In their ASEAN Declaration signed in Bangkok on 8 August 1967, the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand stated that “the Association represents the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity.”

2. With the formal admission of the Kingdom of Cambodia into ASEAN at the special ceremonies in Hanoi on 30 April 1999, the first half of the vision of the Founding Fathers to unite all Southeast Asian nations under one ASEAN roof has materialized. Now all attention in ASEAN is on how to complete the second half of the vision of bringing the concrete benefits of peace, freedom and prosperity to the 500 million people in the ASEAN family.

3. This paper is a preliminary attempt at examining key challenges facing ASEAN as a regional entity from the perspective of what ASEAN really is – not what it should be. To keep this paper within a manageable length, the focus is only on five challenges arising as a direct consequence of, or accentuated, by the membership enlargement.


  1. Enlargement increases the degree and complexity of diversities in ASEAN, which has weakened or will break up ASEAN.

4. With or without ASEAN, the diversities in Southeast Asia exist and will continue to exist. Nothing can change this reality overnight; no one can simply wish them away at will. Therefore, the real hard question is how to enable the 500 million Southeast Asians in 10 different countries live peacefully together and at the same time to develop mutual confidence, increase mutually beneficial economic relations and advance common interests. ASEAN was established 32 years ago as an answer to this particular question by providing a practical framework for confidence-building and meaningful regional cooperation.

5. From the very beginning, the ASEAN Founding Fathers made clear that “the Association is open for participation to all States in Southeast Asian region subscribing to the [ASEAN] aims, principles and purposes.” (ASEAN Declaration) Having included all the 10 Southeast Asian nations in its membership, therefore, represents a historic achievement of ASEAN as a confidence-building mechanism in the region. The fact that its members have different political systems – including some with opposite ideologies – makes the achievement even more remarkable. ASEAN appears to be the only regional organization with such unique political diversity.

6. In addition to the political diversity, there are also differences in the level of economic development, religions, historical background and languages, among others. Yet, the firm belief in ASEAN is that all the ASEAN members can and have learned to trust one another. Together they can and will create in ASEAN a sense of “security community” in which no member feels or perceives any immediate threat from any ASEAN neighbours. Consequently no member needs to waste excessive resources in military buildup and endlessly prepare for the worst that could otherwise come across the borders.

7. One real and significant benefit – which is seldom appreciated by outsiders – of having hundreds of ASEAN meetings each year is the ample opportunities for interactions and networking of officials and politicians of member countries. The personal ties and rapport cultivated in ASEAN meetings at all levels can indeed go a long way of strengthening bilateral relations and, more importantly, facilitating conflict resolution should bilateral problems flare up. Such occasional diplomatic/political hiccups are quite common everywhere. But in ASEAN they are manageable. There is no room for miscalculation from wrong information; no escalation of tensions based on uncertainties and misunderstanding. ASEAN Leaders, Ministers and Senior Officials know one another personally. They are known to have often called each other and discussed sensitive matters quietly, especially in times of difficulties in bilateral ties.

8. This strong sense of mutual trust and shared responsibility in the common regional interests and willingness to accommodate each other were articulated in the ASEAN Declaration of 1967, the ZOPFAN Declaration of 1971 and the ASEAN Concord of 1976. The ASEAN members have agreed to a code of inter-state conduct as outlined in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. New members found the Treaty practical and useful. They all had acceded to it before joining ASEAN. They have also embraced the shared responsibility and tried to emulate their “older” colleagues in developing mutual trust and practicing the “ASEAN way”. By signing the 1995 Treaty on Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ), all the Leaders of the 10 countries in Southeast Asia clearly demonstrated their commitment to safeguard this region and transform it into a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality.

9. While ASEAN has found comfort and strength in its enlargement, ASEAN is not a military alliance and sees no need to become one in the foreseeable future. This is simply because ASEAN has no enemy. The fact that ASEAN is not a threat, real or perceived, to anyone outside ASEAN makes it the ideal driving force in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) process.

