The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (more commonly known as ASEAN) is an intergovernmental organization aimed primarily at promoting economic growth and regional stability among its members.

There are currently 10 member states: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The 10 ASEAN member states
Image: ASEAN

Why was it set up?

ASEAN was founded half a century ago in 1967 by the five Southeast Asian nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. This was during the polarized atmosphere of the Cold War, and the alliance aimed to promote stability in the region. Over time, the group expanded to include its current 10 members.

Regional cooperation was further extended with the creation of the ASEAN Plus Three forum in 1997, which included China, South Korea and Japan. And then the East Asia Summit, which began taking place in 2005 and has expanded to include India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.

What does it do now?

ASEAN aims to promote collaboration and cooperation among member states, as well as to advance the interests of the region as a whole, including economic and trade growth. It has negotiated a free trade agreement among member states and with other countries such as China, as well as eased travel in the region for citizens of member countries.

In 2015, it established the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a major milestone in the organization’s regional economic integration agenda. The AEC envisions the bloc as a single market with free flow of goods, services, investments and skilled labour, and freer movement of capital across the region.

True to its original mission, the organization strives towards peace and stability in the region: members have signed a treaty pledging not to develop nuclear weapons, and most have agreed to a counter-terrorism pact, which includes sharing intelligence and easing the extradition process of terror suspects.

How do members cooperate?

One of the organization’s aims is to promote technical and research cooperation among its members. The ASEAN Outstanding Scientist and Technologist Award is presented every three years to recognize nationally and internationally acclaimed achievements in the field.

Areas of research include safeguarding the region’s environment and wildlife. The association’s Center for Biodiversity was established to promote cooperation on conservation and sustainability throughout the region and serves as secretariat of ASEAN Heritage Parks, which oversees 37 protected sites.

In the field of education, the ASEAN University Network was founded in 1995 to promote academic and youth cooperation between member states. As part of this initiative, the University Games have been held every two years since 1981.

How important is the region economically?

If ASEAN were a country, it would be the seventh-largest economy in the world, with a combined GDP of $2.6 trillion in 2014. By 2050 it's projected to rank as the fourth-largest economy.

Home to more than 622 million people, the region has a larger population than the European Union or North America. It also has the third-largest labour force in the world, behind China and India.

Image: WEF

How are relations between ASEAN and China?

The Southeast Asian region is now China’s third-largest trading partner, with annual bilateral trade valued at $443.6 billion.

The South China Sea territorial dispute has emerged as a challenge to the unity of the organization. ASEAN has discussed drawing up a code of conduct to be signed with China governing disputes in the South China Sea, but Beijing is reluctant to sign on to a multilateral agreement.

What does the future hold?

Despite their distinct cultures, histories and languages, the 10 member states of ASEAN share a focus on jobs and prosperity. Household purchasing power is rising, propelling the region into the next frontier of consumer growth.

The region must now meet the challenges of providing enormous investment in infrastructure and human-capital development to ensure it realizes its full potential.