to regional integration, it could further enhance its support to the grouping, while paying heed to the successes and failures of ASEAN to date.  


Until 2017, EU support to ASEAN was largely financial and technical.[32] This was in line with the priorities of ASEAN at that time, namely implementing the three pillars of the ASEAN Community.[33] An EU mission to ASEAN was established in 2015 and an ambassador appointed. The EU’s participation as a guest to the East Asia Summit (EAS) Chair in November 2017 was a positive step towards an increased influence as a security player in the region.  


There has been a shift in the focus of EU’s support to ASEAN integration, as seen in the recently adopted ASEAN-EU Plan of Action (2018-2022). The EU is keen to support ASEAN in building on its successes as a facilitator in the regional security architecture in the Asia-Pacific.[34] In the new plan, the ASEAN-EU strategic dialogue was seen as a key building block. The need to deepen the dialogue between the EU mission to ASEAN and the Committee of Permanent Representatives to ASEAN was underscored.[35] Support to implementation mechanisms was also emphasised.


As regards the progress on the ASEAN-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA), there is little prospect that it will be concluded anytime soon, despite calls from both sides to resume the talks.[36] While ASEAN and the EU still aspire to a region-to-region agreement (and a working group has been established to assess prospects), the EU focuses more on FTAs with individual countries. The standstill of the negotiations can be explained by the differentiated interest ASEAN member states have in this agreement. Some see little added value in an EU-ASEAN agreement and prefer to focus on bilateral accords with the EU. EU relations with individual ASEAN countries largely outweigh its engagement with ASEAN as a whole.[37]


As seen on the opposite table, the EU ranks as the top provider of FDI in ASEAN, and the latest report on ASEAN Investment Report 2017 released last week confirms this trend.[38] Given the region’s dire needs of financing infrastructure, it has to remain a priority of the EU’s engagement with ASEAN members. With much more investment, ASEAN would have more leverage in its relations with China, which uses its massive FDI flows in infrastructure to promote its foreign policy objectives.


As the EU and ASEAN celebrated the 40th anniversary of the establishment of their dialogue relations on 14 November, the breadth of their cooperation holds great promises. Yet, in order to fully unlock its potential, it will have to deliver on key issues such as SDGs, maritime security, cybersecurity as well as climate change and the security threats arising from it. As the EU deepens its political and security dialogue with ASEAN, this should open opportunities for joint efforts to address key regional security issues, as well as tackling issues such as the Rohingya crisis.


Conclusion - ASEAN at 50, how to embark on the next half century:


The celebrations of the ASEAN golden jubilee provide a fitting opportunity to reflect on ASEAN’s successes and shortcomings. Given the deeply rooted historical animosities and huge gaps between the member countries, bringing them together around common cooperation goals is in itself a feat. The loose and flexible format of cooperation between the members has suited all members well. Yet the lack of implementation mechanisms and financial resources allocated to ASEAN are hindrances to its future development. The sense of belonging and identity among the citizens of ASEAN remains weak. To create a sustainable integrated region, ASEAN needs to promote increased engagement between its citizens at the grassroots level. This could be investing in student and youth exchange programs as well as cooperation between professional associations. The priorities of Singapore as incoming ASEAN chair in 2018 seem to be heading in the right direction, as it intends to promote ASEAN centrality and unity. It wants to strengthen the institutional framework and concentrate on improving cooperation on security, connectivity and innovation.  This is a well-thought our agenda. But can ASEAN deliver?

[1] Moe Thuzar, “Asean’s decent track record in working for the common good”, Today Online, 09/08/2017. URL:

[2] Around 96% of tariff barriers in ASEAN are now at zero percent, and are expected to rise by 98.67 by next year. See: Czeriza Valencia, “Non-tariff barriers bog down Asean economic integration”, Philstar, 28/07/2017. URL:   

[3] Phone interview with Mr Martin Russell, Researcher, European Parliament Research Service, 06/11/2017.

[4] As an additional step towards the establishment of a security community, a concept articulated by Karl Deutsch. He defines security community as “ a group of people which become ‘integrated’. (…) By integration we mean the attainment, within a territory of a ‘sense of community’ and of institutions and practices strong enough and widespread enough to assure, for a ‘long’ time, dependable expectations of ‘peaceful change’ among its population.”

[5] Phone interview with Mr Martin Russell, Researcher, European Parliament Research Service, 06/11/2017.

[6] Including humanitarian assistance, maritime security, defence cooperation, transnational crimes, counter-terrorism, human rights, free trade area, sports, culture, tourism, education….

[7] The ASEAN Foreign Ministers now meet at least twice a year to prepare the ASEAN’s Summit and the Secretary General is assisted with four Deputy Secretaries Generals.

