ASEAN Celebrates its 55th Anniversary: Celebrating Victories, Acknowledging Challenges, Signing its First Region-to-Region Agreement with EU

ASEAN Celebrates its 55th Anniversary: Celebrating Victories, Acknowledging Challenges, Signing its First Region-to-Region Agreement with EU


Ambassador (p) Gheorghe Savuica *


On August 8, 1967, representatives of the governments of the Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand have signed the founding document of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as the Bangkok Declaration. Over the 55 years of its existence, the regional association has witnessed the accession of five other countries: Brunei (1984), Vietnam (1995), Myanmar (1997), Laos (1997) and Cambodia (1999). The ten Member States are currently joined by two observer states, i.e. East Timor and Papua New Guinea. Representing about 8% of the world GDP, almost 9% of the world population and including some of the economies with the highest growth rates in the world, ASEAN has carved out a leading role in the global geopolitical and economic chessboard, also thanks to its balanced approached of geopolitical competition and strong respect for state sovereignty. In fact, the regional association maintains close relations with all major global players and periodically organizes multiple format meetings with its partners, which include Australia, Canada, China, South Korea, India, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, Russia, the United States and the European Union.

Following the nefarious effects of the pandemic, ASEAN’s 55th Anniversary marked the first physical celebration of its anniversary for the past three years. The ASEAN Secretariat, headquartered in Jakarta, Indonesia – the driving force of the association – celebrated the anniversary in the presence of the Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, ASEAN Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi and Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn, in his country’s capacity as ASEAN Chair.

In her keynote address, Foreign Minister Retno stated the importance of the regional association and its “need (...) to retain its relevance by consolidating the region’s unity, reinforcing ASEAN centrality and strengthening its reliability”. The Indonesian Minister congratulated ASEAN for its 55th Anniversary, adding “I believe ASEAN matters and will always matter. Not only for what it is, but more for what it does.”

In a similar note, Secretary General Dato Lim highlighted the regional organisation’s achievements and its cohesiveness during the pandemic. According to the ASEAN Secretary General, “ASEAN has delivered economic prosperity, social advancement, and regional peace by working collectively”. The ASEAN leader urged “the region to stay in solidarity to address challenges and bring about more opportunities for all ASEAN citizens”.

The ASEAN 2022 Chair, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn affirmed “it is the ASEAN centrality that is the primary driving force behind our substantive dialogue and cooperation with our external partners, particularly in the context of all ASEAN-led mechanisms.” In his keynote address, the Cambodian Foreign Minister congratulated “ASEAN’s achievements in upholding the dialogues, economic integration, digitalization, and cooperation with external partners”.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres similarly conveyed his congratulations on the 55th Anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and expressed his particular appreciation to Cambodia as ASEAN Chair in 2022. The UN leader noted that the 55th Anniversary of ASEAN also coincides with celebrating “a decade of cooperation under the ASEAN-UN Comprehensive Partnership”. In context, Secretary General Guterres commented that “ASEAN’s role in promoting peace has greater urgency than ever, particularly for the people of Myanmar” and encouraged the regional association’s “efforts on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. This would be an important contribution from ASEAN towards a stable and secure future for the region.”

Most certainly, ASEAN deserves international praise as one of the few regional associations that has maintained its cohesiveness while maneuvering through the turbulent times the region has been subjected to in the past five decades and a half. It is thanks to ASEAN’s skillful diplomacy and the association’s decades-long policy of non-interference in the affairs of member states that ASEAN has gradually extended its international appreciation and upgraded its status as a significant player in trade and geopolitics.

From a group of developing nations, ASEAN has become one of the most important, reputable and successful regional associations in the world, a melting pot of peoples and cultures and an important and reliable partner of many countries around the world, as well as an organization that plays a central role in the multiple important processes of dialogue, cooperation and connectivity in the region, a principle widely known as ASEAN Centrality. The regional organisation continues to play an important role in promoting active dialogue, cooperation and confidence building between countries inside and outside the region in order to maintain peace stability, development and cooperation in Southeast Asia and beyond.

