ASEAN: History

The fundamental forces driving greater economic integration in East Asia included the forces of economic expansion, geographical proximity, web of business network, and lower transportation and transaction costs among countries in the region. Japan's emergence as a world economic power, the reduction of the American presence in the region following the Vietnam War (1973), and the subsequent Vietnamese aggressions in Indochina also played a role.

During the 1960’s, there were repeated unsuccessful attempts to create an association among Southeast Asian nations. The Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) composed of Malaya, the Philippines, and Thailand, was established in Bangkok on July 31, 1961. Originally, the Philippines and Malaya had sought an organization similar to the European Economic Community, but they assented to Thailand who insisted on an association with a looser structure. Indonesia, as a supporter of nonalignment, did not wish to join an organization that was either too strong in its political stance or which Indonesia had no role in creating. A new organization was required.

Maphilindo, a combined name of Malaya, the Philippines, and Indonesia, was formally established on July 1963. Maphilindo did not work well due to different interests of the participating nations; The Philippines and Indonesia had territorial disagreement with Malaya. Consequently, Maphilindo failed mainly because of military disputes.

There was the SEATO, or the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). It was an international organization for defensive collaboration established on September 8, 1954. It also failed due to lack of agreement because it required unanimity in order to pursue a policy or express a stance on an issue. There were several other organizations such as the Asian Pacific Council (ASPAC), or the Southeast Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SEAARC), none of which were successful.

The division between countries, deprivation of diplomatic relations, and continuous political disputes outweighed regional coordination. These issues stemmed from colonial times when they were forced by the colonial powers to live without contact from neighboring countries. The era called for a new, effective organization, but many countries were skeptical about each organization. ASEAN, when it was first created, was no exemption to the doubt.

On August 8, 1967, the "Bangkok Declaration" gave birth to ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN united five countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. It was based on three principles: respect for state sovereignty, nonintervention, and renunciation of the threat or use of force in resolving disputes. ASEAN did not base its foundation on dispute-resolution mechanisms and, therefore, was not a collective security agreement. The founders did not want ASEAN to be mistaken for a military grouping among political allies as some of its unsuccessful predecessors had been.

The ASEAN Declaration stated the purposes of ASEAN are to “accelerate economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region” in order to promote peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter. The original Declaration contained only five articles but is considered possible the most successful inter-governmental organization in the developing world.

Despite the clearly defined aims and aspirations, international realities forced ASEAN to deviate from its original path. Several developments began to preoccupy ASEAN: the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam; growing Vietnamese ambitions; and the threat of Ho Chi Minh's testament enjoining generations of Vietnamese to take over the rest of French Indochina and parts of Thailand. Such developments forced ASEAN to turn its attention to more critical issues, like Cambodia, with the result that economic matters were almost entirely neglected and set aside.

Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality, ZOPFAN, was signed on November 27, 1971. ZOPFAN commited all ASEAN members to “exert efforts to secure the recognition of and respect for Southeast Asia as a Zone… free from any manner of interference by outside powers.”

In 1977, at the Second Summit in Kuala Lumpur the ASEAN heads of government agreed that the association's economic relations with other countries or groups of countries needed to be expanded and intensified. With such purpose, the ASEAN heads of government met with the Prime Ministers of Australia, Japan and New Zealand, setting the first example of holding meetings with leaders of non-ASEAN countries.

Brunei joined on January 8, 1984, Vietnam on July 28,  1995, Laos and Burma on July 23, 1997. A political crisis in Cambodia prevented the Southeast Asian country from joining ASEAN in 1997 as originally planned. However, the nation succeeded in joining the association on April 30, 1999.

Although meetings held between ministers and government officials of member states resulted in joint statements and joint press releases, they did not lead to firm decisions or real actions. Consultations, rather than solutions or formulations of specific policies were agreed upon; members of ASEAN cautiously tried to avoid any commitment to their other members.


Khoman, Thanat. "ASEAN Conception and Evolution." Official ASEAN Website.

Lee, Seong Min. “ASEAN: Brief History and Its Problems”. Fall 2006.