10. All the ASEAN members are actively strengthening the ASEAN’s role as “the primary driving force in the ARF”. But the ARF is not directed against any external powers. Its immediate objective is to increase international understanding of security-related issues and build confidence among its participants comprised of all ASEAN members, 10 ASEAN dialogue partners, Papua New Guinea (being an Observer in ASEAN since 1976) and newcomer Mongolia.

11. ASEAN has always been very careful not to venture into any activity that could create a wrong perception that it is becoming a common defence bloc or military alliance. Cooperation in security matters had been, until the early 1990s, undertaken only on a “non-ASEAN basis between the member states … in accordance with their mutual needs and interests”. (Declaration on ASEAN Concord).

12. In the early 1990s, ASEAN began to convene the Special SOM, in which Senior Officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs meet their counterparts from the Defence Ministry and the military to discuss security issues and cooperation activities. The birth of the ARF in 1994 made the consultations in the Special SOM more focused. However, after several years of the Special SOM, security cooperation in ASEAN is still limited to such non-sensitive activities as compiling names and addresses of focal points for security cooperation matters; conducting defence planning seminars and meetings of the Working Group on Security Cooperation. The major role of the Working Group is in providing inputs for the Special SOM in preparing for the annual ministerial meeting of the ARF. All the participating delegations in the annual ministerial meeting of the ARF now include some senior defence officials and military officers. But the ARF is still and will remain a diplomatic confidence-building process.

13. When it comes to national defence, some ASEAN members still ultimately rely on external powers, with which they have had defence agreements or security cooperation arrangements since the days of the Cold War. The Philippines and Thailand each has a bilateral defence agreement with the US dating back to the Manila Treaty which gave birth to SEATO in 1954. In the Philippines, an active national debate has been under way on whether to make way for a resumption of large-scale joint exercises with the US forces under the Visiting Forces Agreement. In Thailand, such joint exercises have never been seriously questioned. In fact, the 18th annual Thai-US Cobra Gold joint exercise was just completed, albeit in a rather low-keyed manner, in mid-May 1999. Nearly 12,000 US troops from Hawaii took part in the two-week training in Thailand. Most of them probably were unaware of or didn’t understand the strong anti-US sentiments in the Thai press arising from the US virtual veto against Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Supachai Panitchapakdi in the race for the WTO Director-General post.

14. Malaysia and Singapore have stayed in the Five Powers Pact security arrangements with Australia, New Zealand and the UK, established since 1971. The UK also has had some security cooperation arrangement with Brunei Darussalam since the country gained independence in 1984. So far few in these ASEAN countries have questioned the relevance of the British security role in Southeast Asia and the utility of the Five Powers Pact in particular.

15. Laos and Vietnam have no known external defence or security cooperation with any external powers. But the two, no doubt, may have some bilateral defence and security cooperation. Vietnamese forces took an active and effective part in fending off Thai attacks during the unfortunate border skirmishes in 1987 and 1989. Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar also do not have defence cooperation agreement with any external power. One exception is Indonesia’s recent border security cooperation agreement with Australia.

16. One interesting question is how the ASEAN members concerned see their defence agreements and security cooperation arrangements with external powers in this post-Cold War era. Why do they continue to count on the security assurance and military assistance of external powers in this post-Cold War era and strong ASEAN solidarity?

17. One explanation is that those defence agreements and security cooperation arrangements were the Cold War legacies that the ASEAN members concerned have been slow in re-examining them. Another explanation is that ASEAN activities are always considered as an additional complement to national efforts in every field, including safeguarding national security. As a rule, ASEAN activities shall never replace or undermine national activities. Seen in this light, there is no contradiction between ASEAN’s fervent opposition to all forms of foreign interference in common regional affairs and the individual ASEAN members’ defence and security ties with external powers.

18. Colonial exploitation, Cold War, power politics and now the economic crisis have taught countries in Southeast Asia an invaluable lesson. Separately, individual countries would have no chance of attracting much serious attention of external powers, let alone advancing such noble goals of ZOPFAN and SEANWFZ. But collectively in ASEAN, they have earned a growing recognition in the international community as a force for peace, justice and moderation. Such recognition reinforces the bond of solidarity and willingness to share responsibility in advancing ASEAN interests. The membership enlargement, therefore, has strengthened ASEAN politically and diplomatically.


