1. What does ASEAN stand for?

It stands for "Association of Southeast Asian Nations".  Comprising ten Southeast Asian coutnries, ASEAN covers an area of 4.46 million km², with a population of about 600 million people. In 2010, its combined nominal GDP was US$1.8 trillion. If ASEAN was a single entity, this would make it the ninth largest economy in the world.

2. How does it come about?

Given the prevailing Cold War climate and the regional disputes in the 1960s, five Southeast Asian countries decided to come together to work out an agreement so that they could work together to pursue a common vision of peace and prosperity.

On 8 August 1967, the five Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand concluded an agreement (now known as the ASEAN Declaration) in Bangkok, which brought about the formation of ASEAN. The Declaration stated the aims and purposes of the Association, which centred on the political, economic and social fields.  

The two-page Declaration also represents the organization’s modus operandi of building on small steps, voluntary, and informal arrangements towards more binding and institutionalized agreements. 

The overarching objective of ASEAN was to represent "the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity."

3. What does the ASEAN logo stand for?

The original ASEAN logo comprised five brown sheaves of rice stalks, one for each founding member. When ASEAN membership subsequently expanded to 10 members (including new members like Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar ), the logo was changed to comprise ten sheaves - representing all ten countries of Southeast Asia. The colours of the logo - blue, red, white and yellow - also represent the main colours of the crests of all the ASEAN countries. The blue represents peace and stability. Red depicts courage and dynamism. White shows purity and yellow symbolises prosperity.

ASEAN logo

4. What does ASEAN do? 

In the early years of its formation, the main focus of the ASEAN countries was to deal with the external threats in the region, such as the ongoing Vietnam War and China's Cultural Revolution. However, with the end of the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution by the late 1970s, ASEAN began shifting from a purely political focus to an economic focus. Since then, the ASEAN members have established various preferential trading arrangements, including tariff reductions, incentives to expand trade and investment in member countries, and other trade liberalisation measures. In short, ASEAN, with its diversity of economic interests and levels of development, has adjusted to the changing times and geopolitical conditions, to become a regional organization that operates on an informal and consensus-building basis.

5. What are its aims and purposes?

According to the ASEAN Declaration, the aims and purposes of ASEAN are:

  1. To accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavours in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of Southeast Asian Nations;
  2. To promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter;
  3. To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, cultural, technical, scientific and administrative fields;
  4. To provide assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities in the educational, professional, technical and administrative spheres;
  5. To collaborate more effectively for the greater utilisation of their agriculture and industries, the expansion of their trade, including the study of the problems of international commodity trade, the improvement of their transportation and communications facilities and the raising of the living standards of their peoples;
  6. To promote Southeast Asian studies; and
  7. To maintain close and beneficial cooperation with existing international and regional organisations with similar aims and purposes, and explore all avenues for even closer cooperation among themselves.

6. What are its operating principles?

According to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) which was concluded in 1976, the ASEAN members agreed to work with one another on the following principles.

  1. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations;
  2. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion; 
  3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another; 
  4. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner; 
  5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and 
  6. Effective cooperation among themselves.

7. What is the ASEAN Charter?

The ASEAN Charter is a legally binding agreement among the ten ASEAN members. It came into force on 15 December 2008, provides the legal status and institutional framework for ASEAN, by codifying ASEAN norms, rules and values, setting clear targets for ASEAN, as well as institutionalising a culture of accountability and compliance. Under this new legal framework, ASEAN will also establish several new institutions to boost its community-building process.

8. What is the working mechanism for ASEAN?

According to the ASEAN Charter, the Chairmanship (which is a one-year term) will rotate among the ten members.  As the ASEAN Chair, the member state will host the ASEAN Summit and related Summits, as well as the ministerial-level and senior official meetings. The 2011 Chair is Indonesia, which will be followed by Cambodia in 2012.

To coordinate these meetings and ASEAN-related issues or projects, the ASEAN Secretariat was set up in February 1976 by the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN.  The ASEAN Secretariat is located in Jakarta, Indonesia. It is headed by the ASEAN Secretary-General, who serves a five-year term. Similarly, the position is rotated among the members and is currently held by a Thai national.

9. What lies ahead for ASEAN?

During the 9th ASEAN Summit in 2003, the ASEAN Leaders agreed to establish an ASEAN Community, of which the details were articulated in subsequent Summits. The ASEAN Community comprises of three pillars, namely the ASEAN Political-Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. The blueprints for each pillar, together with the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Strategic Framework and IAI Work Plan Phase II (2009-2015), form the roadmap for the ASEAN Community.

ASEAN leaders in 2011