Monday, November 1, 2010

Vietnam's asean leadership has provided lessons for all

When Vietnam wraps up its year-long Asean chair, the country should be proud and look back with great satisfaction - if not astonishment - on all the hype and excitement it has been able to build up. Obviously, there were lots of symbolic achievements, achieved through highly choreographed diplomatic moves and speeches.

First of all, Vietnam was successful in elevating itself as the grouping's new economic powerhouse. The country's impressive near two-digit economic growth has bolstered the overall Asean economic performance in the era of East Asia-led global recovery. As a result, activities and programmes with dialogue partners have increased many-fold. The Asean chair also coincided with the millennium celebration in Hanoi early last month.

Secondly, kudos must go to the Vietnamese leaders for their diplomatic skills in challenging China's claims over the dispute in the South China Sea (SCS) after eight years of passivity since agreement over the Declaration of Conduct of Concerned Parties in the South China Sea. In high-end coffee shops along Ly Thong Kiet Street these days, the common folk find comfort in chit-chatting about playing with fire and getting away unscathed. The wide publicity over the SCS debacles in the past three months inevitably raised the international profile of Asean and SCS as well as created a new strategic landscape opening up for multinational players on issues related to freedom and safety of navigation.

Thirdly, Hanoi managed to pull off the first Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus without mishaps, right after the SCS's tense debates. The new security forum supplements the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asean Regional Forum (attended by foreign ministers) in tackling key security challenges impacting on the region.

Asean has now occupied a better place in the global community. Leaders from major powers are more willing to travel long hours and tolerate jetlag to engage with Asean. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya observed that at the Asia Europe Meeting in Brussels last month, the overall Asean presence and confidence was further bolstered as the EU expressed its intention to join the EAS. Major players, he pointed out, are more willing to accommodate Asean's views. Now, Indonesia wants to turn the Asean Community to Global Community.

Fourthly, Hanoi managed to host altogether 14 summits in less than 60 hours, a record-breaker in the Asean annals. It was an extraordinary year for Asean as so many special summits were held. Besides the annual summits with China, Japan and Korea, Asean held separate summits with Australia, New Zealand, Russia and India. Canada remains the only dialogue country that does not have any summit with Asean.

The second Asean-US leaders' meeting was held in New York in September. More and more countries now want so much a summit with the Asean leaders that Cambodian Foreign Minister Hoh Namhong had to urge Asean to prioritise its external relations.

For sub-regional economic cooperation, they also met in two separate summits to further strengthen cooperation in the mekong and the growth triangle known as IMT-GT (Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle). The third Asean-United Nations summit was also held to solidify ways to enhance Asean capacities in peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance as well as disaster management. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva managed to push Thailand's U-Tapao Airbase as the regional hub for such purposes, as well as serving as a food depot.

Fifthly, more than its members would like to admit, the chair has surreptitiously helped to downgrade the discussion on Burma's political crisis by heightening the concern over the SCS. Under the previous chair, there was extra peer pressure emanating from Bangkok for compliance with the Asean norms and standards. Indeed, the Asean leaders could have pressed harder to dispatch poll observers to Burma if the chair had taken a stronger lead. Finally, the adoption of an Asean Connectivity master plan marked a new milestone in the grouping's cooperation due to its gigantic scope and ambition, coupling with the huge funding needed. Asean has asked all dialogue partners to fully engage with the implementation. Initiated by Thailand last year, it aims to promote the integration of all ten-member countries through improving and constructing physical infrastructure, institutional linkages and augmenting people-to-people contacts.

However, two pivotal developments have been overlooked by the chair for fear they would cause serious division among member countries. First of all, the interface between the leaders and representatives of Asean-based civil society organisations was discontinued. The civil societies made several attempts to revive the liberal framework set forth by Thailand but without any progress. Prior to the summit, a low-profile meeting was held among the Vietnamese and Asean-based civil society organisations in Vietnam but with no connection to the Asean framework.

Now it is incumbent upon Indonesia, the next Asean chair, to work out a formula acceptable to all. The interface, which began in earnest at the Kuala Lumpur summit in 2005, aims to provide inputs directly from the grassroots to the leaders, promoting a bottom-up approach. Non-governmental representatives want more say in decision-making related to the three pillars of Asean community - covering security, economics, and social and culture. For instance, Asean human rights campaigners want direct access to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights to press their concerns and to monitor human rights conditions in Asean. They desire to play active roles in the drafting of the Declaration of Asean Human Rights and instruments to protect the rights of migrant workers.

Another setback was the inability of Asean to speak with one strong voice on global issues. In April, the Asean foreign ministers agreed enthusiastically to prepare a matrix of common views on transnational issues to be announced at the summit last week. At the time, the Philippines, which chaired an international summit on a non-proliferation treaty, urged Asean to formulate common positions on nuclear-related issues. Indonesia and Thailand also wanted to fly Asean flag on climate change, peacekeeping and other traditional and non-traditional agendas.

The Asean leaders decided to jump-start this process again. Both Thailand and Malaysia are now pressing the Asean colleagues to come up with common positions on the capital inflows and preventive measures to be presented to G-20 and APEC meetings in Seoul and Yokohama respectively.

Taken together under the host's noble theme of "Towards an Asean community: From Visions to Actions", the outcome was not at all what it seemed. While lots of publicity surrounding the SCS was generated, no "actions" overall have been made to promote the people-oriented community building within Asean - the grouping's most important component - as Asean is moving toward one community in 1,521 days. The Nation Bangkok

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