Introduction II Knowledge Enrichment Lecture notes

Member states and their relations

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3. Member states and their relations

3.1 The problems behind regional dispute

Ostensibly, ASEAN members stress unity and uphold ASEAN spirit. They share the same views on external affairs and in international conferences. In fact, they are not always on good terms and even come into conflict time and again. They have quarrels over a range of topics: clash of economic interest, problems regarding illegal immigration, territorial and maritime disputes, armament race, environmental pollution, history, religion and culture.

  1. Clash of economic interest


In September 1997, the Malaysian government announced all exports must go through local ports or airports in order to reduce the loss of foreign exchange. Up to now, 30% of exports still go through neighboring port or airport because of better facilities. Of course, that “neighboring” country refers to Singapore.

  1. Problem of illegal immigration


In spite of Thai opposition, Malaysia erected a 21 kilometer-long, 2.44 meter-high cement wall on the Malaysia-Thailand border in 1997 to prevent an annual average of 3,000 Thai illegal immigrants from entering Malaysia. Located at a highly-controversial border, the wall caused tension between the two nations when Thai helicopters were seen patrolling the construction work of the Malaysians during erection.

  1. Disputes over Territorial waters

Disputes over territorial waters or islands are numerous. For details, see Appendix I: Disputes over territorial waters or islands among ASEAN members.

Appendix I: Disputes over territorial waters or islands among ASEAN members

Members Involved

Nature of Dispute



Malaysia/ Vietnam/ the Philippines

Territorial sovereignty



Disputes occurring occasionally

Cambodia/ Thailand

Maritime boundaries/ exclusive economic zone

Gulf of Thailand

Negotiations in progress

Cambodia/ Vietnam

Maritime boundaries/ historical waters/ exclusive economic zone

Gulf of Thailand

Negotiations in progress

Indonesia/ Malaysia

Territorial sovereignty

Pulau Sipadan

Pulau Ligitan

In December 2002, the International Court of Justice ruled the areas as Malaysian territory, provoking public unrest inside Indonesia.

Indonesia/ Vietnam

Maritime boundaries/ exclusive economic zones

Natuna Islands

Negotiations in progress

Malaysia/ Indonesia

Maritime boundaries/ exclusive economic zones

Celebes Sea

Disputes in the area have occurred since 2005 owing to oil field exploitation right in this area.


he Philippines

Maritime boundaries/ exclusive economic zones

Celebes Sea

Disputes occurring occasionally


the Philippines

Territorial sovereignty


In 1963, the dispute severed diplomatic relations between the two. Through Indonesia’s mediation, the dispute has been shelved for the time being.

Malaysia/ Singapore

Territorial sovereignty

Pedra Branca

In 2008, the International Court of Justice ruled the area as Singaporean territory.

Malaysia/ Thailand

Maritime boundaries

Gulf of Thailand

Shared waters

Malaysia/ Vietnam

Maritime boundaries/ exclusive economic zones

Gulf of Thailand

Shared waters

Thailand/ Vietnam

Maritime boundaries/ exclusive economic zones

Gulf of Thailand

Disputes occurring occasionally

Source: Daniel Y. Coulter, ‘South China Sea Fisheries: Countdown to Calamity,’ in Contemporary Southeast Asia 17, no. 4 (March 1996); Cao Yunhua曹雲華, ed., Dongnanya guojia lianmeng: jiegou, yunzuo yu duiwai guanxi東南亞國家聯盟:結構、運作與對外關係 (ASEAN: Structure, Operation and Diplomatic Relations; Beijing: China Economic Publishing House, 2011), p.18.

d) Armament race


After Malaysia had purchased a Russian SU-30MKM aircraft, Singapore followed suit buying an American F-15SG. In 2009 when Indonesia bought Sigma-class corvettes from Holland, Malaysia deployed Kedah-class corvettes to the maritime boundaries between the two countries. In another example, the editorial of the Bangkok Post demanded for an explanation from the Vietnamese government in 2009 when it was heard that the Vietnamese government intended to buy advanced fighter planes and warships.

