ASEAN’s “One Identity and One Community”: A Slogan or a Reality?

  • Comment
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Email
  • Print

In the coming months, ASEAN watchers will witness whether the motto “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” will become a reality or remain a lofty aspiration. The motto was the theme of the eleventh ASEAN Summit held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in December 2005, when ASEAN leaders signed the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the Establishment of the ASEAN Charter. Along with the adoption of the ASEAN Charter, “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” has become the official motto for the organization, appearing in every official publication, banner, and event.

However, each word of the motto—“vision,” “identity,” and “community”—embodies a different weight and varying tasks and responsibilities. In this case, it is easier to agree upon a vision than to form a true collective identity and community. The vision is merely the result of elite-driven agreements. In contrast, constructing an identity and a community require greater public participation and buy-in.

This article examines the relationship between identity and community in the ASEAN milieu. It discusses whether the idea of common identity is merely stated in ASEAN’s official documents. As later indicated in this article, ASEAN’s common identity has gone far beyond the organization’s official documents but not far enough. It predominantly exists among ASEAN’s elites.

From Pragmatic Inception to Idealism

Established in 1967 as a loose intergovernmental organization, ASEAN is now subject to a charter that entered into force in 2008.[i] ASEAN was formed to pursue the aspirations of its founding members—to create a peaceful region that enabled member states to have economic development without having to preoccupy themselves with intra-mural conflicts and foreign intervention. According to Alex Bellamy, a Southeast Asia scholar, the initial purpose of creating ASEAN was to address internal issues, namely to create a conducive extra-regional environment to support member states’ existing regimes, economic development, and nation building.[ii] The Bangkok Declaration, which established ASEAN in 1967, outlined these objectives.[iii] In the Bangkok Declaration, ASEAN’s purpose is to promote regional peace and stability through respect for justice and the rule of law and an adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter.[iv] This purpose is a reflection of ASEAN leaders’ desire to create a friendly external environment. In 1976, ASEAN presented its first treaty, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), as a legally binding code of inter-state conduct among Southeast Asian countries.

Despite the idealistic commitment to regional integration in the Bangkok Declaration, one of the founders of ASEAN and former Foreign Minister of Singapore, S. Rajaratnam, attested in 1992 that ASEAN was established more “out of fear than idealistic conviction of regionalism.”[v] Rajaratnam’s statement was in line with twentieth-century political scientist Karl Deutsch’s thesis on state motives for regional integration. Deutsch argues that states integrate to avoid war and anarchy.[vi] Nevertheless, there was no specific mention of security cooperation during ASEAN’s establishment.

Security cooperation emerged in the official language during ASEAN’s thirtieth anniversary in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1997. In Kuala Lumpur, ASEAN leaders charted a vision of ASEAN dubbed “ASEAN Vision 2020.” That vision imagines ASEAN as a concert of Southeast Asian nations that are outward looking; living in peace, stability, and prosperity; bonded together in partnership and in dynamic development; and in a community of caring societies.[vii] This vision also marked the first inclusion of the word “community.” Years later, as the idea of the ASEAN Community materialized, ASEAN consciously moved toward deeper and wider integration. The shift toward the ASEAN Community was launched in Bali at the ninth ASEAN Summit in 2003, which introduced three pillars: (Political) Security Community, Economic Community, and the Socio-Cultural Community. The next significant step toward integration materialized in 2007 when ASEAN leaders signed the ASEAN Charter. The signing of the ASEAN Charter provided a new impetus for the organization to solidify its role in the region and on the world stage. The Charter codified regional norms and member states’ commitments. Additionally, it established the organization as a legal personality by outlining ASEAN as a rules-based organization that cemented a foundation to build a “community.”

In January 2007, during the twelfth ASEAN Summit in Cebu, the Philippines, ASEAN leaders decided to accelerate regional integration through 2015. The publicized rationale to move forward in the integration process was to reinforce ASEAN’s centrality and to ensure that ASEAN remained the driving force in the region’s continuously evolving governance architecture.