[8] As of August 2017, 88 non-ASEAN Ambassadors were accredited to ASEAN. See: ASEAN Website, “List of Ambassadors to ASEAN”, August 2017. URL:

[9] The ‘we-feeling’ is fuelled by 5 major sources including nationalism, religion, cultural norms and modes of interactions as well as modernist developmental state and approach and regionalism. See: Amitav Acharya, “The Evolution and Limitations of ASEAN Identity”, in: Aileen Baviera (ed.), Larry Maramis (ed.), Building ASEAN Community: Political–Security and Socio-cultural Reflections, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), Vol. 4, 2017.

[10] For instance, the recent Malay-Indonesian conflict in the Sulawesi Sea that lasted from 2005 to 2009 exacerbated animosities. The same goes for the relations between Cambodia and Thailand, which were severely undermined by the territorial dispute surrounding the Preah Vihear Temple, which resulted in fire exchanges between the militaries.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Report of the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter, December 2006. URL :

[13] Moe Thuzar, Nur Aziemah Aziz, “The promise and perils of democratising Asean”, Today Online, 16/08/2017. URL :

[14] Anonymous source from a civil society organisation in Asia.

[15] Termsak Chalermpalanupap, “No Brexit Repeat in ASEAN”, The Diplomat, 28/06/2016. URL :

[16] Simon S.C. Tay, “Imperatives for a New ASEAN Leadership: Integration, Community, and Balance”, in: Aileen Baviera (ed.), Larry Maramis (ed.), Building ASEAN Community: Political–Security and Socio-cultural Reflections, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), Vol. 4, 2017.

[17] Phone interview with Mr Martin Russell, Researcher, European Parliament Research Service, 06/11/2017.

[18] Report of the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter, December 2006. URL :

[19] Christopher B. Roberts, ASEAN regionalism: cooperation, values and institutionalization, London : Routledge, 2012.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Such as the November 2001 Declaration on Joint Action to Counter-Terrorism, the November 2004 Vientiane Action Programme.

[22] Myanmar, as the ASEAN Chair in 2014, and Singapore, made some proposals, which yet mainly focus on reforming the ASEAN institutions. See: Singapore Institute of International Affairs, “Reviewing the ASEAN Charter : An Opportunity to Reform ASEAN Process”, September 2014. URL:

[23] Nile Bowie, “Rohingya crisis splits ASEAN religious lines”, Asia Times, 01/10/2017. URL:

[24] UN News Centre, “Rohingya crisis one of the fastest growing in recent years, warns UN refugee agency”, 15/09/2017. URL:

[25] Jasminder Singh and Muhammad Haziq, “The Rohingya Crisis: Regional Security Implications”, RSIS Commentary, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 02/12/2016. URL:

[26] In 2009, the ASEAN Member states inaugurated the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and adopted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012.

[27] According to the Article 5.2 of the Terms of Reference of the AICHR, “Each ASEAN Member State shall appoint a Representative to the AICHR who shall be accountable to the appointing Government.”

[28] Moe Thuzar, “Asean’s decent track record in working for the common good”, Today Online, 09/08/2017. URL:

[29] Singapore Institute of International Affairs, ASEAN@50: From Crisis to Community and the Coming Changes, October 2017, Singapore.

[30] Pongphisoot Busbarat, “Why a Strong ASEAN is Essential for the Region”, The Straits Times, 03/08/2017. URL:

[31] Chairman’s Statement of the 20th ASEAN-China Summit, 13 November 2017, Manila, Philippines. URL:

[32] Especially as emphasized in the Bandar Seri Bengawan Plan of Action to Strengthen the ASEAN-EU Strategic Partnership (2012-2017).

[33] For instance, between 2007-2012, the EU offered €70 million to the ASEAN Secretariat.[33] The EU-funded programme ASEAN Regional Integration Support from the EU (ARISE) laid a particular emphasis on the realisation of the AEC and the capacity building of the ASEAN Secretariat.

[34] The call to “enhance the role of the ARF as ASEAN as the primary driving force”, appears in the first lines of the recommendations set out by the new action plan adopted in August 2017. See: ASEAN-EU Plan of Action 2018-2022, 06/08/2017. URL:

[35] Yet this also could eventually lead to greater recognition of individual Member states, at the expense of a region-to-region direct dialogue.

[36] According to the document, the priority is now to “Intensify work towards the timely resumption of the ASEAN-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations, noting the status of bilateral FTAs between several ASEAN Member States and the EU”. See: ASEAN-EU Plan of Action 2018-2022.   

[37] Phone interview with Mr Martin Russell, Researcher, European Parliament Research Service, 06/11/2017.

[38] ASEAN Investment Report 2017 Foreign Direct Investment and Economic Zones in ASEAN, The ASEAN Secretariat, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), 2017. URL :