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This article is written by Astitva Kumar, from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University. This article deals with ASEAN, a driving force behind Asian trade liberalization, and its importance for India. 


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was founded in Bangkok on August 8, 1967, by the five founding member countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Brunei Darussalam joined on January 8, 1984, Vietnam on July 28, 1995, Laos People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar on July 23, 1997, and Cambodia on April 30, 1999.

Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam form a regional association that fosters economic, political, and security cooperation among its ten members. The ASEAN countries collectively have a population of 650 million people and a combined GDP of $2.8 trillion.

The group has been a driving force behind Asian trade liberalization, pushing efforts to construct one of the world’s largest free trade blocs and completing six free trade agreements with other Asian states. The ASEAN region has a population of almost 560 million people, covers 4.5 million square kilometres, has a combined gross domestic output of nearly US$ 1,100 billion, and commerce worth around US$1,400 billion. 


According to the ASEAN Declaration, the association’s goals and objectives are to:

  1. Accelerate regional economic growth, social progress, and cultural development; and
  2. Promote regional peace and stability through a commitment to justice and the rule of law in regional relations and adherence to the United Nations Charter’s principles.
  3. The ASEAN leaders agreed on a shared vision of ASEAN as 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 in the ASEAN Vision 2020, which was adopted on the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN.

The ASEAN Leaders decided in 2003 to build an ASEAN Community with three pillars: ASEAN Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community, and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.

How ASEAN works

ASEAN is led by a chair, who is elected by member states every year and is supported by a secretariat situated in Jakarta, Indonesia. Important decisions are normally made through conversation and consensus, governed by the ideals of non-interference in internal affairs and conflict resolution through peaceful means. Some experts believe that the organization’s decision-making process is one of its biggest flaws.

According to CFR’s (Council on Foreign Relations) Joshua Kurlantzick, “These rules of agreement and noninterference have gradually grown outmoded, and they have hampered ASEAN’s influence on matters ranging from dealing with China to crises in specific ASEAN states.

According to other experts, ASEAN has aided regional stability by defining much-needed rules and fostering a neutral atmosphere in which to solve common concerns.

In Asia, talking and creating relationships is half the battle,” Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, told CFR. 

History of ASEAN

ASEAN was founded in 1967 to bring together Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand to form a united front against communism and promote political, economic, and social stability in the Asia-Pacific region. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, signed in 1976, emphasizes mutual respect and non-interference in other countries’ affairs.

By the end of the 1990s, membership had more than increased. The end of the Cold War, the ending of Cambodia’s civil war in 1991, and the normalization of US-Vietnam ties in 1995 restored relative stability to mainland Southeast Asia, clearing the door for more countries to join ASEAN.

The organization began to pursue attempts to enhance regionalism with the admission of Brunei (1984), Vietnam (1995), Laos and Myanmar (1997), and Cambodia (1999). In 1995, for example, the members agreed to refrain from creating, acquiring or possessing nuclear weapons.

Faced with the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which began in Thailand, ASEAN countries pushed for greater economic integration. For example, the Chiang Mai Initiative was a currency swap agreement established in 2000 between ASEAN nations, China, Japan, and South Korea to give financial assistance and combat market manipulation.

The ASEAN Charter, a constitutional instrument that gave the organisation legal status and an institutional framework, was adopted by the 10 members in 2007. The Charter outlines the organization’s main values and membership qualifications (East Timor applied for membership in 2011, but not all members are in favour of its admission). The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the ASEAN Political-Security Community, and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community are the three branches of the community outlined in the Charter

Fundamentals and principles

According to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), ASEAN Member Countries have embraced the following fundamental principles in their dealings with one another:

  1. Mutual respect for all nations’ independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity;
  2. The right of every State to pursue its national interests without intervention from outside forces;
  3.  Non-interference in one another’s internal affairs;
  4.  Peaceful resolution of conflicts or disputes;
  5.  Avoidance of the threat or use of force; and efficient cooperation among themselves.

The three communities

Community of ASEAN Security (ASEAN Security Community)

Since its founding, more than three decades ago, no tension has developed into armed confrontation among ASEAN Member Countries as a result of political discourse and confidence building.

The ASEAN leaders have agreed to form the ASEAN Security Community (ASC) to expand on what has been built over the years in terms of political and security cooperation. The ASC will work to guarantee that countries in the area live in a just, democratic, and peaceful environment with one another and with the rest of the globe.

