Sunday, April 18, 2010
Despite Often Being Messy, Asean Family is Important
Asean is like a big family and, like all families, it has issues. When you set a table for 11, in this case, the 10 leaders of the member countries — Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — plus the Asean secretary general, you are bound to have some drama. That was certainly the case in the most recent Asean summit in Hanoi.
The key message from the summit in Hanoi is that no one can forget that Asean is made up of 10 countries and each has its own problems. But the group is vitally important to its members and to international partners.
Although Vietnam, one of the most forthright advocates for a strong Asean, did a remarkable job in organizing the summit in terms of logistics, the gathering was characteristically messy. Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, didn’t show up — he has thousands of protesters in the streets of Bangkok urging him to dissolve his government and seek a new electoral mandate; the Philippines’ lame-duck president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, almost went home early but then changed her mind and decided to stay; Burma’s Gen. Thein Sein was the primary object of the “family’s” attention, receiving very strong encouragement to create real political space in upcoming elections. These examples are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Cambodia’s leader, Hun Sen, has publicly criticized the Thai secretary general for not being able to represent the collective membership — no surprise given Thai-Cambodian tensions. The dynamic is, well, dynamic.
So the question is whether this family delivers any real value to its collective members and to the global community. The answer is overwhelmingly yes. Many analysts criticize Asean on its effectiveness. Indeed, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, pilloried the organization for not acting decisively enough, but the truth is, Asean is a family that means something to its members and to the world’s major powers.
While Burma and Thai protests predictably stole headlines in Hanoi, Asean quietly is making real progress on integrating its 10 countries, 620 million denizens and $1.3 trillion economy. The blueprint for integration is the Asean Charter, which lays out goals for economic, sociocultural and security/political integration by 2015.
On the economic and financial front, Asean has effectively established its Asean Free Trade Area. Over 95 percent of goods move between Asean countries without tariffs. Intra-Asean trade has moved from secondary to become the largest market for the region’s members in the last decade. Finance ministers of Asean and the +3 nations — China, Japan and South Korea — have initiated the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilaterialization, which creates a useful $120 billion currency swap and crisis management facility for regional economies. Customs harmonization and financial services liberalization are also making serious gains.
The Asean Defense Ministers Meeting will take place in May in Vietnam. What had once been a quiet meeting of military chiefs of staff has now been elevated to the ministerial level and is considering whether to invite regional players, including big East Asian nations, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
An Asean dispute resolution mechanism and human rights body have also been established and while these are nascent institutions, they are significant early steps in the right direction.
The United States would be unwise to join cynical voices criticizing their effectiveness. The harder but effective policy course is to get engaged and invest in strengthening these institutions, participate at senior levels in Asean integration efforts and follow through on significant US interests in Southeast Asia. The US stake in the region is notoriously underreported. This includes investment three times as large as in China, to a pair of treaty allies (the Philippines and Thailand), to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, to key partners in counterterrorism efforts, to vital links to humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and climate change mitigation.
Asean is a family — and a messy one at that — but it is vitally important to its members and neighbors. It is likely to play a central role in any Asian regional architecture from trade and economics to security and defense. Having a strong foundation in Asean is also key to the long-term management of relations with major global partners China and India. Asean’s path won’t be linear. It will be colored by drama that will test even the most well-grounded strategy, but the United States has keen interests in close relations with Asean. America is a friend of this family and helping Asean be strong is an investment in its national interests. By Ernest Z Bower senior adviser and director of the South e a st Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington . This article was first published by CSIS.