The Role of Identity in Community Formation

Collective identity is one of the ingredients for building a resilient community. The relationship between a collective identity and community formation was first linked by Deutsch et. al. in 1957.[viii] Deutsch’s study focused on the security community formation in the Cold War context, whereby he defined a security community as “a group of people who has become integrated.”[ix] However, before reaching the state of integration, these people must first attain a sense of community where they should agree on at least one thing—a peaceful resolution to every potential problem. Even today, this notion of identity is the basis of constructivist theory.

In his research on collective identity formation, constructivist scholar Alexander Wendt argued that identities define interests and actions.[x] Wendt argued that the formation of identity and interests was shaped by intensive interaction. Thus, in the end, this interaction evolved into cooperation, and cooperation evolved into a community.[xi] In other words, the formation of common identity was preceded by intensive interaction and cooperation among states. Then, the growing emergence of common identity helped transform the intensive cooperation among states into a community. In this regard, given the linear trajectory of identity and community formation, one might wonder whether ASEAN’s forty-eight years of intensive interaction and cooperation have cultivated a strong sense of common identity, which will eventually help to build a community.

There is another source of common identity formation besides the aforementioned intensive interaction and cooperation among states. Many constructivist scholars believe that norms are responsible for shaping identity that can produce the “we-feeling” among community members. Amitav Acharya, a well-known constructivist dedicated to Southeast Asian studies, argues that the shared norms that regulate ASEAN’s interstate relations constitute these countries’ common identity and help create a sense of community.[xii] In this context, it is important to identify the so-called ASEAN norms and how ASEAN member states internalize and adhere to these norms.

Before getting into a more specific analysis of ASEAN’s identity and community formation, it is important to address the “community” concept. Barry Buzan, inspired by the Weberian notion of Gesselschaft (society) and Gemeinschaft (community), differentiated society from community. Buzan pointed out that “society” is rooted in the calculation of self-interest while “community” stems from traditions and affection. Within this approach, society is about rational arrangements over reciprocal adaptations of interest. Also, it is “based on some sorts of shared values that allow actors to make contracts governing their behavior and interaction.” Buzan writes that a community is “about feeling belonging together, constituting a ‘we’ that differentiates itself from other(s).”[xiii] He also emphasizes that there is no community without a sense of community.

To what extent is identity supposed to be entrenched within a society to form a community? And how far can collective identity influence a community’s formation? In her study of European integration, Lauren McLaren emphasized the role of Europe’s people and public opinion for influencing the integration process. She observed how the publics within member countries influenced their countries’ integration into the European Community (EC).[xiv] In this context, she highlighted the identity issue among nationals of EC member states in the integration process in Europe. ASEAN member states’ governments must take public opinion into account if they do not want to endanger the integration process.

Measuring ASEAN’s Collective Identity

In light of the above, what sort of community building trajectory has ASEAN followed? In 1967, ASEAN’s founders had only a modest notion of their regional identity.[xv] Nevertheless, they expected to cultivate one through repeated regional cooperation. Therefore, at that time, ASEAN was considered as an avenue to create a regional identity.

Scholars have used various terms to depict ASEAN’s regionalism. Acharya borrowed Adler and Barnett’s characterizations of a security community—namely nascent, ascendant, and mature—and categorized ASEAN as a nascent security community because ASEAN enhanced its mutual security through regional collaboration, fostered regional identity without eroding member states’ national identities, and implemented soft regionalism without making ASEAN a supranational organization that reduced nationalities and sovereignty.[xvi] In contrast, Bellamy preferred to label ASEAN as a “loosely-coupled security community at best.”[xvii] Other scholars, including Tobias Nischalke, argue that ASEAN constitutes a rule-based community rather than a community based on the existence of a collective identity.[xviii] ASEAN’s creation was not influenced by a pre-existing idea such as “European” within the European Community but rather by norms that tried to govern relations among the region’s states.

