efe-epaRicardo Perez-Solero Jakarta

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) turned 50 years old on Tuesday, helping transform the region into a more stable one which has been developing economically despite certain territorial disputes and human rights concerns.

Founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand with the objective of checking the influence of communism, the group was strengthened by the addition of Brunei (1987), Vietnam (1995), Laos (1997), Myanmar (1997) and Cambodia (1999), putting aside ideological differences.

In half a century ASEAN has established itself as an economic power with a combined GDP of $2.55 trillion in 2016.

Under the umbrella of the organization, the region has become a focal point of investment by foreign companies especially in automobile manufacturing, attracting 7% of global foreign investment in 2015, according to official data.

Headquartered in Jakarta and with a joint population of 628 million, ASEAN estimates that it will grow jointly at a rate of 5% this year and become the world's fifth largest economy in 2020, converting into the fourth largest by 2050.

In the economic arena, one of the challenges for the group is bridging the huge development gap between the more well-off members like Singapore or Malaysia and backward ones like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

In 2015, the association declared itself an integrated single market with free movement of goods, capital, services and skilled personnel, although many resolutions for economic integration remain pending.

Despite many military conflicts in the region during these 50 years, stability has prevailed as ASEAN incorporated new members.

The fight against terrorism, maritime piracy, drug and human trafficking are among the main objectives of the group.

Foreign policy differences have also played a prominent role in its annual summits; and territorial disputes in the South China Sea have increasingly taken center stage.

Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have sovereignty disputes over a group of islands and shoals that are also claimed in their entirety by China and Taiwan.

For years the alliance has been working together with Beijing and Taipei to draft a code of conduct to administer this maritime space, rich in natural resources and through which one third of global maritime trade passes.

Cambodia and Laos, countries close to the Chinese regime, have in the past blocked the group's attempts to issue a joint statement supporting the claims and interests of its members against China.

Indonesian political analyst Yohanes Sulaiman explained to EFE that countries use ASEAN to legitimize their position, rather than look for a unified voice.

Alleged human rights violations within the boundaries of member nations are also problematic and the association has often tried to avoid discussing them during summits.

Charles Santiago, chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, criticized Tuesday the principle of non-interference adopted by the group and called it an obstacle in ensuring human rights.