Asean ponders a new regional architecture

AFTER NEARLY TWO YEARS of soul-searching and sometimes emotional outbursts among concerned countries, Asean members have begun serious discussions on the shape of the regional architecture in East Asia that they would like to see evolving.

Thanks to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's bold idea in June 2008 of building an Asia-Pacific community, Asean and its dialogue partners have held extensive consultations over the proposal's relevance and feasibility. In addition, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's East Asia community concept, albeit vague, has helped to stimulate the debate further.

The consultative process has placed Asean in an awkward position - a kind of wake-up call - as the grouping continues to stress its centrality in the overall scheme of things without providing its own initiative other than entrenched positions. Changes came last week at the just-concluded Asean Summit in Hanoi. Singapore proposed three variables of the new regional architecture that would maintain the centrality of Asean. But myriad questions remain unanswered.

The first one is the so-called Asean+8. If approved, this framework would be a new one as the US and Russia would join Asean, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India - known as Asean+6 (2005). It has both pros and cons. Like other Asean-plus formulas, the grouping is the driving force similar to Asean+3 (1997). However, several Asean members are not comfortable due to an intrinsic fear that Asean's combined strength would be further eroded by several major powers taking part in the process.

As an entity, Asean is still weak in terms of economic and political clout, unlike the eight major economies. In contrast, the European Union is a lot stronger at its core, both economically and politically. For instance, Asean helped found the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in 1979 and it currently is playing an insignificant role in shaping its future.

The other plan is the expansion of the five-year-old East Asian Summit (EAS) launched in Kuala Lumpur in 2005. Again, the US and Russia would be invited as dialogue partners with the EAS founding members. Their meeting could be more flexible. The so-called EAS+2 could be held every two or three years. Obviously, such an arrangement would not be welcomed in Washington and Moscow as it would downgrade their status in meeting the bloc's leaders, even though such a two- or three-year interval makes possible their leaders' participation.

The final variable is to keep the EAS-plus formula with an open end. This would enable Asean to form a new regional architecture using its own existing institution. In all the frameworks, the US and Russia would feature in them. Russia has already made it clear that it wants to join the EAS as soon as possible. Moscow almost did in 2005. That would leave out the US, which has not officially displayed interest in joining this framework. In private, senior officials have reiterated their interest. Foreign Kasit Piromya, who sat in for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva at the Hanoi summit, said that Asean should invite the US to join the EAS without any hesitation because of its overarching role and influence in the Asia-Pacific.

At this juncture, Asean is facing a dilemma. The grouping would like to engage the US and Russia simultaneously, without leaving either of them in the cold. However, quite a few members would like to admit Russia into the EAS without waiting for the US while the rest would like to have the two join the EAS at the same. Washington has not yet made its official position known if it wants to be part of the leader's strategic forum.

Fortunately, Asean's overall economic performance has been quite impressive, according to the latest Word Bank report. Its robust growth has also contributed to the recovery from the global financial crisis, which has improved the grouping's international standing. Despite the Burmese quagmire, Asean's overall image is still not that bad overall. Given the trajectory of major powers, Asean should strike the iron while it is still hot by having both superpowers in the EAS now than later. New Asean members, however, want their organisation further consolidated and closely integrated before expanding its external relations.

At the Hanoi summit, the leaders made another important decision that can have a far-reaching impact on Asean's future. They instructed the Asean Coordinating Council to prepare a list of global issues on which Asean members have similar views and positions for their consideration at the 17th summit in October.

Throughout its 43-year history, Asean members have rarely shared common views on political and security issues, mainly due to different security perceptions and concerns over national sovereignty and integrity. During the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, Asean did hold a common position. So does it on the current struggle of the Palestinians for self-determination. On non-security issues, for instance, Asean is more inclined to stand together.

As Asean takes on a larger role and engages in transnational challenges such as climate change, non-proliferation, disaster management, oil and food security, international peacekeeping and terrorism, common Asean positions are necessary. Otherwise, Asean's future cohesiveness would be further eroded and its credibility threatened.

It remains to be seen how each member will define or in many cases readjust their positions on key issues to be identified as common Asean positions. For instance, both Singapore and Indonesia are more active in the field of climate change and wish to have their Asean colleagues on board. But there was no consensus. In peacekeeping, Indonesia and Thailand are pushing for a common Asean platform and policies as almost all members have already contributed to the UN operation. But they have never discussed or acted jointly. The two countries are also strong advocates of the principle of responsibility to protect.

Internationally, all Asean members are linked to the UN Human Rights Council and subjected to the universal peer reviews on human rights in their countries. Sad but true, the Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights has not adopted this practice. Furthermore, the ongoing turf war between AICHR and the newly establish Asean Commission to Protect the Rights of Women and Children over which body can best protect human rights in Asean is another case in point. This kind of double standard is a mockery of the high-standard rule-based principles set forth by Asean.

Among the old Asean members, this realisation is getting stronger and more visible. They know full well that Asean centrality depends on actions, not verbal repetitions - something the other half of Asean is capable of doing. Asean has come a long way and has to deliver before it can proudly remain central in the larger scheme of things to come - such as the building of a new regional architecture.


Email from: Ms. Wahyuningrum (Yuyun)

By: Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nations
When: 7/2/2014

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