Identity in Normative ASEAN Discourse

ASEAN’s official documents reveal that the initiative to promote a common identity came years after the organization’s creation. The Bangkok Declaration makes no mention of ASEAN identity. The words “promotion of ASEAN awareness” only appeared thirty years after the Bangkok Declaration’s adoption. It was stated in the 1997 Hanoi Plan of Action and then adopted in the second ASEAN informal summit in Kuala Lumpur on December 15, 1997. The term “identity” first came up in the Bali Concord II, thirty-six years after the establishment of the organization. It laid a foundation for the ASEAN Community’s formation by 2020 and the three pillars described earlier in this article. Paragraph 10 of the Bali Concord II stated that ASEAN shall continue to foster a community of caring societies and promote a common regional identity. This document was a historic step toward regional integration. Since then, ASEAN officials have realized that forming a community requires a sense of common identity and have consciously promoted a collective identity. The Vientiane Action Program, adopted in Laos in 2004, rejuvenated this conversation by outlining programs and measures for each ASEAN Community pillar. In 2007, ASEAN leaders agreed to accelerate the establishment of the ASEAN Community by 2015.

The Role of Non-state Actors in Fostering Common Identity

One should take note that before ASEAN leaders adopted the 1997 Hanoi Plan of Action, ASEAN Vision 2020, and 2003 Bali Concord II, non-state actors put forward the idea of forming an ASEAN Community and helped promote a sense of community among ASEAN decision-makers. In a 1999 study on the role of non-state actors in building an ASEAN Community, Noda Makito highlights the role of ASEAN’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS) and its related institutions in forging closer cooperation among ASEAN member countries.[xix] Founded in 1988, ASEAN-ISIS is a think-tank consisting of academics from member countries that organizes discussions and research projects to produce policy recommendations for the region. This fact underscores how non-state actors have contributed to ASEAN’s history and its ongoing common identity.

The Role of Norms in ASEAN’s Common Identity Formation

Norms are another source of identity. Since its inception, ASEAN has developed a set of norms for intra-regional relations: (1) non-use of force in dispute settlement; (2) regional autonomy and collective self-reliance; (3) non-interference in member countries’ internal affairs; and (4) the ASEAN Way as a process of regional interactions and cooperation based on informality, decision-making by consensus, and a non-confrontational bargaining system.

Various events over time challenged these norms. The non-use of force norm might have prevented ASEAN member countries from waging outright war against one another, but it has not been so successful in preventing them from using force should tensions escalate. This was exemplified by the Thailand-Cambodia border dispute over ownership of the Preah Vihear temple and surrounding areas.

As for the non-interference norm, the so-called constructive and flexible engagement toward Myanmar has put this norm into question. Myanmar’s 1997 ASEAN accession did not influence its human rights record. Consequently, Myanmar became a liability in ASEAN’s external relations, including with the EU. ASEAN tried to maintain its cohesiveness and solidarity while at the same time sustaining its image and credibility. As a result, some ASEAN leaders, whether discreetly or openly, urged and encouraged Myanmar’s government to accelerate the democratization process. This type of engagement permitted ASEAN leaders to openly criticize another member government’s domestic policy, which was previously considered taboo.

Another example of ASEAN’s difficulty in maintaining its non-interference principle is with the Rohingya refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya asylum seekers have fled Myanmar to escape persecution, flooding into neighboring countries. Even though ASEAN’s response has focused on cooperation between sending, transiting, and receiving states, it failed to pressure Myanmar to improve its treatment of the Rohingya people.

