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Background Notes: Association of Southeast Asian Nations, March 1992

Released by the Bureau of Public Affairs
U.S. Department of State

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Official Name:  Association of Southeast Asian Nations 


Member states:  Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, 
Singapore, and Thailand. 

Area:  3 million sq. km. (1 million  sq. mi.); about the size of the US 
east of the Mississippi River, plus Texas and Oklahoma.  Major cities:  
Brunei Darussalam--Bandar Seri Begawan (70,000); Indonesia--Jakarta (8.8 
million), Surabaya (2 million), Bandung (1.4 million), Medan (1 
million); Malaysia--Kuala Lumpur (1 million); Philippines--Manila (6 
million); Singapore--(2.7 million); Thailand--Bangkok (6 million). 

Total population (1990):  333 million.  Avg. annual growth rate:  2%.  
Ethnic groups:  Malay, Thai, Chinese, Indian, others.  Religions:  
Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism. Languages:  Malay, 
Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, Chinese, English. 
Foundation and Goals 

Established: August  8, 1967, with the signing of the Bangkok 
Declaration by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and 
Thailand.  Purpose:  To strengthen regional cohesion and self-reliance, 
while emphasizing economic, social, and cultural cooperation and 

Principal organs:  Meetings of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, the ASEAN 
Standing Committee, and the ASEAN Economic Ministers.  There is an ASEAN 
Secretariat, located in Jakarta, with associated specialized 
intergovernmental committees. 

Members' aggregate GDP (1990):  $303 billion.  GDP growth rate (1990):  
7.6%.  Per capita GDP (1990 avg.):  About $950. 
Natural resources:  Petroleum, natural gas, timber, tin, nickel, copper, 
iron, bauxite, other minerals. 
Agriculture (about 22% of GDP):  Products--rice, rubber, cassava, sugar, 
coffee, corn, pineapple, bananas, coconuts, palm oil. 
Industry (about 32% of GDP):  Types--electronics, petroleum, textiles, 
minerals, chemicals, food processing, wood products, fabricated steel, 
Trade (1990): Exports--$141 billion ($27 billion to US): office 
machinery and electronics, petroleum, textiles, telecommunications 
equipment, natural rubber, processed seafood and fruits, wood products, 
tin, palm oil, sugar, coffee.  Major markets--Japan, US, European 
Community (EC).  Imports--$155 billion ($19 billion from US): machinery 
and other capital goods, chemicals, oil, food.  Major sources--Japan, 
US, EC, Saudi Arabia. 
ASEAN Officials 

ASEAN Secretary General:  Rusli Noor.  The Government of Brunei is the 
designated liaison channel between ASEAN and the US for the 1991-94 
period.  ASEAN Representation in the US: Liaison through embassies of 
ASEAN member countries in Washington, DC, with chairmanship on a 6-month 
rotating basis.  
(1)To ensure comparability, single sources for statistics have been used 
whenever possible; therefore, figures in this Background Note may be at 
variance with those in the Notes on individual ASEAN countries. 

