ASEAN Explained

ASEAN Explained

Asean – The Emergence

According to sciencedict, ASEAN was formed on August 8, 1967 in Bangkok when the foreign ministers of the host country Thailand as well as Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore as well as the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia signed the so-called Bangkok Declaration. In this Asean basic document, the objectives of the association were set out.

Through joint efforts to equalize, the five neighboring and founding states would accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region. In this way, ASEAN would lay the foundations for a peaceful and prosperous Southeast Asia.

Furthermore, the members undertook to promote peace and stability in the area. They would help each other with education and research and more effectively than before collaborate in trade, industry and agriculture.

These were proud commitments within a fairly loose framework for states whose economic development had not yet accelerated.

But the idea of ​​cooperation was not new. 1959 suggested the British Protectorate Malay Federation Prime Minister Tunku Abdelrahman consolidating cooperation between his country and the Philippines, and when Southeast Asian Nations (Association of South-East Asia, ASA) was formed in July 1961 included also Thailand. ASA, like the later ASEAN, was intended to deal primarily with economic, social and cultural issues based on the conviction that economic progress also provided the best basis for political stability and independence.

ASA would therefore also be an alternative to the military Southeast Alliance (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, SEATO), which Western powers United States, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand had made common cause with the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan. But the ASA never gained much importance but got stuck already after two years as a result of the conflict between the Malay Federation and the Philippines over Sabah (northern Borneo). The schism was complicated by Indonesia joining the Philippine side and questioning the legitimacy of the Malay Federation. When the federation was transformed into Malaysia in 1963, including Singapore and Sabah, the Philippines and Indonesia had begun closer cooperation to which the new state was linked. It was planned to lead to a collaborative organization called Maphilindo (after the initials of the three members), but even it went nowhere.

Two years after Singapore’s independence in 1965, ASA was replaced by ASEAN, where the five founding states took over much of the former organization’s structure and direction.

The organization emerged in the shadow of the great power rivalry that characterized Southeast Asia in connection with the wars in Indochina, and Asean’s first eight years came to be characterized more by rhetoric and silent inner cohesion than by active intervention in the region’s political drama. The US military intervention in the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union’s and China’s threatening markings of its interests in Indochina contributed to the emergence of the idea of ​​neutrality in the ASEAN region.

The Vietnam conflict

In the early 1970’s, Member States’ Foreign Ministers adopted an original Malaysian proposal to establish a Southeast Asian “Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality” (ZOPFAN). A declaration to create one was written in 1971, but it was with mixed feelings that this neutral zone was discussed within ASEAN. Thailand and the Philippines, for example, had close ties to the United States to take into account. There was also skepticism among the leaders in the other Member States about the proposal. Once again, it was emphasized that the organization’s main purpose and main ambition was economic cooperation.

The discussions that took place about the expansion of the Asean circle mainly concerned the then divided Vietnam. The South Vietnamese Saigon regime, for example, had observer status at the organization’s first meetings. The ASEAN countries hoped to be able to link a reunited Vietnam to the cooperation within their own region in order to reduce China’s influence. Only a quarter of a century later would this succeed, then in a markedly different political-economic climate.

The dramatic development in 1975, when the anti-communist regimes in South Vietnam and Cambodia were overthrown and Vietnam moved towards reunification under the Hanoi regime, became a turning point for ASEAN. Many of its earlier hopes for broader regional economic cooperation were shattered by the fact that the whole of Indochina seemed to have embarked on the path of revolutionary socialism. But the ASEAN states still held out an olive branch to these countries, declaring that differences in political systems were not an obstacle to good relations.

In February 1976, heads of state and government gathered in Denpasar, Bali, for the first Asean summit. At the Bali meeting, led by Indonesian President Suharto, the foundations for the continued ASEAN work were laid in two documents: the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation and the Declaration on Unity. Together, these provided firmer rules and guidelines for future operations. Not least important was that the countries here openly acknowledged that political co-operation between them was also important. At the same time, the five leaders drew a sharp line on defense issues and stated that ASEAN would not be allowed to become a military pact or an alliance “directed against any economic or political ideology”. The ZOPFAN peace zone was mentioned in the Declaration on Unity as a goal for states to strive for. Ideologically, the organization ended up close to it The non-aligned movement (cooperation in the third world to combat economic injustice, colonialism, etc.) with self-confidence and non-interference as its main elements.