By far, the most resounding success of ASEAN is the creation of ASEAN Community. The significant milestone has brought the 10 ASEAN nations even closer together, bound by the shared vision of a durable, peaceful, stable and prosperous region. Genesis of over four decades of solidarity and cooperation, since the 1997 Summit in Kuala Lumpur, the ASEAN Community has grown into a concert of Southeast Asian nations, permanently envisaging an ever-strengthened community based on the association’s three pillars: ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). It is in this light that the ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together – the lofty goal of convergence of the regional association – was born in 2015. Committed to its objectives and ever closer to the ASEAN 2025 vision, the Southeast Asian nations have gone a long way in deepening their synergies in the past 55 years.

On the occasion of the 29th ASEAN Regional Forum (the ASEAN-led platform for security dialogue in Asia-Pacific, established in 1994), held on August 5, 2022, in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, the representatives of the ASEAN countries and its partnering countries, have adopted a joint declaration on the promotion of peace and stability through non-interference, confidence-building and preventive diplomacy measures, respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity, also the core principles of the UN Charter, keeping Southeast Asia free of nuclear weapons, along with a framework document on inclusive processes for preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution. The meeting has also been attended by the foreign ministers of some ASEAN partner countries, including Russia, the United States, Australia and South Korea. ASEAN’s much deserved success represents a continuation of its decades-long efforts in promoting peace and stability through non-interference and a balanced approach in the region and not only.

In this regard, the ASEAN countries and its citizens can be proud of what they have achieved so far towards their lofty goal of peace, stability and economic development, meeting the aspirations of the nearly 700 million people in the region.

While no regional association lacks challenges, ASEAN similarly has several matters it might need to navigate in the following year with the same diplomatic tact and finesse it employed since its very foundation. Speeding up the implementation of the Five Point Consensus on Myanmar represents perhaps a most stringent internal matter that ASEAN needs to deal with.

Externally, mitigating the US-China competition which has spilled over to the region, while being steadfast not taking sides will likely represent a constant challenge for ASEAN as well as for each of its member states in the next decade. To the same degree of extent, facing the emergence of informal arrangements in the region – such as AUKUS or QUAD – will showcase ASEAN’s resolve in dealing with third parties and/ or superpowers. ASEAN’s positioning in the aftermath of the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial stop in the Taiwan island, namely its stand that both parties – i.e. the United States and China – de-escalate tensions through constructive dialogue, remains consistent with the regional association’s fine balancing process.

In this regard, the much-awaited Code of Conduct in the South China Sea will also constitute an expression of this balancing; on the other hand, noting several ASEAN member states witness part of their territorial rights on water and islands contested, may result in a more lengthy and complex diplomatic process.

Obviously, ASEAN’s fine balancing act and neutrality also means ever strengthening relations with like-minded regional communities. As the Secretary General of ASEAN, Dato Lim, put it “This year marks the 45th Anniversary of ASEAN-European Union Dialogue Relations, and to commemorate this historic occasion, it is heartening that ASEAN and EU signed the world’s first region-to-region air transport agreement in Bali on 17 October 2022, and set a significant milestone in world aviation history. (...) The ASEAN-EU CATA emerges at an opportune time as ASEAN and the EU celebrate our 45 years of partnership.” The importance of the agreement, which marks the robust ties between the two regions, has been similarly recognised by the European Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, who stated that “The signature of this first-ever region-to-region air transport agreement between the EU and ASEAN brings our aviation partnership to a new level.”

Indeed, the vitality of both the EU and ASEAN, as well as the robust ties between the two communities, continue to showcase the importance both parties attach to the EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership.The signature and great success of the EU-ASEAN CATA agreement needs to be placed in the context of EU-ASEAN Strategic Partnership.EU-ASEAN shared values and principles, such as the rules-based international order and effective multilateralism represent the cornerstone of their partnership.

