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High Noon at Hua Hin

Updated On: Mar 02, 2009

Much is at stake when Asean leaders meet at Hua Hin in Thailand this weekend.

The Association of South-east Asian Nations Summit will be the first after the group's Charter was ratified by all 10 member countries. This potentially sets out a stronger foundation for future cooperation even as a global crisis is unfolding.

The summit also comes shortly after United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it a point to visit not just the North-east Asian giants but also Indonesia and the Asean Secretariat this month. This shows that the new Obama administration is looking to South-east Asia afresh.

But looking at Asean more closely begs the question whether there is anything to really see and take seriously. Some question if Asean members can focus on regional cooperation as they struggle with domestic politics and controversies.

The summit, postponed after political protests in the streets of Bangkok, is symbolic of this challenge.

From an American perspective, Asean has dimmed in the eyes of policy-makers in the past eight to 10 years, just as China and India have risen. The US media initially expressed surprise at Mrs Clinton’s choice to visit Indonesia and South-east Asia.

Does anyone take Asean seriously anymore?

The governments of member countries should. But when I asked a bright young diplomat from one of the member countries whether she believed in Asean, she summarily shook her head. This is not an isolated opinion.

Many officials in Asean countries adopt a realpolitik approach and still look first and foremost to countries like the US or China, rather than their own neighbours.

Officials in domestic ministries also wonder why their existing rules and policies might be asked to shift for the sake of regional cooperation and integration.

Experts who have been lifelong Asean supporters, like my good friend Jusuf Wanandi from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia, wanted a stronger, bolder Charter and warned that unless the grouping moves ahead, it risks irrelevance.

And if ordinary citizens are polled whether in Singapore, Laos or any province in Indonesia's chances are many do not know much about what Asean is or stands for.

This does not mean that Asean has failed. But the regional group may have come to something of a juncture. At this point, Asean should either gear up or give up.

We can see this stark choice when we look at the Charter. All agree that this document is needed. But Charter critics wish more could have been done to instil a rulebased institution that is more effective, as well as to allow more participation by the citizens of the region.

Similar views are held about Asean's ambitions to create a community with pillars for economics, politics and security, and socio-cultural affairs.

Criticism is not so much about the goals that Asean has articulated but the progress or rather, lack of progress made to date. In this context, the summit should not issue many more new plans of action. Rather, those who still hold out hope for Asean must look to the leaders to act on the plans already laid out.

Those who wish Asean to succeed, as I do, must hope that, despite its limitations, the Charter can be made to work effectively and move the group to a new level.

We can also hope that Asean will gear up to be relevant to the global agenda. The most important of these is the financial and economic crisis. Asean economies are not large and their voice has largely been absent from the global debates thus far.

The news, however, is that Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva will be invited to the G-20 meeting of finance chiefs from 20 developing nations to be hosted by the United Kingdom to review the global crisis.

This is an opportunity that is not to be missed. Thailand, as chair of Asean, can voice concerns and share perspectives on what needs to be and can be done.

To buttress this, Asean can set the right example by its own actions. In addition to speaking out against protectionism, what better than for Asean to speed up its own economic integration?

While giving ideas on the reform of global financial and currency systems, why not flesh out the recent pledge to bolster the Asean and North-east Asian currency cooperation fund?

If the leaders at the summit take action not only at the regional level but start to deal with the global agenda, Asean's critics will be confounded and its supporters and friends cheered to take Asean seriously.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in the US and concurrently chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

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