e) Environmental Pollution


In July 1997, a four-month long forest fire in Indonesia resulted in thousands of local residents and residents in neighboring countries contracting respiratory diseases from the smoke, further triggering a number of car and ship crash accidents. The fire covered nearly 200 hectares of land and led to an economic loss of about USD 3 billion domestically. Neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines witnessed an aggravation in air pollution within their borders. Some of them made complaints to Indonesia.
f) Historical Problems


Between December 2002 and January 2003, Thai actress Suvanant Kongying twice claiming that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand sparked a large-scale demonstration which turned into riot in Cambodia on 29 January 2003. During the unrest, the Thai embassy, Thai-owned enterprises, banks and restaurants were attacked and Thailand’s national flag was incinerated by Cambodian locals. In October 2008, another wave of disputes emerged as Preah Vihear Temple came to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site: a military clash occurred at controversial border, resulting in casualties on both sides. It should be noted that Thailand and Cambodia have a long history of conflict and violence and the border is unsettled and ever changing. Dispute over the temple is a historical problem in the Indochina Peninsula.
g) Conflicts in Religion


During the 10th ASEAN Summit (2004) which was held in Laos (Vientiane), Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand argued over the question of Muslims in southern Thailand. Facing accusations from Indonesia and Malaysia for suppressing Muslim militants in Thai territory, Thailand defended herself by employing the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states, further threatening to withdraw from the organization should the issue be placed on the table. Being the leading member state of that time, Laos supported Thailand and the other two countries conceded, though certainly not without damage to their relations.
Generalizing the above problems, if ASEAN integration shall push through in the future, the following 5 bi-lateral relationships among the member states are of utmost importance:

  1. Thai-Malaysian relations

  2. Indonesia-Malaysian relations

  3. Singapore-Malaysian relations

  4. Burma-Thai relations

  5. Philippines-Vietnam relations


4. The process of regional integration

The two phases of integration

The process of Southeast Asian integration through the ASEAN after the Cold War can be divided into two major phases.

Phase 1:

During the period between 1990 and 2002, ASEAN strived towards integration, commencing close multi-lateral relations between participating nations. Three events are worth noting in the stage:

  1. In 1992, an agreement for the ASEAN Free Trade Area was concluded, to which operations began on 1 January 2002;

  2. In 1994, the ASEAN Regional Forum was established to start multilateral security cooperation;

  3. In 1995, Vietnam was admitted and the four countries of the Indochina Peninsula followed, technically completing the process of integration.

Phase 2:

From 2003 to the present, ASEAN has attempted to enhance cooperation amongst member states and further multilateral relations. Most notably, the 9th ASEAN Summit (7 October 2003) in Bali, Indonesia witnessed the signing of the ASEAN Concord Declaration II which suggested the formation of the ASEAN Community in 2020 and emphasized the three pillars for the development of the ‘Community’ are close connection in political security, economic-commercial development and social culture.

The three supporting pillars for an ASEAN Community are as follows:

  1. The ASEAN Security Community (ASC) is envisaged to bring political and security cooperation within the organization to a higher plane.

  2. The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) aims to establish a stable, affluent and competitive economic community. An integrated economy which allows free flow of commodity, service and capital is to be achieved in 2020. In the AEC, member states progress equally and disparities in economic condition are set to be narrowed between participating nations.

  3. The ASEAN Society-Cultural Community (ASCC) encourages the development of a Southeast Asia rich in tradition and culture of the region and as a community of care by showing concerns to women’s status, apparent gaps between the rich and the poor, public health, training and other cultural problems.

In November 2007, the 13th ASEAN Summit was held in Singapore, and the ‘ASEAN Charter’ was signed. It transformed the ASEAN from a loose organization into a more cohesive, effective and formalised ‘community’.