Located in Southeast Asia on the Malay Peninsula and the islands to the 
south and east in the South China Sea, the six ASEAN states adjoin some 
of the most important sea lanes in the world.  The ASEAN states lie 
astride the Equator and extend from roughly 1,600 kilometers (1,000 mi.) 
north to 800 kilometers (500 mi.) south. 
One of the most striking characteristics of ASEAN is its wide diversity 
in race, language, culture, and religion.  Many ethnic groups coexist 
within ASEAN.  Malayo-Polynesians make up the majority in the 
Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia (and thus in ASEAN), although 
Malaysia and Indonesia have significant numbers of other groups.  
Thailand is 84% Thai.  Ethnic Chinese make up 75% of the population of 
Singapore, and sizable Chinese minorities are found in each of the other 
ASEAN nations. 
Derivatives of the Malayo-Polynesian linguistic family, most notably 
Malay, Indonesian, and Pilipino, are the dominant languages in all but 
Thailand and Singapore.  In Thailand, 85% of the population speak Thai.  
Various Chinese dialects are spoken throughout the region.  English is 
the region's most widely spoken non-indigenous language. 
ASEAN was founded officially on August 8, 1967, with the signing of the 
Bangkok Declaration by the foreign ministers of the original five 
members.  The organization was created to strengthen regional cohesion 
and self-reliance through economic, social, and cultural cooperation.  
It developed slowly during its first decade, partly because of diverse 
economic interests, varied historical experience, and the initially 
fragile political ties among the five original states. 
Brunei Darussalam, formerly a British protectorate, joined ASEAN as its 
sixth member state in January 1984, shortly after attainment of full 
To curb external interference, in 1971 the ASEAN nations set as their 
goal the establishment of a zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality 
(ZOPFAN) for Southeast Asia, and this was included in the Bali 
Declaration signed by the ASEAN heads of government in 1976.  This 
concept remains a long-term objective. 
The fall of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975 led to a new phase of ASEAN 
relations.  In 1976, the first ASEAN summit conference was convened in 
Bali, Indonesia, and collaboration among ASEAN states took a major step 
forward with the signing of the Declaration of ASEAN Concord.  Aimed at 
promoting cooperative activities in industry, trade, and other fields, 
this declaration remains the major "constitutional base" for ASEAN 
cooperation.  It also authorized the formation of the ASEAN Secretariat 
in Jakarta. 
Growing Cooperation 
The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, starting in December 1978, played a 
key role in furthering ASEAN collaboration.  During the 1980s, the ASEAN 
nations successfully managed passage of yearly UN General Assembly 
resolutions calling for an end to Vietnamese occupation and were 
instrumental in the 1991 peace settlement in Cambodia.  These 
accomplishments and the political cooperation thus fostered have been 
ASEAN's major political achievements. 
Diverse economic interests and levels of development have limited the 
extent of economic cooperation between member nations.  However, the 
collapse of international commodity prices in the mid-1980s and the 
subsequent downturn in the economies of several ASEAN nations spurred 
regional leaders to initiate serious economic reforms and trade 
liberalization plans.  The December 1987 ASEAN summit gave new impetus 
to reducing internal trade barriers and establishing joint industrial 
projects; it also fostered closer coordination on economic issues by 
ASEAN governments, particularly in international forums.  The 1989 
creation of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, an informal 
economic grouping of the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New 
Zealand, and ASEAN, which expanded in 1991 to include the People's 
Republic of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) has provided an additional 
important venue in which ASEAN representatives can meet and discuss 
issues of broader regional importance.  ASEAN economic ministers in 1991 
agreed to move toward an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA).  The decision to 
create AFTA was taken by ASEAN heads of government at the fourth ASEAN 
summit in January 1992. 
Since its inception, ASEAN gradually has developed a number of formal, 
regular consultative meetings and committees, but it has only a very 
limited permanent structure.  Decisions are made by consensus and often 
are achieved through informal, ad hoc consultations.  However, there are 
several formal bodies that consult and make decisions on various common 
Foreign Ministers' Meetings 
The periodic meetings of the six foreign ministers constitute the 
principal decision-making body for ASEAN.  In addition to their regular 
annual sessions in June or July, the foreign ministers gather on other 
occasions as needed.  The venue of the ministerial meetings rotates 
annually among the six countries.   
