Wednesday, October 28, 2009

REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE The future path for an East Asian community

THE CLEAREST MESSAGE from the Cha-am Summit over the weekend was about the futre of regional architecture in East Asia. A consensus emerged from the three-day meeting that for East Asia to lead the world and maintain prosperity, the countries in the region have to work together and form a closer community that can link with the rest of the world.

In the long run, whatever shape this regional community building will eventually evolve is anybody's guess. The fact that Japan, which strongly backs such a community, has not yet come out with the blueprint is indicative of the challenges lying ahead.

What was pivotal at the summit was the determination and shared vision manifested by all concerned countries. Interestingly, this time, there was no discord among Asean members and their dialogue partners on the need for a more inclusive regional grouping.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama must be credited for rejuvenating the discussion of East Asian integration and cooperation after he took power recently. Before Cha-am, he had already held discussions with his counterparts from China, Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Muong-bak at various meetings. They all supported the idea.

Next month, the Japanese leader is scheduled to meet US President Barack Obama in Tokyo where the plan will be discussed. The absence of Washington's objection to a new regional bloc shows fresh pragmatism in US policy on Asia.

In months and years to come, Japan will certainly have to play the leading role in constructing this new regional architecture. Deep down, Hatoyama's plan can become a reality only if certain criteria are met. Like a juggler, Japan has to keep three pins staying afloat and engaged: Asean, its tripartite ties with China and Korea; and the US.

Over the weekend, Hatoyama stressed that both Asean, as a grouping, and the US, as an ally, are imperative in the perceived regional architecture. As far as Asean is concerned, its full integration in 2015 would be the key.

Even though Asean has become a rules-based organisation after the Asean Charter went into force last December, the grouping still lacks a clear common vision. The squabbling over the interface between the Asean leaders and representatives of civil society organisations on human rights treatment of its own citizens are just a few symptoms.

Furthermore, in the past several weeks Japan's idea on a new regional community in East Asia has been frequently reported as a model akin to the EU-style community - something that has troubled the Asean members and could complicate the future process of regional community-building.

At this juncture, it is clear that Asean has no intention to follow the European model even though the grouping has borrowed some of EU's best practices.
The Asean leaders have cited numerous obstacles to pursue that road to integration - political diversity, different stages of economic development, respect for national sovereignty, equal voting rights and lack of institutionalisation.

It is hard to foresee that these issues would be resolved before 2015 among the Asean members. For instance, the new members of Asean have insisted on an equal voting system, which has impeded numerous Asean decisions as well as mobilisation of financial assistance from the richer members.

The EU has a weighted voting system, depending on the size of population and economy. Beyond Asean, China, Japan and Korea continue to wrangle about their national sovereignty. They probably would not give away their equal sovereignty rights in the foreseeable future.

If closer economic integration and cooperation among the three Asian economic powers proceeds smoothly before 2015, it could propel Asean to accelerate the grouping's integration. Back in 2000, when faced with the prospect of a looming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation's announcement of tariff reduction schemes, Asean members moved to counter by |moving up the date of Asean's free trade area.

The centrality of Asean in this future scheme will depend on the grouping's integration and performance. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva articulated well in his opening speech on Friday that Asean no longer has the luxury of time, it needs faster action and better execution of policies as well as greater connectivity within Asean and wider East Asia.

Equally important are the healthy ties between the three Asian giants.
In the past two years, they have improved their friendship greatly, which have remained steady and on an upward trend. They have in their own ways treated Asean as strategic partners. Japan and Korea have both submitted reports of their wise-man groups to bring their relations with Asean to the next level.

At Cha-am, China has said very little on new regional architecture. Instead, during the Asean-China summit, Wen chose to focus on the six-point plan to beef up ties and cooperation with Asean in all areas including infrastructure construction, human resource development, agricultural and rural development, environment, disease control and intellectual property rights protection.

Beijing plans to set up a permanent representative office in Asean later this year.
Beijing has been supporting the Asean+3 process as the model of regional community building. China and Japan used to clash over this issue as the latter wanted to be more open to include the US.

Beijing would like to see a more Asian-oriented framework. For the time being, both have kept their differences under the carpet.

In a similar vein, since its inauguration in 2005, members of the East Asia Summit (EAS) or Asean+6, such as Australia, India and New Zealand, have been promoting this forum as a more fitting regional framework.

But Asean prefers the plus-three for fear of losing control and its leading edge. The bloc has treated the EAS as a discussion forum for global issues.
However, given the new regional dynamics including the proactive US policy on Asia and dialogue partners, there could be new thinking emerging in various capitals about the future framework of an East Asian community. By Kavi Chongkittavorn The Nation

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