Major points of the ASEAN Charter:


  1. To maintain and strengthen the peace, security and stability of the region;

  2. To keep the region free of nuclear weapons and prohibit the development of weapons of mass destruction;

  3. To support democracy, judicial system and constitutional governments and provide a just, democratic, harmonious and peaceful environment for ASEAN residents;

  4. To construct economic integration for a stable, affluent and single ASEAN market and production base for the free flow of products, services and capital that may encourage free movement of business talents, technical resources and labor. In turn, cooperation and mutual assistance is expected in eliminating poverty and reducing the gap between the rich and the poor;

  5. To develop human resources and encourage participation from different sectors of society in strengthening the concept of an ASEAN family.


  1. Insistence of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states;

  2. Respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and ethnical identity of member states;

  3. Insistence on settlement of disputes by peaceful means;

  4. To strengthen consultation mechanism involving ASEAN common interests and settle disputes based on ASEAN rules and international common practice and resolve serious disputes by ASEAN Summit consultation.

Means of decision-making:

  1. The ASEAN Summit is the highest decision-making body of the organization;

  2. All decisions are to be made by consensus;

  3. Disputes are to be settled at the ASEAN Summit.

The ASEAN Charter was approved by all participating member states on 15 December 2008, with effect from thereafter.


5. An overview of ASEAN’s structure

5.1 The three layers

In general, ASEAN is made up of 3-layer organisations:

  1. Decision-making bodies: including the ASEAN Summit, Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and Economic Ministers’ Meeting;

  2. Administrative bodies: including the Committee of Permanent Representatives implementing and monitoring ASEAN decisions in policy-making and Secretariat (ASEAN’s administrative headquarter; in charge of the coordination of member states and implementing decisions during ASEAN meetings);

  3. Coordinating bodies: including the ASEAN Coordinating Councils and the three Community Councils.

In addition, ASEAN has 18 Sectoral Ministerial Boards in charge of different areas such as energy, labour and trade and a number of non-government and quasi-government organizations.

5.2 Significance of the three layers

Apart from being the highest decision-making body, the ASEAN Summit is also the main mechanism that allows member states to discuss plans for regional cooperation. Presidency of the summit is on rotation and the summit was initially divided into two types: official and unofficial. It was later agreed that an official meeting would be held annually.

The Foreign Ministers’ Meeting is held once or twice each year. Responsible for formulating the basic policies of the ASEAN, member states take turns in hosting the meeting.
The Committee of Permanent Representatives is mainly in charge of discussing ASEAN’s diplomatic policy and implementing specific plans in cooperation. On the other hand, the Economic Ministers’ Meeting is held once or twice a year, discussing economic and trade cooperation between member states and serving as a decision-making body when called for.
The Secretariat of ASEAN is located in Jakarta, Indonesia.
5.3 The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)

The ARF is another body that is worth mentioning. First held on 25 July 1994 in Bangkok, the Forum was established for the following reasons:

  1. To preserve peace, stability and security in Southeast Asia;

  2. To strengthen ASEAN member states in countering the rise of China;

  3. To incorporate the United States in counter-balancing China and to strive for diplomatic exchange with Japan and India;

  4. To strengthen ASEAN’s leadership role in Southeast Asian affairs in competing with emerging powers outside the region.

The ARF serves the following functions in the Southeast Asian region:

  1. It propels mutual trust amongst member states through agreements such as the ‘Treaty of Amity and Cooperation’ and ‘the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone (SEANWFZ).’;

  2. ‘Preventive diplomacy’ is developed under the ARF, forestalling conflict between countries and emphasizing the importance and immediacy of diplomacy, further affirming the notion of diplomacy as the best method of resolving conflict;

  3. Still ongoing, the ARF proposes the achievement of a conflict-resolving mechanism as the Forum’s ultimate goal.

6. Operation and features


Unique in organizational structure, the ‘ASEAN Way’ of operation and principle of decision-making has the following features:

