Asean leaders aim to create the world's biggest free trade area
The Association of South-East Asian Nations, or Asean, aims to bolster economic growth among its 10 members and to promote peace and stability across the region.
A loose gathering of five countries at its inception, Asean has become a body with regional and global clout, despite political and economic differences among its members.
It now seeks to create a full-blown economic community.
Asean was set up on 8 August 1967 at a meeting in the Thai capital Bangkok. The founder members - Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the
Philippines and Singapore - declared that: "The association represents the collective will of the nations 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".
Brunei joined in 1984, followed by Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Burma in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999.
At the first Asean summit in 1976, on the Indonesian island of Bali, members signed a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). The TAC enshrines the principle of non-interference in the domestic matters of member countries. It is open to non-members and has been signed by China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
United we stand: Leaders of Asean countries in Laos, 2004
In 1994 Asean set out its vision for long-term security with the creation of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF). It aims to resolve conflicts by peaceful means and to pursue preventative diplomacy. The US, Russia, India, China, Japan and North Korea are among the ARF's 23 members. A year later members signed the South-East Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty.
Looking ahead, Asean wants to accelerate economic integration by creating a European Union-style single market. This will involve scrapping tarriffs and liberalising trade and the movement of labour and capital.
The move is, in part, a response to the vigorous economic growth of China and India - two low-wage mass markets. Asean is negotiating free trade agreements with both countries, and with Japan. A deal between Asean and China would create the world's biggest free trade zone.
Asean held its first East Asian Summit (EAS) in late 2005. The EAS groups the Asean countries and China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand on a biennial basis. The forum is seen as a way of creating a trade bloc to rival the EU and US.
- Founded: 1967
- Membership: 10 states - Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam
- Headquarters: Jakarta, Indonesia (home of permanent secretariat)
- Combined population of member states: 502 million (Asean, 2004)
Secretary-general: Ong Keng Yong
Ong Keng Yong served as press secretary to the prime minister of Singapore before his appointment in January 2003.
The secretary-general is appointed for a five-year term and is responsible for coordinating and implementing Asean
Annual summit of heads of state and government: The highest decision-making body.
Asean Ministerial Meetings: Annual meeting of Asean foreign ministers, coordinates activities and formulates guidelines.
Standing Committee: Chaired by the foreign minister of the summit host country, it includes the secretary-general and the directors-general of the Asean National Secretariats. It reports to the Asean Ministerial Meetings.
Secretariat-General: Runs Asean activities and implements policies; headed by the secretary-general.
Others: 29 committees and 122 technical groups support the ministerial bodies and Asean activities.
Its critics have portrayed Asean as being big on words and short on action, driven by the desire for consensus among its members. Its staunch support for the principle of non-interference has, paradoxically, reinforced both regional stability and authoritarian governance.
At the Bali summit in 2003, members backed the general principle of promoting democracy. But in some countries - notably Burma, Laos and Vietnam - this remains a distant ideal.
In particular, the stand-off between the military regime and the opposition in Burma has been a thorny issue. Asean has resisted calls to take more direct action against the regime.
Instead, it pursues a policy of constructive engagement and non-confrontation with Burma. Rangoon agreed to forego its 2006 chairmanship of Asean; some members had feared that Burma could damage the group's standing by taking the chair.
International terrorism is high on the Asean agenda. The Bali nightclub attacks in 2002 reinforced its resolve to curb terrorism.
Asean aspires to stem weapons proliferation. It has urged Asian nuclear powers, and those aspiring to become nuclear powers, to engage in dialogue within the Asean Regional Forum. Asean adopted a security plan at its 2004 summit; tensions on the Korean peninsula were high on the agenda.