Regional organisations in Asia


Economic and political cooperation is not yet so well-established in the Asia-Pacific region as it is in Europe. Many states believe it is important to keep their own distinct economic and political profile. That said, diverse regional cooperation structures are emerging in this region too.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), founded in 1967, enjoys special status in the region while the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) has served as a trans-Asian platform for economic dialogue between the countries in the Pacific region since 1989. In 1994, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was established to provide a framework primarily for security policy dialogue at foreign minister level.

The three largest economies in the region – China, Japan and South Korea – have also been represented in multilateral regional structures through ASEAN Plus Three since 1997. With the first East Asia Summit (EAS), attended by the ASEAN Plus Three countries as well as Australia, New Zealand and India, another body was established in 2005; the United States and Russia joined in 2011. In addition, there are the regional organisations of South Asia (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC), the Pacific (Pacific Islands Forum, PIF), and Central Asia (Shanghai Cooperation Organization, SCO), as well as supraregional forums for dialogue such as the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and various subregional associations such as the Mekong River Commission (MRC), launched by the Mekong riparian states.

Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967 and now has ten member states (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam). Cooperation in ASEAN to date has focused on economic integration.

Its member states decided to establish the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in November 2015. Its foundation was considered to be a predominantly symbolic step on the path toward an internal market with free movement of goods and capital and freedom of movement for workers. The objective was to achieve this internal market by the end of 2015. The ASEAN Charter, which entered into force on 15 December 2008, injected impetus into the cooperation within ASEAN, particularly in the political and security spheres and in the cultural and social fields. The Charter provides a foundation for the further development of the ASEAN community and gives ASEAN a legal personality. It also records the ASEAN states’ commitment to the rule of law, democracy and good governance and envisages the formation of a human rights body.

The establishment of a group of permanent representatives of the ASEAN states in Jakarta is an important step towards more effectively institutionalised cooperation. It is now also possible for third states to accredit ambassadors to ASEAN. The German Ambassador to Indonesia fulfils this function for Germany.

Official website: www.asean.org


ASEAN Plus Three is the name given to the regional framework for dialogue between the ten ASEAN member states and the three East Asian powers China, Japan and South Korea. ASEAN Plus Three was formed in the late 1990s in response to the Asian financial crisis and works mainly on economic, trade and financial policy, but also on environmental and health issues. The multilateral cooperation of ASEAN Plus Three has also given rise to a number of agreements. For instance, ASEAN has free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea.

Overview on the ASEAN-website: ASEAN + 3

East Asia Summit (EAS)

Sixteen Heads of State and Government of the ten ASEAN states as well as of China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India have been meeting in the framework of the East Asia Summit since 2005. The United States and Russia have been full members of the EAS process since the EAS Summit in 2011. The EAS, a forum in which security policy issues and soft issues are discussed, is becoming increasingly important. The EAS complements the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, which primarily focuses on economic and financial policy issues.

Overview on the ASEAN website: East Asia Summit

Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)

Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)
Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) © ASEM

The Asia‑Europe Meeting (ASEM) is an interregional dialogue forum for multilateral exchange between Europe and Asia in the spheres of politics, business and culture. ASEM is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2016.

The grouping was founded in 1996 at the initiative of Singapore and France, and has expanded from its original membership of 26 to include 53 members today. On the European side, these are all 28 EU member states, the EU, Switzerland and Norway; on the Asian side they comprise China, Japan, India, South Korea, Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam, the ASEAN Secretariat, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Russia and Kazakhstan.

ASEM is a network with no secretariat. It is a standing conference in which all topics can be discussed, experience exchanged, confidence built and partnerships nurtured. Two coordinators from each side give ASEM its permanent structures. Europe’s coordinators are the European External Action Service and the country holding the EU Presidency-in-Office. The Asian coordinators are always one ASEAN state (currently Myanmar) and one non‑ASEAN state (New Zealand, representing the North East South Asia Group – NESA).

Biennial ASEM Summits and Foreign Ministers Meetings are held in alternate years. The latest ASEM Summit took place in Ulan Bataar in 2016, and the most recent Foreign Ministers Meeting was held in Luxembourg in 2015. All ASEM meetings are listed on the official ASEM website:

Official website: Asia-Europe Meeting

ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was founded in 1994 following a decision by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers. The ARF deals with security issues and is the only institutionalised security-policy discussion forum in the Asia-Pacific region. Along with the ten ASEAN member states, another 16 countries – Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, India, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Russian Federation, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and the United States – currently participate, as well as the EU. For the EU, the ARF is the important forum in the Asia-Pacific for advocating its security policy concepts and promoting confidence-building and preventive diplomacy.

Official website: ASEAN Regional Forum

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)

SAARC © saarc-sec.org

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded in 1985 by Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan has been the eighth member since 2007. Together with China, Japan, South Korea and the United States, the EU attended the SAARC Summit as an observer for the first time in New Delhi in 2007. SAARC itself has had observer status at the UN since December 2004.

SAARC concentrates on economic and trade issues. The agreement to create the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), which entered into force in 2006, marked a milestone in regional economic cooperation. SAFTA has been ratified by all member states. SAARC’s remit extends to cooperation in seven key areas, including agriculture and rural development, environment and forestry, human resources development and transport.

Official website: SAARC

Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF; until 2000 South Pacific Forum) was founded in Wellington in 1971. It provides a forum for dialogue and cooperation on politics, economics, environment, culture, education and social affairs. Moreover, it is the only multilateral forum in the Pacific region to also look at security-policy aspects. PIF’s 16 member states are: Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The EU is one of 14 dialogue partners for the PIF (others include China, France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States).

Official website: Pacific Islands Forum


Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) emerged in 2001 from the “Shanghai 5” set up in 1996. The original five members were China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation and Tajikistan; Uzbekistan joined in 2001. Mongolia, India, Iran and Pakistan became “observers” in 2004/05, Belarus and Sri Lanka “dialogue partners” in 2009. At the SCO Summit in Beijing in June 2012, Afghanistan, which had attended SCO Summits as a special guest for several years, was granted observer status, and Turkey obtained dialogue partner status. Turkmenistan is not a member of the SCO, on the grounds of its “permanent neutrality”, but attends Summits as a special guest of honour. The SCO has held observer status at the United Nations since December 2004. Furthermore, it maintains cooperation agreements with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The SCO’s original focus was security cooperation in the member states’ border regions. Now, however, other areas such as economic and trade issues also feature. The SCO’s focuses today are subjects such as stability in the region, the fight against terrorism, “separatism and extremism” and energy security issues. A decision to establish a Regional Anti‑Terrorism Structure was taken at the SCO Summit in Tashkent in 2004. Members of the SCO have conducted joint military manoeuvres on multiple occasions in recent years.

Official website: Shanghai Coopoeration Organisation


Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)

APEC was founded in 1989 on the initiative of Japan and Australia and aims to strengthen economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region, not least by dismantling tariffs and other barriers to trade. At their summit in Bogor (Indonesia) in 1994, the APEC countries agreed to set up a free trade area within the economic community (Bogor Goals). Summits at head of state and government level are held annually with the participation of business executives. Climate protection appeared on APEC’s agenda for the first time at the 15th Summit in Sydney in 2007. APEC currently has 21 “member economies”: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Viet Nam. Together these economies account for some 55% of global GDP and some 45% of global trade.

Official website: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation

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