This Week in Asia

Explained: Asean

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has 10 member states comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

A Rohingya refugee girl next to newly arrived refugees who fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. Photo: AFP

Asean was created in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand in an effort to prevent the spread of communism in the region. As cold war tensions waned, it began accepting communist-ruled Vietnam and Laos as members.

Currently, the bloc aims to accelerate economic growth and regional integration while maintaining peace and stability in Southeast Asia. A series of phased free trade agreements between its members dating back to 1992 have helped bring down regional tariffs and in 2015, the institution established the Asean Economic Community to further promote economic integration.

Asean has also become the main forum for other governments to engage with member countries. In addition to its twice-yearly summits, the annual Asean Regional Forum provides a setting for the association's 10 member states to discuss regional security issues with representatives from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, East Timor, the European Union, India, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Russia, South Korea, Sri Lanka and the United States. In 2009, Asean also launched an intergovernmental commission on human rights.

The association has often been characterised by its consensus-based approach to decision making known as "the Asean way", with a focus on informal meetings, interpersonal relations and non-interference in internal affairs.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

Asean's most tangible contribution to the region has been through its efforts to integrate the economies of its members. Currently, the vast majority of intra-Asean trade is tariff free, which has helped Southeast Asia become a major manufacturing and trade hub, and one of the fastest-growing consumer markets in the world. Most Asean members enjoy high levels of economic growth.

The bloc is home to more than 600 million people and its economy, if taken as a whole, ranks among the world's top 10.

In 2015, it established the Asean Economic Community (AEC) to work towards making the bloc a single market with a free flow of goods, services, investment, skilled labour and capital. The AEC also seeks to improve transport connectivity in the region, create common frameworks to make doing business easier and achieve equitable economic development in all member states.

One of its other major achievements has been providing a channel for communication that has helped maintain regional stability by defusing territorial disputes between member countries " such as with Cambodia and Thailand, and Malaysia and the Philippines. The association has also been credited with easing Myanmar's transition towards democracy.

Its regional forum, meanwhile, provides something of a neutral venue for major powers to meet and discuss various issues.

The limitations of Asean's consensus-based diplomacy were highlighted by Myanmar's Rohingya crisis, which the UN has described as a genocide. In 2017, Asean released a statement referring to a "crisis and emergency situations rising from irregular movement of persons" without mentioning refugees, asylum seekers or the Rohingya by name.

The association has also faced criticism over its approach to the South China Sea dispute. While some Asean members " such as Vietnam and the Philippines " have previously locked horns with Beijing over its territorial claims, others like Cambodia are loyal Chinese allies.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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