  1. The “ASEAN way” is ineffective and inefficient; ASEAN’s reputation of being “outward-looking” has been tarnished by its non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, even when alleged violations of human rights in some members have become, in the eyes of most Western governments, serious international concerns.

19. First and foremost, one needs to bear in mind the fact that ASEAN is an intergovernmental association established and sustained by voluntary participation of member governments and countries based on equality. They have come together to work in this regional grouping with the common belief that peace, freedom, social justice and economic well-being in Southeast Asia are “best attained by fostering good understanding, good neighbourliness and meaningful cooperation among the countries of the region already bound together by ties of history and culture” (ASEAN Declaration).

20. Equality calls for mutual respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs of other States. This is entirely consistent with the universal principles as enshrined in the UN Charter. Being a political association of political equals, ASEAN operates by consultation and consensus, not by argument and voting.

21. In the ASEAN Vision 2020 of the Heads of State/Government unveiled at the Second Informal Summit in Kuala Lumpur on 15 December 1997, the ASEAN Leaders envisioned the ASEAN region in the year 2020 to be “a concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward-looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies.” A concert of nations means that ASEAN is not transforming into a political union under any form of central supranational authority. Each ASEAN nation will continue to preserve its national government and identity in accordance with the ideals and aspirations of its people. But they all are legally bound by the code of conduct under the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, among other agreements as well as practices in ASEAN.

22. However, neither the Treaty nor any other ASEAN agreements require ASEAN members to change their political systems into any specific homogenized system. ASEAN has never assigned itself the mission of transforming its members into any uniform political system. ASEAN did not set any political criterion for its prospective members to fulfil before admission, unlike in the EU where a prospective member must first meet all the criteria of democratic pluralism.

23. Differences in political systems do not constitute any hindrance to strengthening ASEAN unity and solidarity. On the contrary, ASEAN sees the diversity in its membership as a source of strength and inspiration for fostering a strong sense of community and regional solidarity. All ASEAN members willingly agree to share the primary responsibility to ensure peace and stability in Southeast Asia. At the same time, they also recognize “the right of every state, large or small, to lead its national existence free from outside interference in its internal affairs as this interference will adversely affect its freedom, independence and integrity” (ZOPFAN Declaration of 27 November 1971). All the ASEAN members firmly believe in and benefit from these principles of equality, mutual respect and non-interference. In fact, the four new members often cite them as the key attraction drawing them to join ASEAN.

24. From the original five, the membership expanded to six in 1984 with the admission of Brunei Darussalam, after the country gained independence from the British. The most significant expansion came in 1995 with the admission of Vietnam into the ASEAN fold. This was truly a historic development in Southeast Asia, a paradigm shift in the regional strategic outlook. For just a few years earlier ASEAN and Vietnam were still locked in a bitter conflict over Kampuchea. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Philippines and Thailand were active U.S. allies in the war in Indochina. And the communist ideology was and still is banned in all the first six ASEAN members. After Vietnam, the arrival of Laos and Myanmar in 1997 and Cambodia in this year has added some more political diversities to ASEAN.

25. As the ASEAN membership grew in number, outsiders began to question whether the “ASEAN way” could continue to work. Worse still, whether the old and new members “speak the same political language” and appreciate each other’s national imperatives. It is not useful to divide the ASEAN members into two groups of the “democratic” and the “not so democratic”. Such arbitrary classification does not take into account the fact that every country has internal dynamics driving its political development. Over the 32 years since its establishment, ASEAN has seen several changes in the political system of some of its members; the Philippines, for example, was not so free during the Marcos dictatorship; neither was Thailand democratic during the military rule of Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon and his clique in 1991-92; the upheaval in Indonesia is the latest case in point. If history is any guide, we can safety assume that more changes are forthcoming in the next three decades. But these changes will more likely be generated by the internal dynamics rather than by any external pressures.