Measuring Collective Identity at the Grassroots Level

Identity at the grassroots level is difficult to measure. There have been many studies on ASEAN awareness and identity within member states, including a 2005 survey that found that 60 percent of interview participants in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam felt a common ASEAN identity.[xx]

A 2007 survey on behalf of the ASEAN Foundation also looked at the awareness of and attitudes toward ASEAN. The survey involved university students from ten ASEAN member countries. The findings concluded that university students in the region’s top ten universities had a high level of awareness and generally positive attitudes toward ASEAN. Some of them even identified as ASEAN citizens.[xxi] However, the survey’s sample of elite students may not be representative of the overall member states’ populations.

A 2009 survey focused on the obstacles in community building.[xxii] A high percentage of respondents mentioned differences in political and legal systems, economic development, information technology, educational backgrounds, poverty levels, internal conflicts, and ethnic and religious pluralism as differences that hamper the integration process.

Efforts to Promote ASEAN Collective Identity

Measuring the extent to which a common identity has been achieved remains a daunting task for governments and academics. There is no comprehensive survey or research that can truly measure how much ASEAN’s population feels part of the organization and region. Further, the current survey samples are mostly from urban middle-class elites with significant education levels and access to information that may not represent all citizens.

There have been attempts by member states’ governments to create a stronger ASEAN identity. Each states’ ministry of foreign affairs and, to some extent, the ministries of education, are charged with pushing these efforts forward. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia promotes ASEAN awareness through programs such as the young ambassadors of ASEAN, ASEAN Film Festivals, ASEAN Culinary Festivals, journalism trips, various contests, and ASEAN seminars, workshops, and discussions. The programs tend to focus on high school and university students since ASEAN’s population is mostly young.

At the regional level, the ASEAN Foundation promotes a collective identity. Its efforts include festivals, scholarships, promotional kits, research, seminars, discussions, and workshops. The ASEAN Foundation sought innovative modes of public information, including through a video game that provided information concerning ASEAN. Over 1,500 copies of the video game were produced and distributed, but since the game was in English it only reached the urban elite-middle class.

Identity in ASEAN Community Formation

The differences among ASEAN’s member states make it difficult to form a community. ASEAN’s members each have a distinct history, and the majority of member states’ populations have various ethnicities and languages. Religious diversity is also sensitive among member states. In Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar people embrace Buddhism. For Indonesians and the Malay populations in Malaysia and Brunei, Islam is the predominant religion. For Filipinos, Catholicism is the major religion. Finally, Singaporeans prefer Confucianism and Vietnamese are mostly agnostic.

In addition, there are differences in member states’ political, legal, economic, and administrative systems.[xxiii] While English is the official ASEAN language, it is actually many ASEAN members’ second, third, or even fourth language, with the exception of Singapore.

In light of the above, ASEAN does not exactly match the security community as conceptualized by Deutsch, who necessitated a “we-feeling” before the creation of a security community. In this case, perhaps Acharya’s thesis that ASEAN’s identity building is an on-going process is the better portrayal. If a “society” is based on shared values that govern members’ relations and interactions, and “community” is about the “we feeling,” then ASEAN has only been a society.[xxiv]

Stating that ASEAN is an elitist organization in terms of identity and awareness is not unreasonable given that the common identity is enforced through a top-down approach. Identity formation is a question of government policy and of conscious socialization. Even though non-state actors have played a role in promoting common identity, they are still part of ASEAN’s elite. To target every segment of society, governments need to mobilize more government institutions and the private sector.


This article examined the formation of ASEAN’s collective identity at the state and grassroots levels. At the state level, members generally rely on the norms of non-interference, non-use of force, consensus based on consultation, and informality to govern their interstate relations. However, there have been violations of these norms, and a common ASEAN identity is still being slowly developed.

In light of this analysis, “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” is neither a slogan nor a reality. Common identity might exist but only in certain segments of ASEAN’s population, namely among the elites and non-state actors. Optimism remains high that ASEAN collective identity will become entrenched across all parts of the populations. The goal is that “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” will not only represent ASEAN leaders’ idealism or ambition, but also represent the reality of the people-oriented ASEAN.

