How does a region with hundreds of millions of people, dozens of languages, and a history of war and conflict come together to find mutual strength and agreement? This challenge has been posed to continents and regions worldwide, one of them being Southeast Asia. Split between world powers vying for control, ideological conflicts, and competition over natural resources, finding common ground in SE Asia hasn't been easy. Today, ten countries have come together to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN for short. Continue reading to learn more about what ASEAN is, its history, and its benefits.


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Table of contents

    ASEAN Meaning

    ASEAN (pronounced ah-see-ann or ah-zee-an) is an acronym for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is a supranational organization comprised of ten member states. Altogether, about 600 million people live in ASEAN countries. Being a supranational organization, it's similar to other groups like the European Union, Mercosur, and the African Union. The member states are sovereign nations but agree to some laws that govern them all and decide on mutual goals.

    ASEAN: A supranational organization comprised of ten Southeast Asian nations that fosters cooperation in economics, military, and social development.

    Next, let's go over in detail about ASEAN's purpose and goals.

    ASEAN Purpose

    In August of 1967, ASEAN was founded to increase peace, prosperity, and cooperation between Southeast Asian nations. While not explicitly stated, its goal was also to provide a bulwark against the expansion of communism in the region. 1967 saw brutal fighting between US-backed South Vietnamese forces and Soviet-backed North Vietnam, and its neighbors were anxious about the conflict spreading. Few concrete actions or plans were undertaken early in ASEAN's history outside of an annual meeting. Still, its existence provided at least a symbolic framework for cooperation and mutual understanding in the region.

    ASEAN Functions Today

    While in the 1960s to early 1990s, SE Asia grappled with the effects of the Cold War and numerous civil wars and disputes, today, there's relative peace in the region. Challenges like the 1997 Asian financial crash led its members to cooperate more closely on economics, and the ending of tensions brought a desire for increased peace. While stronger today with more structure and powers than at its founding, ASEAN maintains a policy of non-interference in its member state's internal affairs.

    ASEAN ASEAN summit 2017 StudySmarterFig. 1 - Various ASEAN leaders at an ASEAN summit in 2017

    Two times a year, countries' leaders meet at the ASEAN Summit, the highest decision-making entity of ASEAN. During these summits, leaders negotiate trade and security agreements, which all members must ratify in their respective legislatures. ASEAN does not have coercive powers like the ability to levy sanctions or send peacekeeping forces. But by operating as a cohesive unit, ASEAN has much greater leverage in negotiating trade agreements and treaties with foreign nations than each member state would by acting alone. By working together, ASEAN has increased its influence in building trade with powerful countries and blocs like the United States, China, and the European Union.

    Review articles on the United Nations, European Union, and Mercosur to compare and contrast the differing supranational organizations and their impact on national sovereignty.

    ASEAN Map

    Below is a map of ASEAN member states and some of their surrounding neighbors.

    ASEAN ASEAN member states map StudySmarterFig. 2 - ASEAN member states highlighted in blue with national flags on the right side.

    Next, we'll learn more in-depth about some ASEAN member countries.

    ASEAN Countries

    All ASEAN countries, as the name implies, are in Southeast Asia. Originally it comprised just five countries: Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore. Let's take a closer look at a few major ASEAN countries.


    With 273 million people as of 2020, Indonesia is by far the most populous country within ASEAN. Its GDP tops $1 trillion, making it the largest economy. Because of its sheer size and economic power, some consider Indonesia to be ASEAN's de facto leader, although all members are officially equal. Because of its strong ties to the United States, Indonesia is a major force in pushing ASEAN to align itself more closely with the US than China, which is vying for stronger control in SE Asia.


    Formerly known as Siam, Thailand was never colonized by European powers at a time when all of its neighbors were. During the Cold War, Thailand's proximity to the conflicts in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia made its government want to join forces with other SE Asian nations to prevent conflict within its own borders. With a population of nearly 70 million in 2020, Thailand is a major SE Asia nation with a thriving tourism and manufacturing industry.

    The Philippines

    Like many Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines have a fraught history. Torn between significant powers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Philippines saw periods of Spanish, American, and Japanese control. Today the Philippines is the second most populous ASEAN nation at about 115 million people in 2022. A prominent United States ally, the Philippines are another advocate of increasing military deterrence against China.