26. The role of ASEAN is to create a peaceful and stable regional environment and build understanding and confidence with external powers so that individual ASEAN members can feel safe and concentrate on their respective national development efforts. Putting pressure on anyone inside ASEAN has never been part of the “ASEAN way”. Since all ASEAN members are political equals, it follows that no one has more right or greater power over the others. And since no one has the monopoly of wisdom, each member has the right to look after its own internal affairs without foreign interference. Interference and sanction will only lead to chaos and conflict, a lose-lose situation for all.

27. If one member feels strongly about something and wants to see ASEAN take a particular action, the “ASEAN way” dictates that, first of all, that member should not blazon forth in the mass media to score political points. Instead, every diplomatic skill should be used to quietly explain its views to all the others and try to persuade them to see things its way. When a growing number of members agree that some appropriate action is called for, then the few others who are reluctant to follow suit would likely relent under peer pressure.

28. A case in point was the haze crisis in 1997/98. In the haze crisis, ASEAN has been proven to be a reliable confidence-building process as well as a flexible regional entity for purposeful cooperation. Without ASEAN, those countries badly affected by the haze smoke must have been up in arms against Indonesia already. It would be impossible for these neighbours to accept, let alone understand, why the recurring illegal forest burning in Kalimantan and Sumatra could not be stopped.

29. The “ASEAN way” in addressing the haze crisis was to help Indonesia cope, rather than to blame it for this massive and highly complex problem. ASEAN’s existing mechanisms – including the annual meeting of environment ministers, the Haze Technical Task Force of the ASEAN Senior Officials on the Environment (ASOEN), and the Experts Group on Disaster Management of the Committee on Social Development (COSD) — which meets only once every two years – were found to be inadequate or completely irrelevant. Thus a new ministerial meeting on the haze was institutionalized in November 1997. Since then, six meetings have been convened and a great deal of resources has been marshaled to implement ASEAN’s regional haze action plan, with generous support from the ADB and a few other dialogue partners of ASEAN. A new haze task force coordination unit has also been established at the ASEAN Secretariat.

30. The financial crisis which erupted in Thailand in July 1997 and escalated into an economic crisis engulfing the entire ASEAN region in 1998 created a new and immediate challenge to the “ASEAN way”, especially with respect to the non-interference principle. The severity and speed of the contagion clearly showed a high degree of interdependence among the ASEAN economies. Rightly or wrongly, the ASEAN economies are now seen as a single economic region, a contiguous market in the eye of most international investors and bankers.

31. The ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM) did try to start an annual consultative meeting on macroeconomic issues. But the first attempt in Chiang Mai in 1994 turned out to be not very useful and the AEM gave it up. After all, most of the AEM are trade and industry ministers who are only partly responsible for macroeconomic policies, unlike their colleagues in the finance portfolio who have a much greater say.

32. ASEAN Finance Ministers had met informally at the fringe of the ADB or the IMF/World Bank annual meetings since the 1970s. They met formally for the first time on 1 March 1997 in Phuket. Unfortunately, no alarms were sounded at that highly confidential meeting. Maybe the ticking time bomb in the Thai financial system was so well camouflaged that no one could recognize it then.

33. One bold collective measure in response to the crisis was the creation of an ASEAN macroeconomic surveillance process, in which de facto peer pressure has been institutionalized. With financial and technical assistance from the ADB and others, the process is designed to monitor macroeconomic policies and key indicators in ASEAN members and to exchange views and information on their implications in a peer review. A task force has been established at the ASEAN Secretariat to coordinate the process. While ASEAN members stop short of telling one another what to do, they generally agree on what needs to be done individually so that each of them can recover and what should be done collectively in order that ASEAN will regain strength and competitiveness.