About the Author

Gita Loka Murti is an Indonesian Foreign Service Officer. She has worked in Indonesia on the Directorate for ASEAN Political Cooperation, and has also served in France and England. Gita received a BA from the University of Indonesia. She holds an MA in International Relations and a Masters of Diplomacy, both from the Australian National University.

[i] The ASEAN Charter provides a legally-binding institutional framework for ASEAN, which codifies ASEAN norms, values, and rules, and sets clear targets for the ASEAN Community building process. The ASEAN Charter is also listed in the Secretariat of the United Nations pursuant to the Article 102, paragraph 1 of the UN Charter.

[ii] Alex Bellamy, Security Communities and Their Neighbours: Regional Fortresses or Global Integrators (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 116.

[iii] See the Bangkok Declaration at

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Amitav Acharya and Allan Layug, “Collective Identity Formation in Asian Regionalism: ASEAN Identity and the Construction of the Asia Paciific Regional Order,”, accessed on February 12, 2015.

[vi] Karl W. Deutsch, Sydney A. Burrell, Robert A. Kann, Maurice Lee Jr, Martin Lichterman, Raymond E. Lindgren, Francis L. Loewenheim, and Richard W. Van Wagenen, Political Community and the North Atlantic Area (Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1957), 7.

[vii] See the ASEAN Vision 2020 at

[viii] Karl Deutsch et. al., Political Community and the North Atlantic Area.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Alexander Wendt, “Collective Identity Formation and the International State,” American Political Science Review 88, no. 2 (June 1994): 385.

[xi] Ibid., 390

[xii] Amitav Acharya, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order (London: Routledge, 2001).

[xiii] Barry Buzan, From International to World Society: English School Theory and the Social Structure of Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 74.

[xiv] Lauren McLaren, Identity, Interests and Attitude to European Integration (Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

[xv] Acharya, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia, 28.

[xvi]Acharya and Layug, 8. See as well Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett, Security Communities, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[xvii] Bellamy, Security Community and Their Neighbors (2004), 88.

[xviii] Tobias Nischalke, “Does ASEAN Measure Up? Post-Cold War Diplomacy and the Idea of Regional Community,” Pacific Review 15, no. 1 (2002): 89-117.

[xix] See Noda Makito, “The Role of Non State Actors in Building an ASEAN Security Community,” in Sekiguchi Sueo and Noda Makito (ed.), Road to ASEAN 10: Japanese Perspective on Economic Integration (Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange, 1999), 167-194.

[xx] The survey only interviewed urban elites. Acharya and Layug, 14.

[xxi] Eric C. Thompson and Chulanee Thiantai, Awareness of and Attitudes towards ASEAN, (Jakarta: The ASEAN Foundation, 2007).

[xxii] Ravichandran Moorthy and Guido Benny, “Is ASEAN Community Achievable?: A Public Perception Analysis in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore on the Perceived Obstacles to Regional Community,” Asian Survey 52, No. 6 (2012): 1043-1066.

[xxiii] For discussion on the differences among ASEAN populations from sociological and anthropological perspectives see R.P. Anand and Purificacion V. Quisumbings (ed.), ASEAN Identity, Development and Culture (The Philippines: Sison’s Printing Press: 1981).

[xxiv] See Barry Buzan for a discussion on the differences between a society and a community.


Edited by Sophia Berhie, Senior Editor for Articles, and Sithara Rasheed, Editor for Articles.


  • Comment
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Email
  • Print

5 thoughts on “ASEAN’s “One Identity and One Community”: A Slogan or a Reality?

  1. Willy says:

    It is indeed a well written article. It provides us an insightful perspective on how the notion of ASEAN Communty has been perceived in the real life. It sharp analysis critically reveals the mediocrity of ASEAN Community. There is no doubt that: “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” is indeed neither a slogan nor a reality…”

  2. Paul Smith says:

    Nice observation….

Tell us your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


In association with the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs