ASEAN and regional cooperation: Recent developments and Australia's interests

Frank Frost

    Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


    Executive summary: ASEAN is the most prominent regional cooperation group in East Asia. Australia has had a multilateral relationship with ASEAN since 1974 and now pursues many areas of cooperation with the Association. This paper surveys ASEAN’s evolution and recent development and Australia’s relations with it. ASEAN was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand (Brunei joined in 1984). ASEAN’s cooperation style stressed respect for national sovereignty, avoiding confrontation, reaching agreement through consensus and proceeding at a pace all members were comfortable with. ASEAN after 1995 accepted four new members (Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia) which bolstered its claim to represent Southeast Asia, but increased the diversity within the Association and made some areas of cooperation harder to pursue. The paper outlines ASEAN’s major phases of development since 1967. Since the late 1990s, ASEAN has pursued cooperation in three major ways: Firstly, ASEAN in 2003 adopted a commitment to develop an ‘ASEAN Community’ among its own members. This involves ‘three pillars’: the ASEAN Economic Community; the ASEAN Political-Security Community; and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. ASEAN has also developed its own institutional Charter (in 2008) and has sought to widen its cooperation, including in the area of human rights standards. The paper outlines these initiatives and ASEAN’s challenges in pursuing them. ASEAN, secondly, has continued to engage the major powers in political and economic dialogue to enhance the overall security and prosperity of Southeast Asia, placing special emphasis on the ‘big three’ Asia Pacific powers, the United States, China and Japan. ASEAN, thirdly, is sponsoring wider regional cooperation by playing a leading role in the initiation and development of additional multilateral groupings. These include principally the ASEAN Regional Forum (intended to build confidence and enhance dialogue on security issues), the ASEAN Plus Three grouping of the ASEAN ten, China, Japan and South Korea (whose activities have stressed financial cooperation) and the East Asia Summit, a leadership dialogue bringing together ASEAN with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, New Zealand and Australia. ASEAN has also recently inaugurated a meeting of defence minsters (the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus Eight) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to promote further trade liberalisation and market integration. The paper reviews recent developments in each group and ASEAN’s continuing efforts to sponsor cooperation in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific when relations among the major powers are often marked by tensions and mistrust. ASEAN, the paper suggests, has established a substantial profile but faces challenges in maintaining its cohesion and influence. The paper discusses four significant current issues for ASEAN. In the South China Sea, the complex pattern of claims and disputes, which involve four ASEAN members as claimants (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) along with China and Taiwan, has brought increased tensions since 2009 and placed pressure on ASEAN’s capacity to facilitate constructive dialogue and seek ways of alleviating tensions. In Myanmar the striking process of change since 2010 has seen substantial progress in political and economic liberalisation and reform along with some serious ongoing problems, including inter-ethnic conflict. ASEAN has a major stake in the pattern of change in Myanmar, particularly as the country is due to assume the high-profile role of Chair of ASEAN for the year 2014. ASEAN’s ambitious programs of cooperation are highlighting the pressures facing the ASEAN Secretariat and an expansion of funding and resources is likely to be needed. ASEAN is also considering whether to consider accepting any further members, particularly in the case of Timor-Leste. Since 1974, Australia has benefited from ASEAN’s contribution to maintaining inter-state stability in its region. Relations have expanded substantially in the past decade and can benefit further from ASEAN’s integration programs, to which Australia is closely linked through the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement inaugurated in 2009. ASEAN is also a key part of the ‘regional architecture’ which the Australian Government wishes to see enhanced. The paper reviews recent developments in relations since 2008 and highlights Australia’s important ongoing stake in ASEAN’s progress in building its own community and in contributing to wider regional cooperation
    Original languageEnglish
    Commissioning bodyDepartment of Parliamentary Library Services, Parliament of Australia
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


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