34. Individually, each ASEAN member has undertaken active national measures to bring about economic recovery. Generally they include the following: reviving domestic demand by easing fiscal and monetary policies; enhancing safeguards and assistance for the poor by strengthening social safety nets and providing skills training; revitalizing the financial and corporate sectors, including assistance to facilitate debt restructuring, closure of bad banks and finance companies, and privatization or commercialization of state-owned enterprises; strengthening transparency and good governance; and mobilizing additional resources to finance sustainable growth. The surveillance process will keep every ASEAN member abreast of the progress or delay in these national measures. Periodical meetings will be convened to discuss implications of the macroeconomic situations in member economies. Any member falling behind will come under peer pressure to explain and/or to shape up. But there is no plan or mechanism for collective sanction against any member with chronic poor performance.

35. At the same time, ASEAN members have developed other mechanisms to monitor implementation and compliance of cooperation agreements and collective measures. The AFTA Council supervises the acceleration of AFTA, in which the first six members have agreed to realize AFTA by the year 2002, and to reduce to 0-5% the rate of their tariffs in at least 90% tariff lines by the year 2000. In the area of investments, there is the AIA Council set up last year to supervise the implementation of the Framework Agreement on the ASEAN Investment Area (AIA). The first six members and Myanmar have agreed to extend national treatment to other ASEAN investors in the manufacturing sector and phase out by the year 2003, instead of 2010, all exclusions. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam shall exert their best efforts to follow suit by 2010. A new (third) round of negotiations on services liberalization is expected to start this year and end in 2001. The new round is aimed at further liberalizing the trade in services to cover all services sectors and all modes of supply.

36. Should all else fail, ASEAN has put in place a dispute settlement mechanism under the Protocol on Dispute Settlement signed in 1995. One key element here is the use of majority decision – rather than consensus – to settle a dispute.

37. In both the haze and the economic crises, the “ASEAN way” of equality, quiet persuasion, consultation and consensus and shared responsibility have been proven to be most practical and agreeable to all in ASEAN. At times it may not be the most effective way of decision-making and getting urgent things done efficiently. But it certainly is not a “recipe of paralysis”.

38. The “ASEAN way” is dynamic and evolving. It is full of flexibility and accommodation. From such mundane matters as setting a meeting date to advancing some regional policy initiatives, due deference is usually given to the views of a member country hosting a meeting or chairing a particular committee. A member country coordinating ASEAN’s dialogue relations with a partner country, especially on matters relating to project proposals seeking funding support from the dialogue partner, tends to have more say in the direction and pace of the relations. This is nothing wrong since the country coordinatorship is rotated in alphabetical order once every three years. Every member, sooner or later, gets the opportunity to coordinate ASEAN’s relations with key dialogue partners such as Japan, EU and China.

39. The “ASEAN way” will continue to adapt to the changing situation, but its key principles – specifically non-interference — will not change. In fact the “ASEAN way” has already won acceptance in the ARF. There is no valid reason to change something that has worked successfully for over three decades in ASEAN.


  1. The enlargement will slow down ASEAN and prevent ASEAN from undertaking more and purposeful cooperation activities.

40. ASEAN began as a political association for regional confidence building through consultations and harmonization of views. During those formative years, joint actions came mostly in the form of a ministerial communiqué. There was no need for any follow-up work. In fact ASEAN operated without a secretariat during its first 10 years of existence.

41. Gradually, ASEAN increased its activities in functional cooperation areas (science and technology, culture and information, social development etc.) and this required more resources for implementation of projects and some central information clearing house. Thus the ASEAN Secretariat was established in 1976 as ASEAN began to develop its external relations with dialogue partners who contributed financial and technical assistance for ASEAN development cooperation activities.

42. As its members became more developed economically in the 1980s, they also became more willing to engage in more meaningful economic cooperation. The most significant breakthrough came in 1992 with the signing of the Framework Agreement on Enhancing ASEAN Economic Cooperation, and more importantly the Agreement on the CEPT Scheme for AFTA. The ASEAN Secretariat was also strengthened in 1992/93 to undertake increased responsibilities, especially in coordinating and monitoring implementing of the AFTA agreement.

