ASEAN's Economic Development After 50 Years

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by Kevin Rutigliano
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with the foreign ministers participating in the US-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Manila, Philippines on August 6, 2017. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has made great progress since its inception in 1967. When the organization was founded, it had only five members: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It was formed primarily to increase economic development and cooperation in the region at a time when instability and conflict were rampant in Southeast Asia. Recognizing the importance of ASEAN, the United States became dialogue partners with the organization in 1977. As time progressed, ASEAN’s membership grew, adding Brunei in 1994, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999.

ASEAN integration was characterized by the “ASEAN WAY,” in which consensus — rather than centralized decision making — is the method behind regional agreements. The “ASEAN WAY” has also emphasized non-interference in the affairs of member states. 

One major accomplishment was the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), signed in 1992. The agreement succeeded in breaking down trade barriers between the members of ASEAN, and eliminated around 99% of tariffs among the member states. Economic integration has facilitated the growth of the middle class in Southeast Asia, increasing demand for US exports. This process led ASEAN to become the United States’ fourth largest export market. In 2015, the organization imported $102 billion worth of US goods and services. It is estimated that this trade support over 560,000 US jobs.

In addition, the removal of barriers has allowed for greater flexibility of US investments in the region, which has led to increased investment. Since 2004, US FDI in ASEAN has increased by an average rate of 12%, while ASEAN FDI in the United States has increased by a total of 1,000%. As of 2015, ASEAN FDI stock in the United States was $26 billion.

ASEAN has also seen many accomplishments in the security sector. The establishment of the ASEAN Political Security Community (APSC) led to greater regional cooperation regarding cross-border crime fighting in the region, especially against drug trafficking. The United States has supported these efforts through training exercises and consultations within the framework of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

After fifty years of development, ASEAN is stronger than ever and its growing ties with the United States mean the future will be bright for US-ASEAN relations.

Kevin Rutigliano is a research intern at the East-West Center and a graduate student at George Washington University