The community’s members commit to resolving intra-regional differences solely through peaceful means, and they see their security as inextricably tied to one another and bound by geography, common vision, and aims. Political development, norm formulation and sharing, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, link peacebuilding, and implementation mechanisms are all included. It will be built on the solid basis of ASEAN procedures, values, agreements, and structures, which have grown over time and are enshrined in the following main political documents:

In 1994, ASEAN formed the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to recognize the Asia-Pacific region’s security interdependence. The agenda of the ARF is divided into three stages: 

  • Promotion of trust-building, 
  • Development of the humanitarian intervention,
  • Elaboration of conflict resolution measures.

Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, Democratic Republic of Korea, Republic of Korea (ROK), Lao PDR, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Russian Federation, Singapore, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam are among the current participants in the ARF. The ARF tackles important regional security concerns such as the main countries’ relationship, nonproliferation, counter-terrorism, transnational crime, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula, among others.

ASEAN Economic Community

The ASEAN Economic Community will be the culmination of the ASEAN Vision 2020’s economic integration policies. 2020 aims to establish a stable, prosperous, and highly competitive ASEAN economic area with free movement of goods, services, investment, and capital, equitable economic development, and reduced poverty and socio-economic inequities.

The ASEAN Economic Community will develop ASEAN as a trading bloc and industrial base, transforming the region’s variety into opportunities for economic complementation and transforming ASEAN into a more dynamic and powerful section of the global supply chain. The integration of ASEAN and the enhancement of ASEAN’s economic competitiveness will be the focus of ASEAN’s strategy.

ASEAN has agreed to the following points to move towards the ASEAN Economic Community:

  • Enact new structures and measures to improve the implementation of existing economic initiatives such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS), and the ASEAN Investment Area (AIA);
  • By 2010, air transport, agro-based products, automotive, e-commerce, electronics, fisheries, healthcare, rubber-based products, textiles and apparel, tourism, and wood-based products will have advanced regional integration.
  •  Allow for the free movement of business people, skilled labour, and skills; and
  • Strengthen ASEAN’s institutional tools, particularly the existing ASEAN Dispute Settlement Mechanism, to ensure prompt and legally binding resolution of any economic disputes.

The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), which was established in 1992, is now operational. Its goal is to boost the region’s competitiveness as a single manufacturing unit. The removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers between the Member States is projected to boost economic efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness.

Tariffs on over 99% of the products on the ASEAN-6’s Inclusion List (Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) were cut to less than 5% as of January 1, 2005. There are no tariffs on more than 60% of these items. The average tariff for ASEAN-6 countries has been reduced from more than 12% when AFTA began to less than 2% now. Tariffs on around 81% of their Inclusion List have been reduced to within the 0-5% range for the younger Member Countries, namely Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam (CLMV).

The following are some of ASEAN’s other important integration-related economic activities:

  • ASEAN’s Financial and Monetary Integration Roadmap covers four areas: capital market development, capital account liberalization, financial services liberalization, and currency cooperation;
  • Significant inter-state highway and railway networks, including the Singapore to Kunming Rail-Link, important ports, and sea lanes for maritime traffic, inland canal transport, and major civil aviation links;
  • Strategy for Air Travel Sector Integration;
  • National telecommunications equipment and services interoperability and interconnection, including the ASEAN Telecommunications Regulators Council Sectoral Mutual Recognition Arrangement (ATRC-MRA) on Conformity Assessment for Telecommunications Equipment;
  • The ASEAN Power Grid and the Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline Projects are trans-ASEAN energy networks; 
  • The Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) focuses on infrastructure, human resource development, information and communications technology, and regional economic integration, primarily in the CLMV countries; and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) focuses on infrastructure, human resource development, information and communications technology, and regional economic integration;
  • To encourage intra-ASEAN travel, the Visit ASEAN Campaign and the private-sector-led ASEAN Hip-Hop Pass have been launched; and an agreement on the ASEAN Food Security Reserve has been reached. 

Growth of the ASEAN economy

ASEAN has made significant progress toward regional economic integration and free trade. The ASEAN Free Trade Area was established in 1992 with the goals of establishing a unified market, expanding intra-ASEAN trade and investments, and attracting international investment. Intra-ASEAN trade as a percentage of overall trade increased from around 19 % in 1993 to about 23% in 2017.

