November 4, 2022
PHNOM PENH – ASEAN is a union of 10 member states in Southeast Asia, one of the fastest growing parts of the world. Many now see its previously unrecognised economic and political potential that could become a factor in world relations in the near future.
The bloc’s member nations currently cover a total area of 4,479,210.5sq km with a population of over 680 million. According to the ASEAN Charter, its chairmanship rotates annually based on the alphabetical order of each member’s English name.
ASEAN has gradually become a regular dialogue partner with all of the most powerful countries and alliances in the world, including the US, EU, China, Russia, Japan, Korea, Australia and India.
The bloc was officially established on August 8, 1967, by its five founding members of Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Their representatives convened at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok where they signed the document forming the intergovernmental organisation.
That document was the ASEAN Declaration, which is short by the standards of most charters with only five articles listed.
The organisation was established against the backdrop of the cold war which had as its centre the conflict between the US and the Soviet Union – characterised by proxy battles, economic measures and spycraft – and similar in some ways to the US and China today.
ASEAN, in the eyes of analysts, was initially created to counter the increasing influence of communism in the region as practised by the Soviet Union, China and others.
ASEAN’s stated aims, however, were the common goal and purpose of promoting peace, stability and economic growth, as well as socio-cultural development in Southeast Asia through respect for justice and the rule of law, as well as adherence to the principles of the UN Charter.
In the years after 1984, five other countries in the region which had been looking at integration with ASEAN – Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia – all joined the bloc one after another through the years.
Regarding the process of establishing and operating ASEAN, Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, asserted that initially the organisation was aimed at preventing communist influence in Southeast Asia, as the five member states did not adhere to communism and were aligned with western nations such as the US and Britain.
Phea stressed that the region had many internal problems, such as the gap between economy and education.
“One of the shortcomings of ASEAN was that the economic resources and the human resources were not equivalent,” he said.
ASEAN also has shortcomings in terms of exchanges of information and mutual security between the member states, which tend to be either pro-China or pro-US due in part to their different political systems.
And even today, some member states still have territorial disputes over sovereignty and territorial integrity with no immediate end in sight, he said.
“Major controversies in ASEAN include the South China Sea disputes and the geopolitical rivalry of the superpowers: China and the US. These are the issues that cause ASEAN many challenges which can affect its stated centrality and unity,” he said.
Phea added that ASEAN is an important diplomatic channel for its member states, large and small, as it gives them equal rights to carry out regional and global affairs under the banner of a regional organisation.
Moreover, ASEAN has recently become an important economic gateway for member states to enter into trade agreements, especially the latest large-scale Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Furthermore, ASEAN has a wide range of regional and global dialogue mechanisms to help ensure its members stability and security, he said.
“These mechanisms and ASEAN’s demographics have made Southeast Asia important in the eyes of powerful countries. This has become a vital area to world trade and it cannot be overlooked whether you’re talking about the Asia-Pacific region, Indo-Pacific or ASEAN itself,” he said.
Yang Peou, secretary-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said the founding process for ASEAN went through two stages: the cold war and globalisation.
In the first stage, Peou said, ASEAN had only five members and tended to discriminate against other countries with different political regimes due to the competitive situation between democracies and the communist world in the same geographical locations.
The second stage, globalisation, saw ASEAN open to accepting countries in the same geographical area as members regardless of their political system or regime and eventually reaching to 10 member states in 1999.
An expert on geopolitics, Peou said that despite the challenges facing ASEAN, the intergovernmental organisation has so far addressed those issues in accordance with the ASEAN Charter, which focuses on consensus.
“It is imperative that Cambodia further integrate itself into ASEAN, the region and the world, because we cannot survive alone. It has benefited Cambodia both politically and economically. And although this regional organisation still faces some challenges, it brings more benefits than disadvantages,” he said.