In the changing balance of power in Southeast Asia from the mid-1970’s, however, it was clear that the ASEAN states, mainly Thailand and Singapore, were most concerned about the regional power claims of communist Vietnam and Hanoi’s dependence on the Soviet Union. With the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in January 1979 and the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, the situation came to a head. The Western powers, the Asean states and China were united – from very different points of view – in a sharp distancing from Vietnam and the new regime installed by Hanoi in Phnom Penh. Asean, members of Asean ended up in the awkward position of being forced to support the Khmer Rouge, the strongest party in the Cambodian guerrilla coalition fighting the Phnom Penh government. For Thailand, for example, it was still a small evil than to see the historical arch-rival Vietnam expand its sphere of interest. Asean’s clear marking against the Vietnamese invasion helped keep the Cambodia issue alive at the UN with annual criticism of the Hanoi government’s intervention.

It was not until ten years later, with Vietnam’s military withdrawal from Cambodia, that ASEAN seemed to begin to discern the conditions for the Southeast Asian development the organization was hoping for. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a powerful player also faded away from the arena. The old wishes of the ASEAN countries for a Vietnam free from ties to any great power now seemed to be coming true.

Early successes of the 1990’s

The new security policy situation meant that ASEAN began to become more involved in developments in the region. The organization was, for example, a driving force in the efforts to resolve the conflict in Cambodia and actively contributed to the preparations for the UN-organized elections there in 1993.

With increased political stability, greater efforts could also be made in economic cooperation. At the Singapore Summit in 1992, the ASEAN States took a major step towards realizing the old dream of a unified Southeast Asian trading bloc: they agreed to create a regional free trade area, Afta (Asta) before 2008 . Just three years later, when the ASEAN held its fifth summit in Bangkok, the member states frankly shortened the deadline and promised to set up Afta by 2003. Even more attention-grabbing – and controversial – was the decision to make the whole of Southeast Asia, from Vietnam and Myanmar (formerly Burma) in north to Indonesia in the south, to a nuclear-weapon-free zone, SEANWFZ (South East Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone).

During the second half of the 1990’s, Asean began work on trying to include all the countries of Southeast Asia in the organization. From the very beginning, Vietnamese membership was seen as one of the keys to developing ASEAN into a bloc with all the countries of Southeast Asia as a counterweight to the influence from the West as well as from Japan and China. In 1992, Vietnam and Laos signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, and in 1995, Vietnam became the seventh member state of Asean – the first socialist one.

Two years later, Laos and Myanmar were also incorporated into Asean. Member States initially disagreed on whether the political situation in Myanmar would stop membership of ASEAN. There, the military regime had retained its iron grip on power despite the opposition’s great victory in the 1988 election. Asean had decided in 1992 not to freeze the regime without trying to influence it through a “constructive commitment”. This approach persisted despite strong protests from the Western world. Some observers have suggested that the criticism from the West even contributed to the ASEAN countries, which saw Western pressure as interference, becoming more united and agreeing on membership for Myanmar. Other factors that influenced the decision were a concern for Myanmar’s and China’s close contact with each other and that it was considered important to include Myanmar in the Ata cooperation.

Cambodia’s attempts to gain membership were not as successful. ASEAN raised the issue in view of the unrest in the country, where Hun Sen in July 1997 took power from Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh. In order for Cambodia to gain membership, ASEAN demanded that free elections be held, in which the opposition and Ranariddh were allowed to participate. Ranariddh was finally allowed to run in the 1998 election. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party received the most votes and Asean approved the election result which led to Hun Sen becoming head of government. In 1999, Cambodia Aseans became the tenth member.

ASEAN Explained