More than 90% of items are traded without tariffs across the organisation. Electronics, automotive, rubber-based products, textiles and apparel, agro-based products, and tourism are among the eleven industries prioritised for integration by the bloc.

Despite the advances, favourable trade measures do not cover some of the region’s most vital industries, and socioeconomic disparities among members might make economic integration difficult. The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which sets ASEAN’s trade ambitions, is seen by some as a potential catalyst for the further economic union.

In November 2020, ASEAN nations signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement negotiated since 2012, with Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. It also aids in the integration of Northeast and Southeast Asia’s economies. Six free trade agreements with nations outside of ASEAN are also in place.

The ASEAN Socio-Culture Community

  • In line with ASEAN Vision 2020, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural community is tied together in cooperation as a community caring society,
  • The Community will promote social development cooperation aimed at improving the living conditions of disadvantaged groups and the rural population and will seek active participation from all sectors of society, particularly women, youth, and local communities,
  • ASEAN will invest greater resources in basic and higher education, training, science and technology development, job creation, and social protection to guarantee that its workforce is equipped for and benefits from economic integration,
  • ASEAN would continue to strengthen its collaboration in the field of public health, particularly in the prevention and control of infectious and communicable illnesses. Human resource development and enhancement is a critical method for creating jobs, reducing poverty and socioeconomic inequities, and ensuring equitable economic growth.

ASEAN’s ongoing activities in this area include

  1.  The ASEAN Work Programme for Social Welfare, Family, and Population;
  2.  ASEAN Work Programme on HIV/AIDS;
  3. ASEAN Work Programme on Community-Based Care for the Elderly;
  4. ASEAN Occupational Safety and Health Network;
  5. ASEAN Work Programme on Preparing ASEAN Youth for Sustainable Employment and Other Globalization Challenges;
  6. ASEAN University Network (AUN), which promotes collaboration among ASEAN’s seventeen member universities;
  7. ASEAN Students Exchange Programme, Youth Cultural Forum, and ASEAN Young Speakers Forum;
  8. ASEAN Culture Week, ASEAN Youth Camp, and ASEAN Quiz;
  9. ASEAN Media Exchange Programme; and
  10. Framework for Environmentally Sustainable Cities (ESC) and ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.


The annual summit is ASEAN’s highest body (ASEAN Summit). The chairmanship of the ASEAN Summit and Ministerial Conferences has rotated annually in alphabetical order between member states. The ASEAN Secretariat’s headquarters are in Jakarta, Indonesia, and each member is represented by its own foreign minister. ASEAN is further organised into three major community councils: political security, economy, high social culture, each of which is in charge of several sectoral ministerial bodies. ASEAN’s judgement on – on a hierarchical structure, which is treated in tracks. All official decisions made by diplomatic representatives of member nations are included in track one. Practice is mostly concerned with hypothetical policies offered by think tanks and academic institutions and serves as a platform for potential ideas.

Though this system implies that citizens can trickle down to improve the governmental level, the truth is that the majority of ASEAN decisions are taken by top officials without regard for the understanding of the represented masses.

India’s relationship with ASEAN

The substantial changes in the world’s political and economic landscape since the early ’90s as well as India’s march toward economic liberalisation, have prompted India to focus on strengthened and multi-faceted partnership with ASEAN. The ‘Look East Policy’ was born out of India’s need for economic space. The Look East policy has evolved into a vibrant, action-oriented “Act East policy ” in recent years. 

It has made various police airports in the region, such as BIMSTEC, MGC, and others, that involve several ASEAN members. India also takes part in regional forums such as the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), and Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF).

The partnership between India and ASEAN is a critical pillar of our foreign policy and the bedrock of our Act East Policy. The relationships through a strategic partnership in 2012 was a natural evolution from India’s status as an ASEAN sectoral partner in 1992, dialogue partner in 1996, and summit level partner in 2002. There are 30 dialogue mechanisms between ASEAN and India.


To improve interaction with ASEAN and ASEAN-centric processes, India has a separate Mission to ASEAN and the EAS (East Asia Summit) in Jakarta, with a dedicated Ambassador

The ASEAN-India dialogue is celebrating 25 years

Throughout 2017, India and ASEAN commemorated 25 years of dialogue, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and 5 years of strategic partnership by holding over 60 commemorative activities in India and through the missions in the ASEAN Member States, culminating in the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit on the theme “Shared Values, Common Destiny” on January 25th, 2018 in New Delhi.