The foreign ministers' meetings have assumed a prominent role partially 
as a result of events in Indochina.  Recognizing the importance of a 
unified front on the Cambodia question, ASEAN has used the foreign 
ministers' consultations to reaffirm their common stand.  Periodic 
meetings of senior officials plan for and supplement the work of the 
foreign ministers.  In addition, an ASEAN Standing Committee, composed 
of ambassadors resident in the venue of the ministerial meeting and 
chaired by the foreign minister of the host country, meets as needed. 
Economic Ministers' Meetings 
The economic ministers usually meet twice a year to discuss common 
approaches to economic questions and to review cooperative programs.  
Decisions on economic questions are then referred to the foreign 
ministers or heads of government for final approval.  Various sectoral 
committees, subcommittees, and working groups have been established to 
deal with specific economic and social issues.  Regular ministerial 
consultations also are held in such sectors as labor, social welfare, 
education, energy, and information. 
The ASEAN Secretariat 
The ASEAN Secretariat is located in Jakarta in a headquarters building 
provided by the Indonesian Government.  The ASEAN states have not 
favored development of a strong central coordinating authority.  The 
Secretariat is limited in size and is tasked mainly with serving the 
various ministerial meetings and committees.  It has been suggested that 
the Secretariat might serve as a regional research, information, and 
statistical center, but this and other roles have not yet been 
Complementing the ASEAN Secretariat, each government maintains its own 
National Secretariat in its Foreign Ministry; these vary in size and 
function.  The six National Secretariats are responsible to their own 
In order to achieve closer relations with major developed nations, ASEAN 
has instituted an annual "Post-Ministerial Conference" at the foreign 
minister level with the United States, Japan, Canada, South Korea, the 
European Community, Australia, and New Zealand.  Beginning in 1979, 
immediately following the ASEAN foreign ministers' mid-year meeting, 
joint and individual meetings have been held among ASEAN ministers and 
their counterparts from the seven "dialogue partners" named above. 
ASEAN's relations with Japan have strengthened steadily since the early 
1970s.  Links in trade, investment, and aid are particularly strong and 
are rapidly growing.  Examples of Japan's increasing commitment to the 
region include the $2 billion fund established in 1987 to finance ASEAN 
industrial projects, joint ASEAN-Japanese industrial ventures, and 
Japanese-sponsored technical training institutes.  ASEAN's relations 
with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the EC also have deepened, and 
other nations, including the former Soviet republics, China, and 
Vietnam, have sought "dialogue" roles. 
The ASEAN region is one of the world's economic success stories in 
agriculture, industry, and trade.  The economies range from resource-
rich but still largely agricultural Indonesia, with a per capita gross 
domestic product (GDP) of $505, to the highly industrialized city-state 
of Singapore, with a per capita GDP of $12,720.  The ASEAN nations are 
mainly committed to market- and export-oriented economic growth 
strategies.  Their dynamic economies averaged annual GDP growth of about 
7% during the 1970s but experienced stagnation or recession in the mid-
1980s due to slackening world trade and deteriorating commodity and oil 
prices.  Since the late 1980s, growth rates have increased steadily and 
in 1990 ranged from 2.1% for the Philippines to 12% for Thailand; the 
combined ASEAN economies grew 7.6% in 1990. 
Except for Singapore and Brunei, the ASEAN economies are still largely 
agricultural, producing commodities such as rubber, palm oil, rice, 
copra, and coffee for export, though manufacturing sectors in Malaysia, 
Thailand, and Indonesia are of increasing importance in each economy.  
Singapore has a highly diversified commercial and industrial economy, 
with growing emphasis on the service sector.  Commercialized cultivation 
and processing of primary agricultural products are important industries 
in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.  ASEAN accounts 
for 72% of world exports of rubber and is the world's largest source of 
tropical timber.  Mineral resources include 26% of the world's tin 
exports and significant amounts of copper, coal, nickel, and tungsten.  
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are important energy exporters, 
producing most of East Asia's petroleum and natural gas. 
Political Cooperation: The Cambodia Conflict.  The common challenge to 
regional security posed by the events in Indochina stimulated closer 
political cohesion among the ASEAN countries.  The war in Cambodia and 
the resulting flood of refugees into Thailand raised challenges to 
regional security that ASEAN collectively moved to meet. 
ASEAN led efforts in the United Nations and other forums to oppose 
Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia and  requested the 1981 UN conference 
