ASEAN and regional cooperation: recent developments and Australia’s interests

International relations Economic development ASEAN Australia New Zealand

This paper seeks to provide a concise survey of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)'s recent progress and major policy emphases and challenges.


The Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) is the premier regional grouping in East Asia. It is widely credited for its substantial contribution to making Southeast Asia more stable and more prosperous than might otherwise have been the case. ASEAN has also played a major role as sponsor of wider regional cooperation groupings which provide forums for the Southeast Asian states, the major powers and other interested countries (including Australia) to discuss and coordinate approaches to regional issues.

After a cautious beginning in 1967, ASEAN has attained a high international profile. However, pursuing cooperation among its very diverse members has never been an easy task. In the past decade it has struggled with the challenges of trying to both deepen cooperation and maintain unity, when its members remain highly sensitive about their own rights to national sovereignty. ASEAN’s desired image of congenial discussion and capacity for peaceful change has recently been dented by incidences of conflict between members, including a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia and (in 2013) the re-emergence of discord (involving the Philippines and Malaysia) over the status of the Malaysian state of Sabah. ASEAN is also experiencing pressure in relation to the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea which involve four ASEAN members along with China and also the government in Taiwan. Tensions over South China Sea issues saw the ASEAN Foreign Ministers unable to issue an agreed communique after their meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012, for the first time in forty-five years. ASEAN’s ongoing success thus cannot be taken for granted.

ASEAN is a significant partner for Australia. Australia has had a multilateral relationship with ASEAN since 1974 and will mark the 40th anniversary of this next year. Since the 1970s, Australia-ASEAN cooperation has involved both efforts to enhance regional security, for example through the Cambodia peace process (1991–1993) and through development of the ASEAN Regional Forum (from 1994) and the East Asia Summit (from 2005), and regional economic cooperation (including the multilateral ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement adopted in 2009).

This paper seeks to provide a concise survey of ASEAN’s recent progress and major policy emphases and challenges. Section I outlines ASEAN’s inauguration and development and the Association’s efforts to deepen its own cooperation by pursuing development of the ASEAN Economic Community, the ASEAN Political-Security Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. Section II discusses ASEAN’s efforts to develop wider cooperation in East Asia, in the context of the often tense and competitive relations among the major powers, particularly through the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Plus Three process and the East Asia Summit. The paper in Section III considers recent challenges confronting ASEAN in pursuing cooperation and maintaining cohesion, including contested interests in the South China Sea, the political transition in Myanmar, ASEAN’s institutional capacities and the issue of potential membership for Timor-Leste. The paper concludes in Section IV with an assessment of Australia’s current major policy interests in relations with ASEAN, including in economic relations, political interactions, and cooperation in the development of wider regional dialogues.

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