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Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand to promote political and economic cooperation and regional stability. No founding member of ASEAN has been involved in conflict with another founding member of ASEAN and no new country that's joined ASEAN has ever been in conflict with another.

All the Southeast Asian states tend to play a hedging strategy with great powers. No one state is too interested in getting too far into China’s or the US or another great power’s sphere of influence. There are too many lessons of history that show that’s the wrong road to go. But some states, such as Cmabodia, are fairly reliable allies of China. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines claim parts of the South China Sea, while China and Taiwan claim all of it. Cambodia has no such claims, and is free of this irritant.

The ASEAN Declaration in 1976, considered ASEAN's foundation document, formalized the principles of peace and cooperation to which ASEAN is dedicated. Brunei joined in 1984, shortly after its independence from the United Kingdom, and Vietnam joined ASEAN as its seventh member in 1995. Laos and Burma were admitted into full membership in July 1997 as ASEAN celebrated its 30th anniversary. Cambodia became ASEAN's tenth member in 1999. The ASEAN chairmanship rotates annually on an alphabetical basis. US relations with ASEAN have been excellent since its inception.

ASEAN was nothing less than a revolutionary reconfiguration of Southeast Asia. Regional states had never before formed such a community, neither as premodern kingdoms and other traditional polities, nor as the Western-headed colonial states which prevailed [outside Thailand] until World War II. Leaders of the newly independent nation states that emerged following the war inherited attitudes of mutual suspicion and rivalry, and they behaved accordingly. Only in the 1960s did an alternative mentality begin to come to the fore through ASEAN. Although ASEAN grew by fits and starts and continued to disappoint its promoters -- especially where economic cooperation is concerned -- its overall advantages have proved to be compellingly attractive to its members.

The Association commands far greater influence on Asia-Pacific trade, political, and security issues than its members could achieve individually. ASEAN's success has been based largely on its use of consultation, consensus, and cooperation. ASEAN took the first steps toward an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1993, when it agreed to eliminate most tariffs on manufactured goods between members over the following decade. Implementation of AFTA hit a snag, however, when Malaysia insisted on postponing tariff reduction for its automobile, the Proton.

ASEAN has served primarily as a venue for Southeast Asian countries to coordinate economic policies, but in recent years, it has begun to evolve into a forum for discussing regional security policies as well. The 7th ASEAN Summit is the latest attempt in that direction with its "2001 ASEAN Declaration On Joint Action To Counter Terrorism," signifying unified US-Southeast Asian cooperation in the "War on Terror." However, given the lack of consensus on many security and international political issues, economics will remain ASEAN's primary focus in the years ahead, to include extending economic and region-stabilizing cooperation among ASEAN members to China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ASEAN +3) as well as India. ASEAN +3 is scheduled to meet in Cambodia this November, to be followed immediately by an ASEAN-India summit, also in Cambodia.

The 7th ASEAN Summit brought about a sense of stability in a somewhat unstable time. The ASEAN Declaration against terrorism highlights the increasing cooperation between the United States and the Southeast Asian nations in the "War on Terror." ASEAN's closer relations with other parts of Asia are intended to further solidify economic cooperation and growth, thereby facilitating regional stability in the years ahead by raising standards of living and reducing poverty and unemployment.

The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia [the ReCAAP Initiative] was the response of ASEAN against piracy and armed sea robbery in the region. It began with a Joint communiqué at the 30th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, SubangJaya, Malaysia (24-25 Jul 1997). This was followed by the ASEAN declaration on Transnational Crime, Manila (20 Dec 2000). The concept of a regional cooperation agreement was first mooted by the former Japanese PM Keizo Obuchi at the ASEAN+1 Summit Meeting in Manila (Nov 1999). At the "Asia Anti-Piracy Challenge 2000" Conference in Tokyo (Apr 2000), 2 documents were promulgated : Tokyo Appeal & The Model Action Plan. The Agreement was finalized in Tokyo (11 Nov 2004) by 16 countries (ASEAN+6).? The Agreement came into force on 4 Sep 2006. The Information Sharing Centre was launched on 29 November 2006.

Every year following the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, ASEAN holds its Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC). In 1994, ASEAN took the lead in establishing the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which now has 23 members and meets each year at the ministerial level just before the PMC. ASEAN has also established formal links to Northeast Asia (ASEAN+3). While these large deliberative arrangements provide regular opportunities to keep one another informed of intentions, they have been too unwieldy to effect major changes in political and economic relations.

For the United States, ASEAN-dominated organizations have taken second place to Washington's bilateral ties to Southeast Asia, particularly with respect to Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. Nevertheless, ASEAN's symbolic importance to the United States was acknowledged in the summer of 2006 when both the State Department and Congress announced that Washington planned to appoint an ambassador to the association.

The ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations collectively ranks as the United States' fifth largest trading partner and fourth largest export market. US trade with ASEAN countries continues to grow steadily, with $182 billion in two-way goods trade in 2008. And robust economies and a total population of about 550 million, the ASEAN market still holds significant additional opportunities for U.S. companies. The Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative (EAI), announced in October 2002, is intended to strengthen U.S. trade and investment ties with ASEAN members both as a region and individually.

Under the EAI, the United States offered the prospect of bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) to ASEAN countries that are committed to the economic reforms and openness inherent in an FTA with the United States. The offer required potential FTA partner, to be WTO members and to have a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the United States.

Since the launch of the EAI, the United States concluded an FTA with Singapore in 2003, and started FTA negotiations with Thailand and Malaysia. The United States already had TIFAs with Indonesia and the Philippines, but concluded additional TIFAs with Brunei, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The United States has regular meetings under these TIFAs to address bilateral trade issues, to further deepen trade and investment ties, and to coordinate regional and multilateral trade efforts.

In August 2006, the United States and ASEAN concluded a TIFA. This regional TIFA represents the commitment by both the United States and ASEAN countries to build upon already strong trade and investment ties to further enhance their economic relationship and promote ASEAN regional economic integration. The TIFA includes a work plan under which the two sides are working on priority projects, including the development of new cooperative projects for the coming year, including a joint agreement to pursue ASEAN-wide participation in the plurilateral Multi-Chip Integrated Circuit (MCP) Agreement, and services and investment initiatives.

Newly minted alliances among nations in the Indo-Pacific region have sidelined ASEAN, with some arguing that the 10-nation grouping of Southeast Asian countries dug its own grave through its inaction on regional issues. Within a span of just seven months in 2021, two Washington-led Asia-Pacific groupings – one ideological and one military – have quietly circumvented the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in a bid to blunt China’s growing dominance and militarization in the South China Sea.

ASEAN had for long touted its “centrality” to the region, and powers such as the United States, China, and Russia have described it as the anchor of the Indo-Pacific security landscape, but such words are starting to ring hollow. With the Quad and AUKUS, they clearly bypassed ASEAN. They pay lip service to ASEAN, but they don’t really seem to care what ASEAN thinks.

AUKUS is the new security alliance under which the U.S. and the United Kingdom will provide Australia the technology needed to build nuclear-powered submarines. It was preceded by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), whose members – the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia – said at the group’s first summit in March that they are committed to an open, secure, and coercion-free Indo-Pacific region.

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Page last modified: 05-01-2022 15:43:45 ZULU