ASEAN: Challenges and Prospects

This article talks about the organisation ASEAN or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN is an important international organisation and its activities and developments affect India and the world. The member-countries are also geographically close to the Indian subcontinent and the organisation has been engaging with India in various forms since its inception. So, ASEAN and related developments are a major part of the International Relations segment in the UPSC syllabus. This post talks about the major prospects and challenges of ASEAN for the IAS exam.


asean2 Purpose of ASEAN

It aims to:

  • accelerate economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region.
  • promote regional peace and stability
  • promote mutual assistance and collaboration on matters of common interest
  • provide assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities
  • collaborate for the better utilization of agriculture and industry to raise the living standards of the people
  • promote Southeast Asian studies
  • maintain close, beneficial co-operation with existing international organizations with similar aims and purposes

Characteristics of Membership

Diverse cultures: Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Confucian Divergent colonial history:

  • British (Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar)
  • Dutch (Indonesia)
  • French (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos)
  • Spanish/American (Philippines)
  • Portuguese (East Tamor)

Different political systems:

  • Military (Myanmar); communist (Vietnam, Laos); soft-authoritarian (Malaysia and Singapore); stable democracy (Indonesia), unstable democracy (Thailand and Philippines)
  • Parliamentary democracy and Presidential democracy

  ‘ASEAN Way’ the-ASEAN-way The ‘ASEAN Way’ refers to a methodology or approach to solving issues that respects the cultural norms of Southeast Asia. And, it is summarized as:

  • to a possible extent, regional interactions among ASEAN members and between ASEAN and outside countries should be informal, non-legalistic, consensus-based and inclusive.
  • relative informality of interactions
  • non-legalistic cooperation
  • consensus-based decision-making
  • inclusivity

This approach is changing now due to criticism and limitations, particularly after the 1997 economic crisis.  


  • No major conflict among members since founding
  • Inclusive membership : Vietnam joining in 1995 key development
  • Key role in resolution of Cambodia conflict
  • Engaging all the major powers of the world – (China, US, Japan, India, Russia, EU) through dialogue and cooperation

  ASEAN’s Economic Achievement


  • Continuation of preferential tariffs
  • Common lobbying platform
  • Regularized dialogue partnerships
  • Group membership in APEC
  • Formation of ASEAN Free Trade Area
  • Negotiation of Free Trade Arrangements
  • Chiangmai currency swap arrangements

  Mixed Record

  • Mechanism of Financial crisis still untested; intra-ASEAN trade still around 25% of total trade.
  • Persisting Intra-ASEAN conflicts between Thailand-Cambodia; Singapore-Malaysia; and maritime disputes
  • South China Sea Dispute: China; Vietnam; Philippines; Malaysia; Brunei; and Taiwan
  • Transnational threats: Piracy; terrorism; drug trafficking; people smuggling; environmental degradation; deforestation and haze problem

Recent Developments

  • Community-Building (Bali Concord II-2003)
  • ASEAN Economic Community (Free Trade and Customs Union, investment area)
  • ASEAN Political-Security Community (Conflict resolution, Cooperation against common challenges such as terrorism, piracy, disaster management, etc)
  • ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (people’s ASEAN, caring and sharing ASEAN)
  • ASEAN Charter (2008)-legal personality, consolidation of treaties and agreements, compliance enforcement East Asian Summit (2005). New regional architecture; Now includes US and Russia

Challenges for the Future

  • Rise of China and India, a multipolar world
  • Increasing burden: scope of issues, and memberships, and partnerships.
  • Sovereignty and non-interference in an age of globalization and transnational challenges
  • Compliance with new rules and the Charter: National interest version regional interest
  • ASEAN’s unity and cohesion
  • Can ASEAN’s centrality in Asian regional architecture be assured for next 20 years?
  • ASEAN 2030: Wise counsel of Asia or marginalized relic of past.

ASEAN: Over 40 Years

ASEAN - over 40 years “For over 40 years, ASEAN has developed comprehensive cooperation with its dialogue partners and other international organizations”.  

1971 – Declaration of Zone of Peace Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) 
1976 – Establishment of Jakarta Secretariat 
1976 – Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) 
1976 – Treaty of ASEAN Concord 
1979 – U.N. support for DK government 
1982 – Formation of CGDK 
1984 – Brunei became member 
1988 – Jakarta Informal Meetings 1 & 2 
1989-93 – Involvement in Cambodian Peace Settlement
1989 – Collective membership in APEC 
1991 – Political Settlement of “Kampuchean Problem” 
1992 – AFTA agreed at Singapore Summit 
1994 – Formation of ASEAN Regional Forum launched in Bangkok
1995 –  SEANWFZ Treaty signed in Bangkok 
1997 – Laos and Myanmar became a member; First ASEAN +3 Summit in Kuala Lumpur; Vision 2020
1998 – Formation of ASEAN Plus Three; Hanoi Plan of Action 
1999 – Cambodia became a member 


2000 – 1st ASEAN-UN Summit; Bangkok
2003 – Bali Concord II: Establishment of ASEAN Community with 3 pillars
2004 – Vientiane Action Plan (VAP): Roadmap for ASEAN Community
2005 – First East Asia Summit (EAS); Declaration on Establishment of ASEAN Charter in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
2007 – Acceleration of ASEAN Community to 2015, Cebu, Philippines

“Today, ASEAN is not only a well-functioning, indispensable reality in the region. It is a real force to be reckoned with far beyond the region. IT is also a trusted partner of the United Nations in the field of development”, said the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan in 2011.

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