The memorial exercises incorporated an ASEAN-India regional diaspora occasion in Singapore, a youth summit, a music festival, an artists’ retreat, port calls by Indian Naval Ships, a workshop on the blue economy, a connectivity summit, a gathering to build up our network of think tanks, a dharma-dhamma conference, a hackathon, and startup festival, a global SME summit, a business and investment meet, an expo, a textiles event, an ICT expo, a business council meeting, a Ramayana festival, a film festival and the initiation of an India-ASEAN friendship Park in the core of our public capital, New Delhi. The incredible diversity and depth of these activities created a solid foundation for long-term cooperation.

PM Narendra Modi and ASEAN leaders jointly adopted the Delhi Declaration at the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit and decided to prioritise maritime cooperation as a major area of cooperation under the ASEAN-India strategic alliance.

As India’s Guest of Honour at the 69th Republic Day Parade, the leaders of ASEAN countries made an extraordinary gesture. It was an honour for India to welcome the leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries at the Summit in such a short period. The India-ASEAN trade and investment relationship has been steadily improving. In 2012, ASEAN and India celebrated 20 years of dialogue and 10 years of summit-level partnership with ASEAN with a commemorative summit held in New Delhi on the theme “ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace and Shared Prosperity” on the 20th and 21st of December.

Cooperation in terms of the economy

The economic and investment relationship between India and ASEAN has been progressively improving, with ASEAN now being India’s fourth-largest trading partner. India’s trade with ASEAN is worth US$ 81.33 billion, or roughly 10.6% of the country’s total commerce. India’s overall exports to ASEAN account for 11.28% of the country’s total.

Both ways, investment flows are significant, with ASEAN accounting for approximately 18.28% of all investment flows into India since 2000. According to DEA (Data envelopment analysis) data, FDI inflows into India from ASEAN nations totaled US$68.91 billion from April 2000 to March 2018, whereas FDI outflows from India to ASEAN countries totalled US$38.672 billion from April 2007 to March 2015. The ASEAN-India Free Trade Area was completed on July 1, 2015, when the ASEAN-India Agreements on Trade in Services and Investments went into effect.

ASEAN and India have also been seeking to improve private sector participation. The ASEAN India Business Council (AIBC) was founded in Kuala Lumpur in March 2003 as a forum to bring together important private sector actors from India and ASEAN countries on a single platform for business networking and idea-sharing. 

Cooperation in terms of socio-culture

A variety of programmes have been hosted to promote people-to-people interaction with ASEAN, including inviting ASEAN students to India each year for the Students Exchange Program, a Special Training Course for ASEAN diplomats, Parliamentarian Exchanges, ASEAN students participating in the National Children’s Science Congress, the ASEAN-India Network of Think Tanks, and the ASEAN-India Eminent Persons Program.

On July 18, 2018, the ASEAN-India Workshop on Blue Economy, co-hosted by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, took place in New Delhi for the second time. 

Cooperation in terms of security

In the face of increasing traditional and non-traditional problems, politico-security cooperation is a critical and emerging pillar of our relationship. The landscape of common security challenges to our countries is defined by rising terror export, expanding radicalisation through hate ideology, and the growth of extreme violence. Our collaboration with ASEAN aims to develop a coordinated, cooperative response and share it on multiple grounds.

ASEAN has worked tirelessly for 50 years as a regional body founded on consensus to help secure peace, growth, and prosperity in the region. As a result, India prioritises ASEAN in its Indo-Pacific vision of regional security and growth for all. The ASEAN Regional Venue is the principal forum for ASEAN security dialogue (ARF). Since 1996, India has attended this forum’s yearly sessions and has actively engaged in its varied activities. The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) is ASEAN’s highest level of defence consultation and cooperation. The ADMM+ brings together Defence Ministers from the ten ASEAN countries, as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia, and the United States of America.


The ASEAN Multilateral Division provides ASEAN countries with project-based financial support. The funds have provided financial support to ASEAN countries.

