ASEAN Basics

ASEAN Basics

Acronyms Geography

ASEAN – The structure

ASEAN is a body for cooperation between Member States, but without the demands for far-reaching political and economic integration that characterize, for example, the European Union (EU). The organization’s highest authority is the summit, where the heads of state or government meet to decide on issues of long-term, strategic importance.

Abbreviated for Association of Southeast Asian Nations according to ABBREVIATIONFINDER.ORG, Asean’s summits were initially held very irregularly. The first took place in Bali, Indonesia, in February 1976, and the second followed a year and a half later in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It took a decade before the members’ heads of state or government reunited in 1987 in the Philippine capital Manila. The fourth summit was held in Singapore in 1992. From 2001, the Heads of State or Government held summits once a year. The ASEAN Charter from 2008 (see Framväxten) stipulates that summits must be held at least twice a year. The meetings will be hosted by the country currently holding the presidency (which rotates annually between member states).

Closest to the summit since 2008 is the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC), which consists of the countries’ foreign ministers. The Council meets twice a year to prepare for the summit. It also has the task of ensuring that agreements and decisions made at the summits are implemented. The Council shall also coordinate ASEAN’s various programs and activities.

Under the ACC, three co-operation councils sort: for politics and security, social and cultural issues, and economic issues. These councils must work to achieve the goals in each area. The councils must meet at least twice a year. The meeting is chaired by a suitable minister from the country holding the chairmanship club.

Within ASEAN, there are also a number of groups for various ministerial ministers who report to one of the three co-operation councils. The Ministers of Economy of the ASEAN States meet annually. Meetings between ministers, such as the ministers of energy, environment and agriculture, are arranged as needed. Prior to the summits, the foreign and economic ministers usually gather for a joint ministerial meeting to coordinate political issues.

Each Member State has a special ambassador representing the country in ASEAN’s internal coordination meetings in the Indonesian capital Jakarta (Committee of Permanent Representatives). The purpose of these meetings is to support cooperation between ASEAN’s various bodies and to facilitate their cooperation with the Secretary – General and the organization’s external partners. ASEAN has a number of so-called dialogue partners: the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Canada, South Korea, India, China, Russia and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

As a central coordinating body is the ASEAN Secretariat, located in Jakarta. It is headed by a Secretary-General, who is elected for five years by the Heads of Government on the advice of the Foreign Ministers. To assist him, the Secretary-General has four Vice-Secretaries-General, and National Asean Secretariats in each Member State. In the dialogue countries, too, there are committees consisting of representatives from the embassies of the ASEAN countries.

The ministerial meetings are assisted by about 30 committees with civil servants and over 120 working groups.

Consensus, consensus, has from the beginning been an important principle for decisions within ASEAN and is also rooted in the region’s social traditions. Unlike in the West, where great emphasis is often placed on identifying and actively trying to solve problems, Southeast Asian decision-makers prefer to clarify the issues where there is coherence and results can be achieved and leave the problem issues there for the time being. Eventually, when the parties feel that the time is ripe for consensus in these matters as well, it is time to include them in the decision-making process.

Financial cooperation

In order to attract foreign investment, which was of great importance for the record economic development in the region during the 1980’s and 1990’s, the ASEAN countries signed a framework agreement on a common investment area (AIA) in 1998. Through AIA, it would be easier and less surrounded by rules to invest in, among other things, the manufacturing industry, agriculture, fishing, forestry and the mining industry. Special tax reductions and other benefits were also offered. In the autumn of 2001, ASEAN’s trade and industry ministers decided to speed up the process by giving non-members the opportunity to invest in accordance with the AIA terms in certain selected areas.

In 2003, foreign investment in the ASEAN area increased by about 40 percent compared with the previous year. The increase was the largest since the financial crisis and it took place despite general concerns about the SARS epidemic, bird flu and a declining global investment rate. A free flow of investments in the ASEAN area is an end goal when the common market is formed in 2015.

When the financial crisis hit the ASEAN countries, finance ministers and central bank governors met frequently. In 1998, a system was set up to monitor the countries’ economies and financial systems. A special monitoring committee would review economic statistics from the Member States. The ambition was to create greater transparency and cooperation also in the countries’ financial sectors, and thereby prevent new “Asian crises”.

However, the gap between the economic development of different ASEAN members is seen as a major problem for integration efforts. Not least, there is a large gap in information technology between the six older Member States and the four newer ones. In 2000, ASEAN decided on a co-operation agreement (Initiative for Asean Integration, IAI) whose goal is to reduce the gap between the rich ASEAN countries and the less developed newer members. Countries that have resources must thus be able to help those members who need support. The help consists primarily of training and skills development.


Industrial cooperation was already mentioned at the founding of Asean in 1967 as an area on which joint progress was to be built. In order to strengthen cooperation, Asean adopted plans in the 1970’s and 1980’s to launch large-scale regional initiatives, encourage specialization (so that products complement each other better), especially in the automotive industry, and create more industrial joint ventures between member countries’ companies.

Since the mid-1990’s, there has been a special co-operation program for industry, AICO (Asean Industrial Cooperation Scheme), with greater emphasis than before on the participation of the private sector and on the exchange of knowledge in research and technology. The aim is to encourage cooperation between companies in the ASEAN countries by guaranteeing favorable tariffs on products produced under the program. A new protocol to the AICO from 2004 established new tariffs.

A priority area within ASEAN is to try to find common rules for quality and safety standards for products. ASEAN also works to support small and medium-sized enterprises in the Member States in various ways. The organization also has an action plan to develop and coordinate the registration and protection of intellectual property rights in the region. ASEAN also works with labor law issues and to improve the work environment.

The countries also cooperate in tourism, where joint projects have been organized to attract visitors. In 2010, the ASEAN area was visited by a total of 73 million tourists and the industry grew by 11 percent in the same year. The tourism sector is one of the areas that the ASEAN countries want to integrate first before the single market. Priority issues are to improve air and other traffic, remove various forms of obstacles for travelers and to improve the safety of travelers. In 2011, ASEAN decided to work to ensure that visitors could obtain a common visa for all ten member countries.

Agriculture, fishing and forestry

The agricultural area is still of the utmost importance to most ASEAN members. The countries agreed as early as 1979 to establish a common grain reserve for crisis situations. In 2011, ASEAN – now together with China, Japan and South Korea (ASEAN + 3) – allocated a rice reserve (ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve, APTERR) of almost 200,000 tonnes. A country affected by failed harvests or natural disasters must be able to get help through the reserve at short notice. Member States exchange information on the availability of essential commodities such as rice, sugar, maize and soybeans.

In agriculture, as well as in forestry and the fishing industry, the organization has established a number of institutes and centers for research and education. The purpose is to modernize the industries by, among other things, finding common rules for and requirements for production and in the long run making it more competitive. There are joint programs for the production and use of animal vaccines and efforts against various forms of animal diseases. In 2007, Asean adopted a strategy to overcome the bird flu that had begun to spread in the region a few years earlier. In 2010, the Ministers of Agriculture presented a route towards an ASEAN free from bird flu in 2020.

An important goal is also to try to encourage environmentally friendly and ecologically sustainable forestry. An ASEAN resolution for ecologically sustainable fishing in the region was adopted in June 2011.

ASEAN Basics