The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has dramatically raised living standards of the more than 600 million people residing within its ten member countries and brought a host of indirect benefits to billions of others in neighboring states. And yet ASEAN has won relatively little recognition for those achievements. Beyond Southeast Asia, few have heard of ASEAN, and even within the region, the organization’s role and contributions are poorly understood.
ASEAN was formed in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, with five members: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The nations of Indochina were entangled in geopolitical competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. The failure of two previous attempts at a Southeast Asian regional organization augured poorly for ASEAN’s prospects. Thanat Khoman, the former Thai foreign minister and one of ASEAN’s founding fathers, lists four primary motivations behind the establishment of ASEAN. The first was to prevent external powers from exploiting the power vacuum left after rapid decolonization of the region. Second, the founders of ASEAN saw an opportunity to foster cooperation among countries with common interests in the same geographic region. Third, the founders were convinced that the countries of Southeast Asia would have a stronger voice in addressing major global powers if they could speak together. Finally, ASEAN’s founders believed “cooperation and ultimately integration serve the interests of all—something that individual efforts can never achieve.”
In our view, ASEAN’s three greatest contributions are peace, prosperity, and geopolitical stability for Southeast Asia. Each of these accomplishments is remarkable; considered in aggregate, they are astonishing.