    At one point viewed as a pariah by its ASEAN neighbors, Vietnam's liberalization enabled it to join ASEAN in 1995. Its membership bridged a gap between the original member states and the former Soviet bloc nations of Laos and Cambodia, with them becoming ASEAN members shortly after Vietnam. By joining ASEAN, a new era of peace and stability in SE Asia has reigned, with old conflicts making way for new-found cooperation and stability. As of 2020, Vietnam had roughly 100 million people, and its economy, while still under significant government control, has shifted to a more market-based one with extensive electronics and manufacturing sectors.


    Sometimes known by its former colonial name Burma, Myanmar has 58 million people as of 2022. Myanmar has posed a particular challenge to the unity and powers of ASEAN, being involved in an internationally condemned genocide of its Rohingya Muslim minority group, and a coup in 2021 toppled its nominally democratic government. ASEAN's response and lack thereof exposed its major weakness in being unable to interfere in internal affairs.

    ASEAN Myanmar coup protest StudySmarterFig. 3 - Political turmoil and genocide in Myanmar have proved a challenge for ASEAN to respond to.

    The genocide exposed religious divisions within ASEAN, with Buddhist-majority countries like Thailand tending to support Myanmar's government while Muslim-majority countries opposed it. In response to the 2021 coup, ASEAN disinvited Myanmar's leaders to its biannual summit, a major step in delegitimizing its government and one of the strongest moves ASEAN has taken to assert its authority.

    ASEAN Trade Agreement

    Supranational organizations provide excellent frameworks to boost trade and economic cooperation between member states. The European Union once had dozens of different currencies and trade laws between countries, making trading and economic development much harder, but it has since established a common currency and standardized trade regulations. In 1992, the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) created common standards and eliminated barriers to trade between ASEAN countries. Under AFTA, countries are free to set tariffs with non-AFTA members but must limit tariffs amongst themselves to 0-5%. Reducing barriers like tariffs helps integrate ASEAN countries economically and encourages trade while protecting them from external competition.

    Benefits of ASEAN

    Through ASEAN, SE Asia has shed centuries of division and colonialism in favor of increased cooperation and economic development. Some of the main benefits of ASEAN are discussed below.

    Conflict Resolution

    Instead of disagreements spilling into war, ASEAN provides a peaceful venue for discussing mutual issues and conflicts between its members. While it hasn't replaced one-on-one diplomacy and negotiations between countries, ASEAN provides a greater context and incentive for peaceful resolutions. No members want to see the region's overall stability and prosperity sunk through conflict.

    Increased Political Power

    By joining forces in a unified bloc, ASEAN nations have a voice much more potent than any one nation alone. While in the past foreign powers interfered in SE Asia piecemeal, standing together as one can thwart that influence. On the other hand, ASEAN does not conduct formal diplomacy, so most nations form political relations on their own. But its meetings and structure set common agreements and goals that influence how its members conduct that diplomacy.

    Economic Cooperation

    Instead of competing against one another, ASEAN has built free trade agreements to increase economic cohesion and strength amongst member states. By forming a unified trade bloc, Southeast Asian nations can stand cohesively and negotiate more favorable trade deals with foreign powers. Another goal of this integration is to prevent the colonial exploitation of resources that dominated the region's history from the age of exploration until the mid-20th century.

    ASEAN - Key takeaways

    • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a supranational organization comprising ten countries in Southeast Asia.
    • Initially created to thwart the spread of communism in the region, ASEAN now has members with various ideologies united around increasing regional cooperation, security, and stability.
    • ASEAN has little authority to interfere in member states and maintains a policy of not interfering in internal affairs.
    • The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) established free trade between its members and boosted economic integration.


    1. Fig. 2: ASEAN member states map ( by RizkyJogja ( is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about ASEAN

    What does ASEAN stand for? 

    ASEAN stands for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

    What are the member nations of ASEAN? 

    The member nations of ASEAN are:

    1. Indonesia
    2. Thailand
    3. The Philippines
    4. Myanmar
    5. Brunei
    6. Singapore
    7. Malaysia
    8. Laos
    9. Cambodia
    10. Vietnam

    When was ASEAN established? 

    ASEAN was established in August 1967 with five original members: Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philipines, and Singapore.

    What relationship does the United States have with ASEAN? 

    The United States maintains strong relations with ASEAN and ASEAN member states. The United States and ASEAN have strong incentives to maintain close ties and engage in trade agreements and military cooperation.

    Why was ASEAN formed?  

    ASEAN was formed to increase cooperation and foster stability between its members. Because it was founded during the Cold War, its original five members' leaders also had the aim of preventing communism and the Soviet Union's influence from expanding into their own territory.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What does ASEAN stand for?

    What type of organization is ASEAN?

    Which of the following is the highest decision-making meeting undertaken by ASEAN twice a year?


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