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.
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.
In November 2007 Asean leaders signed a landmark charter aimed at speeding up and deepening economic integration. It turns Asean into a rules-based legal entity and also commits member states to promoting human rights and democratic ideals. It was ratified by all ten member-states in 2008, despite initial misgivings from the Philippines about Burma's detention of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Secretary-general: Surin Pitsuwan
Surin Pitsuwan, who served as foreign minister of Thailand from 1997-2001, assumed the post of Asean secretary-general in January 2008, succeeding Ong Keng Yong of Singapore.
The secretary-general is appointed for a five-year term and is responsible for coordinating and implementing 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.
Asean welcomed the 2010 Burmese elections as a step towards democracy, despite their clearly fraudulent nature, and cites the subsequent release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as proof of the worth of engagement with Burma.
International terrorism is high on the Asean agenda, especially since the Bali nightclub attacks in 2002. Asean countries have faced insurgencies in southern Thailand and on the Indonesian island of Aceh, but the organisation has played little role in their mediation or resolution.
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.