on Cambodia.  The 93 nations attending the conference unanimously 
approved a final declaration embodying the principles on which a 
settlement should be based to establish an independent and neutral 
Cambodia: a political settlement, withdrawal of all foreign troops, and 
UN-supervised elections.  ASEAN strongly supported the peace agreement 
reached in 1991 and Prince Norodom Sihanouk's election to head a 
coalition government.  Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas served as 
co-chairman of the Paris International Conference on Cambodia, where the 
peace settlement was reached.  He articulated the ASEAN "vision of one 
Southeast Asia, at peace within itself and with its neighboring powers, 
its constituent countries harmoniously cooperating with one another for 
common progress and prosperity."  The conference was attended by foreign 
ministers of all six ASEAN countries. 
The end of hostilities in  Southeast Asia has permitted discussion of 
the possibility that those nations will become involved in ASEAN.  The 
"Singapore Declaration" of the 1992 summit included a pledge to play an 
active role in inter- national efforts to reconstruct Vietnam, Laos, and 
Cambodia.  ASEAN leaders also stated that they welcome accession to the 
ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation by all countries in Southeast 
Asia.  Laos and Vietnam are reportedly interested in joining, perhaps in 
anticipation of being asked to a participate as observers in some ASEAN 
Refugees.  The role of the ASEAN states has been crucial in coping with 
the refugee flow from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.  Since 1979, these 
nations have provided first asylum to more than 2 million refugees from 
these countries.  Countries of first asylum for boat people--Thailand, 
Malaysia, and Indonesia--are working closely with the United States, the 
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and European nations toward the 
eventual resettlement or repatriation of refugees.  However, in recent 
years the ASEAN countries have become concerned about the continued 
exodus of refugees.  In 1989, Malaysia ceased granting first asylum to 
newly arrived boat people.  In May 1990, ASEAN publicly stated that the 
burden of providing first asylum had become intolerable and pressed for 
an international effort to resolve the Southeast Asian refugee problem. 
Economic Cooperation.  ASEAN leaders agreed in 1992 to cut intra-ASEAN 
tariffs to 0-5% on all manufactured products and processed agricultural 
goods within 15 years and thus create an ASEAN Free Trade Area.  This is 
an important step toward overcoming barriers to greater integration 
among the economies of the various ASEAN states.  Since its inception, 
ASEAN has faced constraints on eco- nomic cooperation.  ASEAN members, 
except Singapore, depend on the production and export of primary 
commodities and manufactured goods that tend to compete with, rather 
than complement, the products of their ASEAN partners.  Intra-ASEAN 
trade, although significant and growing, is still less than 20% of total 
ASEAN trade.  ASEAN members generally seek a common policy on 
commodities and on other economic issues in international forums, such 
as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the UN 
Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).   
The semi-annual meetings of the economic ministers constitute the key 
consultative mechanism on regional economic policy.  In addition, ASEAN 
has established a number of economic committees and consultative 
arrangements dealing with a wide range of economic issues. 
While the heads of government had discussed ways to promote dialogue on 
regional security issues, ASEAN still has not been given a defense or 
security role.  Cooperation among member-states has been conducted on a 
bilateral basis.  ASEAN remains committed to its 1971 call for a zone of 
peace, freedom, and neutrality. 
ASEAN governments recognize that under current circumstances a US 
security presence in the area is an important stabilizing force.  While 
no other ASEAN member has offered to replace US bases in the Philippines 
(or been asked by the United States to do so), several have come forward 
with offers to negotiate arrangements under which US military forces 
would have access to repair facilities, sources of supply, and training 
Strength In Diversity 
ASEAN has shown a remarkable ability to put aside historical disputes 
and limited economic complementarity in order to concentrate on issues 
of common interest.  All six members have made preservation and 
enhancement of regional cohesion through ASEAN a foreign policy 
priority.  During more than 20 years of cooperation, ASEAN has grown 
into a dynamic group of developing countries with some of the highest 
growth rates in the world.  It has gained the respect and acceptance of 
the entire international community, which are matters of great pride to 
its peoples, who now feel that they can determine their own destiny. 
ASEAN unity and cooperation have not only served regional security and 
development but also increased these nations' influence in international 
forums such as the United Nations and the GATT, and in international 