At the same time, there is a strong hope that, besides further intensifying the link between the EU and ASEAN, the EU member states will similarly work toward an ever more robust cooperation with the Southeast regional organisation. Such a relationship will, of course, only enhance the cooperation between the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and create more synergies between all sides involved.

When it comes to the Romania-ASEAN relations, starting by 2007, the bilateral relations between the two sides gained a new perspective when Romania became, on January 1, 2007, a member of the European Union and a dialogue partner within ASEM. Consequently, the Romania-ASEAN relations are currently organised on two pillars: besides the existing Romania-ASEAN relations(permanently assured through the Romanian Ambassador to Indonesia, concurrently accredited to ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta), Bucharest has also become an active part in the EU-ASEAN partnership.

IRSEA has been so far the singular expression of the Romanian civic-society, think-tanks in particular, to exclusively focus on the Southeast Asian regional organisation. Having garnered synergies with over 30 Asian think-tanks and research institutes, IRSEA has become – since its establishment in 2008 – the Romanian focal point of interest and think-tank engagement with ASEAN for students, scholars and professionals of international relations alike.

On a personal note, I had the pleasure and honour to witness, across my four-decade long career as a career diplomat, the constant and consistent growth of ASEAN as an association. I remember with both pleasure and nostalgia having written – as a junior diplomat, just upon my entry into the Romanian Diplomatic corps – the draft note pleading for Romania’s recognition of ASEAN as an economic organisation. Consequently, my country has recognised ASEAN as an economic association at a time when all the other members of the socialist bloc viewed ASEAN in the same light at SEATO, an international organisation for collective defense. Later on along my career, as the Romanian Ambassador to Indonesia, I have been delighted to meet ASEAN senior leaders and take part in some of the ASEAN meetings. In many ways, my diplomatic career has grown in parallel with the Southeast Asian organisation. As a voice of the Romanian civil society, the Founding President of IRSEA, I continue to seek new means and platforms of engagement between my country and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Indeed, ASEAN’s 55 Anniversary is a great occasion for me personally to celebrate growth and development.

What more auspicious wishes could one choose for ASEAN’s 55th Anniversary than its partnerships – both bilateral and region-to-region – to continue to grow and intensify in the years and decades to come?

* As a career diplomat with over four decades of diplomatic service, a specialist on Southeast Asia and ASEAN, speaker of Bahasa Indonesia, Russian and English, His Excellency represented Romania as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Indonesia and Pakistan and Chief of Mission to Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cyprus, Finland and Estonia.

Ambassador (p) Savuica is a former Director of the Asia Pacific Division and former Director General of the Asia Pacific, Near and Middle East, Africa and Latin America Department of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He published multiple articles, thought-pieces and commentaries reflecting his views on current evolutions in International Affairs and the ongoing developments related to the greater scope of EuropeAsia relations. He authored several major chapters in edited volumes on Romania’s Foreign Policy, published by the Romanian Academy.

In 2011, Ambassador (p) Savuica has received the "Grigore Gafencu" Award on behalf of the Academy of Romanian Scholars (Academia Oamenilor de Ştiinţă din România). His Excellency is also a lifetime member of the Society of Asian Civilisations, Islamabad, and Institute for Maritime and Strategic Studies, Jakarta. He is the receiver of the prestigious Excellence Award on behalf of the Faculty of International Business and Economics, Bucharest University of Economic Studies.

Ambassador Savuica has established the Romania - Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2008. He is also the President and Founder of the Romanian Institute for Europe-Asia Studies (IRSEA).

Ambassador (p) Savuica is a graduate of Moscow State Institute of International Relations. A former athlete, he received numerous national and regional accolades as handball player, skier and self-defence fighter. Ambassador Savuica is married and has two daughters, one granddaughter and one grandson.