ASEAN-India cooperation fund

India announced a US$ 50 million contribution to the ASEAN-India Fund at the 7th ASEAN-India Summit in 2009, to support the implementation of the ASEAN-India Plans of Action, which include cooperation in a variety of sectors as well as capacity building programmes in the political, economic, and socio-cultural spheres to deepen and intensify ASEAN-India cooperation. At the 14th ASEAN-India Summit in Vietnam in September 2016, PM recommended expanding the ASEAN-India Fund with an extra grant of US$ 50 million to advance development and capacity building activities. 

ASEAN-India projects

India has worked with ASEAN on several projects in the areas of agriculture, science and technology, space, environment and climate change, human resource development, capacity building, new and renewable energy, tourism, people-to-people connections and connectivity, and so on.

The establishment of tracking, data reception/processing station in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as well as the upgrade of the Telemetry Tracking and Command Station in Biak, Indonesia, are part of a space project. E-Network for the provision of telemedicine and tele-education in CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam); Quick Impact Projects in CLMV network for the provision of telemedicine and tele-education in CLMV countries. Aside from the above projects, India has also been supporting ASEAN, particularly CLMV nations under the initiatives for ASEAN Integration, which focuses on the training of English language for Law Enforcement Officers in CLMV nations and training of experts managing capital business sectors in CLMV by the National Institute of Securities Management, Mumbai, which also provide grants for ASEAN understudies for advanced education at Nalanda University, training of ASEAN Civil Servants. 

Delhi Dialogue

The annual Track 1.5 event, the Delhi Dialogue, is held in India to discuss political, security, and economic problems between ASEAN and India. India has hosted 10 editions of its flagship Conference since 2009. The MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) sponsored the 10th edition of the Delhi Dialogue in New Delhi on July 19-20, 2018, on the topic “Strengthening India-ASEAN Maritime Advantage.”

ASEAN-India centre

The heads of Government recommended the establishment of the ASEAN-India Centre (AIC) at the Commemorative Summit in 2012, intending to promote the ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership through policy research, advocacy, and networking activities with organisations and think-tanks in India and ASEAN. The AIC, which was established in 2013, and has served as a resource centre for the ASEAN Member States and India to develop the ASEAN-India strategic partnership and promote India-ASEAN engagement and collaboration in areas of mutual interest. By organising seminars, roundtables, and other events, the AIC has provided advice to policymakers in India and ASEAN on the execution of ASEAN-India connectivity programmes. Workshops, seminars, and conferences on various topics related to the ASEAN-India strategic partnership are also held by the AIC. It engages in regular networking activities with relevant public/private agencies, organisations, and think tanks in India, ASEAN, and EAS (East Asia Summit) countries, intending to provide up-to-date information, data resources, and sustained interaction in order to promote the ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership.

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ASEAN-India S&T Development Fund

In November 2007, India announced the establishment of an ASEAN-India Science and Technology Development Fund with a US$ 1 million commitment from India to support joint collaborative R&D projects in Science and Technology at the 6th ASEAN-India Summit in Singapore. The fund was established in 2009-10, and expenditures commenced in the fiscal year 2010-11. This fund has been increased to US$ 5 million from 2016 and 2017.

ASEAN-India Green Fund

On November 21, 2007, at the 6th ASEAN-India Summit in Singapore, India announced the establishment of an ASEAN-India Green Fund, with a US$ 5 million initial commitment from India, to promote cooperative activities in the areas of environment and climate change. Climate change, energy efficiency, clean technologies, renewable energy, biodiversity conservation, environmental education, and other sectors have been highlighted for partnership under the Fund.


ASEAN brings countries with vastly different economies and political systems together. According to 2019 World Bank data, Singapore has the greatest GDP per capita among the group’s members, at more than $65,000, while Myanmar has the lowest, at roughly $1,400. Democracies, authoritarian governments, and hybrid regimes are among the members’ political systems. The region’s demographics vary as well, with different religious and ethnic groups represented. Archipelagos and continental landmasses with low plains and rugged hills make up ASEAN’s geography.

Given the diversity among its members, the bloc is split on how to confront several issues, including China’s claims in the South China Sea, human rights violations, such as ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, and political persecution in member states like Cambodia. And this is why ASEAN plays a very keen role in India’s development as a sovereign nation and a political identity which has the calibre to be well recognised. 


  • The consequences of the RCEP trade deal are examined by CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick-

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