commodity agreements.  ASEAN is recognized as a leader of the developing 
world, with successful, market-oriented economies.  In seeking to 
advance its interests, ASEAN has stressed cooperation rather than 
confrontation with industrialized countries in international 
organizations and conferences. 
The US-ASEAN relationship is substantial and expanding.  Secretary of 
State Baker attended the 1989, 1990, and 1991 ASEAN Post-Ministerial 
Conferences, following a precedent established by his predecessors of 
meeting annually with the ASEAN foreign ministers.  By encouraging wide-
ranging discussions of issues, these meetings reinforce the value the 
United States places on our long-standing relationship with the ASEAN 
Economic Relations 
With trade totalling $45 billion in 1990 ASEAN is the United States' 
fifth largest trading partner, and the US is ASEAN's largest single 
market.  Principal US exports to ASEAN are capital goods, transportation 
equipment, chemicals, and agricultural products.  The United States 
imports ASEAN's natural rubber, tin, petroleum, sugar, and palm oil, as 
well as textiles and electronics products and components. 
Generally favorable investment climates, market-oriented economies, 
relatively low labor costs, and abundant natural resources have 
attracted significant US investment to ASEAN.  However, US investment in 
the region faces competition from that of Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore, 
among other nations.  The United States is currently the largest 
investor in Singapore and the Philippines, second-largest in Thailand, 
third-largest in Malaysia, and fourth-largest in Indonesia.  The 
Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a US government agency, has 
over $600 million of investment guarantees and loans outstanding to 
ASEAN as of mid-1991.  US Export-Import Bank export insurance and loans 
outstanding to ASEAN totaled $2.4 billion as of September 1991. 
US Economic Assistance  
The US Agency for International Development (AID) strategy supports 
strengthening the private sector and freeing financial resources, 
promoting democratic institutions, and sustaining the natural resource 
bases of member states.   
The Private Investment and Trade Opportunities (PITO) project is a joint 
effort by the US and ASEAN governments and private sectors to expand 
trade, investment, and technology transfer between the United States and 
ASEAN.  The project is funded by private contributions and by the ASEAN 
Regional Program of AID.  The most significant project developed under 
PITO's auspices to date is the environmental improvement project, which 
would use $17 million in aid over a 6-year period to lessen industrial 
and urban pollution.   
In addition to regional development assistance to ASEAN, the United 
States has provided substantial funding for bilateral development 
assistance to Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.  Post-World War 
II US bilateral eco- nomic assistance to ASEAN countries through fiscal 
year 1990 is more than $14 billion.  There also are a number of 
cooperative programs with ASEAN in the educational, cultural, and 
scientific fields. 
Political Relations 
ASEAN's moderating influence in international councils, as well as its 
relative prosperity, have contributed to the peace and stability of the 
region.  ASEAN cooperation also is important to the United States on the 
issue of long-term resettlement of refugees out of first-asylum nations 
and efforts to account for Americans missing and unaccounted for in 
Frequent ASEAN-US consultations increase understanding of common 
interests and provide opportunities to consult informally on a wide 
range of issues. 
The ASEAN-US economic dialogue began in September 1977 in Manila.  
Subsequent dialogues have been held approximately every 18 months.  
Additional informal political and economic consultations have evolved 
over the years. 
The ASEAN Washington Committee (AWC) is composed of the ambassadors to 
the United States of the six ASEAN countries.  It meets periodically 
with US officials to discuss common issues. 
The Economic Coordinating Committee (ECC) was established at the third 
economic dialogue in Manila and comprises senior ASEAN-nation embassy 
officials in Washington, DC, and their counterparts in the United 
States, as well as US and ASEAN private sector representatives.  The ECC 
generally meets monthly to review cooperative activities and economic 
The US-ASEAN Council for Business and Technology was established in 1979 
to bring together US and ASEAN private sector leaders to discuss common 
interests and the enhancement of trade and investment and relations 
between the two regions.   
Under a program known as the ASEAN-US Initiative (AUI), the US Trade 
Representative and ASEAN ambassadors signed a memorandum of 
understanding in December 1990 to  establish regular ministerial-level 
trade consultations and a senior officials' working group to explore 
mechanisms for enhancing trade and investment relations.  
Unable to provide in electronic format.  See hard copy.] 

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