  1. Pulling loosely-attached states without a decision-making core to work together in assuring their self-interest whilst emphasizing equality in status so that the dominance of a single power within the region will be eliminated;

  2. Stressing on the importance of ‘consensus’ and targeting ‘unanimous agreement’ after each internal consultation;

  3. Pursuing the principle of ‘equal non-interference’ on the internal affairs of member states;

  4. Demonstrating ‘informality’ outside formal consultations as seen in leaders discussing issues and at times, reaching an agreement in non-formal, private venues.


7. Future prospects

7.1 The problems of ASEAN

A number of scholars hold the view that the future of ASEAN relies heavily on how new challenges are handled and eventually settled. Below is a summary of such challenges:

  1. The problem of Burma: As Burma’s military government has long carried a low image in the international arena, her inclusion and participation in ASEAN is at times perceived as a potential obstacle to ASEAN’s cooperation with Japan and the West;

  2. The question of leadership: Indonesia has always been playing the role of leader in ASEAN, but since 1977 Indonesia’s international influence was on decline due to the economic recession brought about by the Asian financial crisis and long lasting internal unrest. Since 2000, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia have emerged as the leaders of ASEAN; on the other side, Singapore, being one of the ‘Four Asian Tigers’ has taken on the role of ‘adviser,’ sharing her experience of rapid economic development with other member states. The maintenance of such kind of framework is the key to the smooth development of the ASEAN in the future;

  3. The doubtful progress of economic integration: although ASEAN has attempted to integrate members economically, the economic gap between members is too wide to draw them closer overnight. Take Singapore and Laos as example, the disparity in economy is so great. The disparity of economy is certainly the greatest obstacle to further integration among the ten members of ASEAN;

  4. The function of ASEAN ‘security community’: indeed the establishment of a security committee within ASEAN remains one of the organization’s ultimate goals, yet the practicality is doubtable. General observation shows that peace and security in Southeast Asia cannot rely solely on ASEAN; in turn, policies of major powers such as China, the United States, Japan and India ought to be included in the picture;

  5. Relations among member states: there are many problems and disputes which severed the relations of the member states such as extreme nationalism, economic disparity or cultural and religious differences. These complex problems are obstacles for betterment of the organization.

7.2 An overview of ASEAN’s relationship with China

7.2.1 Important events

The development of ASEAN relations with the PRC has been one of endless ebbs and flows. Events worth taking note of can be found in Appendix II: Timeline of ASEAN-China Relations.

Appendix II: Timeline of ASEAN-China Relations



18 January 1950

Sino-Vietnamese diplomatic relations was established

13 April 1950

Sino-Indonesian diplomatic relations commenced

8 June 1950

Sino-Burma diplomatic relations was established


China and Burma jointly proclaimed the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence;’ the border treaty was further signed.


The Philippines and Thailand joined the SEATO proposed by the USA, with Malaysia turning to the USA too. In this way, SE Asia became a U.S. military base to intervene in Indochina peninsula.

19 July 1958

Sino-Cambodian diplomatic relations was established.


China supported the anti-American and anti-French movement in Vietnam.

30 September 1965

A military coup to overthrow the Sukarno regime and wipe out supporting Indonesian Communists took place in Indonesia (30 September Movement) under the military junta headed by Suharto. During the event, the Indonesian military accused China of supporting Sukarno from behind and incited an anti-Chinese movement among the populace.


Sino-Indonesian diplomacy was ended.

8 August 1967

Leaning towards the United States, ASEAN was formed by the joint efforts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.

Early 1970s

China’s seat in the United Nations was resumed, followed by a number of events that opened China to the outside world: U.S. President Nixon’s visit to China, the establishment of China’s diplomatic relations with Japan and a lot of countries in western Europe, South America and Africa. As a result, ASEAN changed its policy to China.

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