43. Since then, more economic cooperation agreements have been signed and come into effect. They included: ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (1995); ASEAN Framework Agreement on Intellectual Property Cooperation (1995); Basic Agreement on the ASEAN Industrial Cooperation Scheme (1996); ASEAN Agreement on Customs (1997); Framework Agreement on the ASEAN Investment Area (1998); ASEAN Framework Agreement on Mutual Recognition Arrangements (1998); and ASEAN Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Goods in Transit (1998).

44. The increased ASEAN activities not only called for a strengthened ASEAN Secretariat, but also for new resources. Thus, the ASEAN Fund was established in 1994 with a contribution of US$1 million from each member. Furthermore, the ASEAN Foundation was set up in 1997 to mobilize resources for cooperation activities that will directly involve and/or benefit the people in ASEAN.

45. In the ASEAN Vision 2020, the ASEAN Leaders announced their collective resolve to build upon ASEAN’s past achievements. At the Sixth ASEAN Summit in Hanoi in December 1998, the ASEAN Leaders reaffirmed their commitment to promoting closer regional integration and dispelled doubts that ASEAN members might be retreating to protectionism in time of severe economic difficulties.

46. In joining ASEAN, each new member agreed and acceded to all the existing and relevant ASEAN agreements. More importantly, it also agreed to extend MFN treatment to fellow ASEAN members, national treatment to ASEAN products imported into its domestic market, and to ensure transparency in its economic and trade regime. This is especially important in the cases of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as they, unlike Myanmar, were not in GATT and are only Observers in WTO. Adopting these ground rules of free trade will generate dynamic gains from increased momentum in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to introduce economic reforms and speed up their transition to modern market-oriented economy. This, in turn, will enable them to keep up with their colleagues in ASEAN as their economic outlook and interests tend to converge.

47. The enlargement has, however, no significant direct effect on influencing the pace of cooperation activities in ASEAN. Actually in recent years, ASEAN has been moving forward faster and initiating new cooperation activities since the early 1990s. The single most important factor stimulating ASEAN to speed up AFTA and AIA was the economic crisis. New members now try to keep up with the accelerated pace by making greater effort and faster domestic adjustments. At the same time ASEAN has conducted training programmes, both bilaterally and collectively through the ASEAN Secretariat, and sometimes multilaterally with contribution from the UNDP and other dialogue partners, to develop human resources and increase capability of government institutions in new members.

48. When some more capable members want to introduce a new activity or speed up an existing one and the others are not yet ready, one commonly used solution is to adopt a multi-speed implementation timetable, like in the acceleration of AFTA. Another solution is to implement it on a voluntary basis with national best effort, like in the Bold Measures announced at the Hanoi Summit to regain business confidence, enhance economic recovery and promote growth.

49. Diversity in the economic structure is not an insurmountable problem. Singapore usually takes part in ASEAN’s meetings on agricultural matters even though the country has no agricultural sector. Laos, a land-locked country, also attends ASEAN meetings on maritime cooperation or coastal resource conservation, and voluntarily opting out from projects arising from these meetings.

50. A country with a higher degree of readiness or capability may lead or become the shepherd in a particular technical area of cooperation. Singapore, for example, is playing a leading role in promoting ASEAN cooperation in IT infrastructure. Members with direct interest in a particular ASEAN activities, like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam in the Mekong Basin development, will naturally take the lead in rallying international support and sustaining ASEAN interest. In these instances, the “ASEAN way” of goodwill and accommodation in cooperation comes into play.

51. In economic cooperation, ASEAN remains fully committed to promoting liberalization in trade, investment, industry and services. But ASEAN does not yet foresee itself developing into a common market, much less an economic union with a single currency like in the EU. Under the ASEAN 2020: Partnership in Dynamic Development, ASEAN aims only at creating “a stable, prosperous and highly competitive ASEAN Economic Region in which there is a free flow of goods, services and investments, a freer flow of capital, equitable economic development and reduced poverty and socio-economic disparities.” (ASEAN Vision 2020)

52. Therefore, the new members have not slowed down the pace in ASEAN. Neither are they in a position to dilute the commitment in ASEAN to continue to promote economic cooperation and liberalization. On the contrary, the impetus from joining ASEAN has created in each of the new members additional dynamics to push forward domestic economic reforms, adjust government regulations and harmonize them to be in line with the existing commitments under the various ASEAN agreements. In the long run, the new members tend to become more like their older colleagues in ASEAN in their economic regime and economic interest.


