As the foreign ministers of Southeast Asian countries convene this week in Jakarta for their annual meeting, it is an opportunate time to ponder on the state of the region 25 years after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for international understanding.

ASEAN Promoted international understanding with different motivations to different times of its existence- first to survive, then to modernize.

In the years preceding 1979, ASEAN advanced international understanding out of necessity. It needed to survive. It was the height of the Cold War and its proxy wars in Southeast Asia Working with the international community, ASEAN needed to stop the domino effect of communist expansion in the region. It also has to deal with the remnants of its colonial history.

Southeast Asia today is at peace with itself and with its neighbors. ASEAN is a more mature and confident organization. But, even as the organization looks beyond its 10 member countries, ASEAN does not take for granted the need to sustain intra-regional peace and security. Thus, ASEAN has committed itself to build an ASEAN Security Community subscribing to the norms of a just, democratic and harmonious environment.

ASEAN remains committed to promoting international understanding to enhance its political and security interests. ASEAN has also become a trusted broker of building confidence among states beyond Southeast Asia. In today’s interdependent world, stability not just in the immediate vicinity, but in the world at large, is imperative. Thus, over the past decade, the ASEAN Regional Forum has served as a unique multilateral forum devoted to promoting political and security dialogue and cooperation among countries in the Asia-Pacific.

Moreover, the sources of threats have generally changed from the traditional interstate conflicts to non-traditional security issues, including international terrorism. Promoting greater international understanding and goodwill is the most enduring approach to counter terrorism. While strengthening operational measures, the roots of terrorism and dissent must be understood and addressed.

In today’s globalizing world, ASEAN carries out international engagements to attain economic development and modernisation. ASEAN has been an active advocate of free and fair international trading system. ASEAN engages the major industrial economies to attract foreign direct investment and tourism. Some ASEAN member countries are founding members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

ASEAN has been transforming Southeast Asia into a free trade and investment area. Last October, ASEAN launched the process of establishing the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, as a single market and production base characterised by the free movement of goods, services, investment, capital and skilled labor. The AEC would facilitate closer economic partnership with ASEAN’s neighbors, China, Japan, South Korea and India. It would also prepare ASEAN economies to enter into bilateral free trade arrangements with the US and European Union over the long term.

ASEAN economic integration aims to enhance the economic competitiveness of this region of more than 520 million people and gross domestic product of about $700 billion. ASEAN has the “intrinsic” to be competitive on such global scale, such as its market size and growth, liberal economic policies, educated and skilled labor, rich natural resources and others. Building a single market will draw on these intrinsic advantages.

Securing survival and development remain the overriding goal of ASEAN. But there is more to promoting international understanding than politics and economics. International understanding must also be pursued as an end in itself. It need not always yield to functionalism where it is only a means to an end.

Greater international understanding builds friendship and goodwill among nations. It serves to bridge our cultural and religious diversity.

In recognition of its value in international relations, an ASEAN Sociocultural Community has been envisaged based on common norms and shared identity.

It would lend a strong foundation for advancing common interests and respect for principles of interstate relations. Building an ASEAN community will forge mutual understanding and consciousness among Southeast Asian nations in relation to others.

The ASEAN Declaration of 1967 states that peace and development are best attained by fostering good understanding, good neighbourliness and meaningful cooperation among countries. It would serve ASEAN well to popularize these noble goals among its peoples.

Today’s new generation should find inspiration in ASEAN and even greater resolve in employing international understanding in the service of humanity.

It is in this spirit that I have revisited ASEAN’s citation in the quest for Ramon Magsaysay foundation’s mission of “Spreading the good news of Asia” and vision of “Making Asia a better place”.

*Ong Keng Yong is the Secretary-General of ASEAN