  1. The diversities in ASEAN will lead to a two-tier membership of countries that can participate and benefit from ASEAN activities, and those that cannot.

53. The diversities are a given reality in this imperfect world that ASEAN has to live with. The “ASEAN way” guarantees political equality among the members and ensure they live peacefully together and prosper.

54. The price for equality is in the equal sharing of the annual operating budget of the ASEAN Secretariat. In the 1998/99 financial year ending on 31 May 1999, the budget was US$5.2 million. Rich or poor, large or small, each of the members contributed an equal share of about US$577,800. Current economic difficulties in many ASEAN members have forced them to limit the growth of the budget. Another important limiting factor is the low ability of the poorer members to contribute. Half a million US dollars (and about another million US dollars to operate national ASEAN offices and attend ASEAN meetings) may not mean much to the well-to-be members, but it means a lot to such poorer members such as Laos and Myanmar. One way to overcome this problem is to tap into other sources of funding support to help pay for the Secretariat’s services and activities.

56. The limited resources and the lack of technical expertise and English proficiency in government personnel of the new members have a direct bearing on how often ASEAN meetings will be convened, and how many new ASEAN bodies can be set up. Participation in ASEAN meetings and other activities are always on a voluntary basis, with the understanding that all members would make a genuine effort to attend important policy meetings and participate meaningfully by sending a relevant delegation. This is part of the “ASEAN way”. If there is no delegation from the capital, as is often the case in small technical meetings, at least some embassy officials will attend. A member which chooses not to attend a particular ASEAN meeting is obliged, under the “ASEAN way” to accept or concur with decisions taken at the meeting.

57. Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam have all opened their embassies in all the other ASEAN capitals after joining ASEAN. Now Cambodia is speeding up the opening of its embassies in Bandar Seri Begawan, Manila, Singapore and Yangon. Cambodian ambassadors to these four ASEAN members have already been nominated.

58. ASEAN members have a practice of extending visa-free facilities to one another’s diplomats, officials and nationals. Among the first six members, visas are issued free of charge on arrival. The new members have agreed to adopt the same practice gradually, starting first with visa-free facilities for diplomats of ASEAN members and officers of the Secretariat.

59. Since English is the only official language in ASEAN, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have adopted English as their chosen second language. This will certainly bring about great practical benefits to the younger generations in these former French colonies since English is the dominant language in commerce in this part of the world, and English is also the language of choice in IT, computer software and websites on the Internet.

60. In Laos and Vietnam, the switch from French to English as a second language is being taken very seriously. The Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Laos, for example, took nearly four months off his hectic schedule to undergo intensive English language training in New Zealand last year. His counterpart in Vietnam has managed to learn the language well enough to deliver all of his ASEAN speeches in English. Moreover, English language proficiency is now an important criterion for promotion in the bureaucracy in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.


  1. Enlargement of the membership has made it even more difficult in ASEAN to speak with one voice in external relations.

61. Even though the emphasis in ASEAN is on intra-regional cooperation, ASEAN continues to be outward-looking, engaging its friends and partners in constructive partnership based on equality, mutual respect and common interests. ASEAN has Dialogue Partnerships with Australia, Canada, China, the EU, India, Japan, RoK, New Zealand, Russia, the US and the UNDP; and Sectoral Dialogue Partnership with Pakistan. This year, Pakistan has formally requested ASEAN’s consideration to upgrade the relationship into one of a full dialogue partnership.

62. ASEAN has annual ministerial meetings with ECO and SAARC in New York and (less-structured) contact with the GCC, Rio Group and Mercosur. ASEAN also engages international financial institutions such as the ADB, World Bank and IMF in consultations in the economic crisis.

63. One clear and consistent voice that ASEAN has spoken over the last three decades is its desire to be taken seriously on the basis of equality, mutual respect, non-interference and non-discrimination. The enlarged membership has not weakened, but strengthened, this common voice.

64. When ASEAN admitted Vietnam in July 1995, the US was still struggling to overcome its political hangover from the Indochina war and economic sanction from the Kampuchean conflict. When ASEAN admitted Myanmar along with Laos in July 1997, a few of ASEAN’s dialogue partners were visibly disappointed and upset. The admission of Myanmar undermined their attempt at isolating Myanmar. And finally the admission of Cambodia raised questions on whether ASEAN could continue to uphold its principle of non-interference when ASEAN had at least twice intervened in Cambodia (at the invitation of the host government).

65. The Western diplomatic boycott of Myanmar, which included denying visas to military leaders, ministers and senior officials of Myanmar, has created inconvenience in ASEAN’s dialogue relations with some of its Western partners. The US could not host the 14th ASEAN-US Dialogue meeting because it would not issue visas to Myanmar delegates. Eventually, the meeting had to be convened in Manila in May 1998, back-to-back with the ARF SOM. Similarly, the ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting in Berlin in March 1999 had to be cancelled, because Germany would not issue a visa to the Foreign Minister of Myanmar for fear of violating the EU’s sanction against Myanmar. The Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) in the ASEAN-EU Dialogue had to postpone its meeting in the second half of 1997, again because of the EU’s policy against Myanmar. The EU, or more precisely the European Parliament, has refused to fund any Myanmar’s participation in any ongoing or new ASEAN-EU projects. Finally, the ASEAN-EU JCC meeting in Bangkok last week (25-26 May 1999) took place only after months of negotiations on the modality of Myanmar’s participation. It was agreed that Myanmar could attend as a non-signatory country, just like Laos and Cambodia, with no speaking rights (as the EU has refused to let Myanmar accede to the ASEAN-EC Cooperation Agreement of 1980). On the other hand, the EU agreed not to bring up any extraneous political issues outside the purview of the JCC.

66. The wrangling with the EU and the US was unfortunate. Those far away powers can have their own opinions and political agendas. Some of their politicians have a habit of trying to score political points by making public statements to raise public expectations at home that they would tell ASEAN and/or some of its members “how to behave”. Such political bravado is self-serving. It will never be taken seriously in ASEAN. Those outsiders certainly have no business of trying to stop ASEAN from admitting Myanmar. And ASEAN has made clear on several occasions that we do not welcome such interference. Like it or not, Myanmar is part of our region and now part of the ASEAN family.

67. In order to reduce our heavy dependence on our traditional Western markets and sources of investments from the West, ASEAN has tried to develop its cooperation with other parts of the world to diversify its external relations. The flourishing ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and RoK) framework is a good calculated move. It came at the right time when East Asia was and still is suffering from similar problems arising from the defects in the international financial architecture. ASEAN has also pursued political consultations with China, India and Russia.

68. The ASEAN’s resolute and active support for Dr. Supachai in the WTO Director General race was another good example of ASEAN’s resolve. ASEAN is determined to stand up for a just cause and resist attempts of those who are trying to dominate the WTO and dictate both the agenda and outcome of the next round of world trade negotiations.

69. Unfortunately, in APEC, it may already be too late for ASEAN to salvage the situation. Some ASEAN members preferred individual participation in APEC. ASEAN thus virtually gave up its leadership in what was very much an ASEAN’s initiative. Consequently, US domination of the APEC process is inevitable. And now the future of APEC depends very much on the US. If and when the US loses its interest, APEC may have to fold. ASEM, another brainchild of ASEAN (Singapore’s in particular), is relatively new and ASEAN can still play a meaningful role, especially if the ASEAN+3 cooperation with China, Japan and RoK prospers.

70. All in all, the prognosis of an impending demise of ASEAN is pure exaggeration. It is only too easy to be an alarmist in this time of difficulties. ASEAN is certainly not flawless. It is still far from what it can and should be. But the point is to improve it and do our collective best to make it work for the well-being of all our 500 million brethren in our ASEAN family.