ASEAN – Looking Back, Looking Forward

Updated On: Jan 02, 2008

2007 was a “strange” year for ASEAN with two summits – the 12th ASEAN summit originally scheduled for December 2006 in Philippines was postponed and held in January 2007 due to threats from typhoon and terrorists.

And then the 13th ASEAN Summit held in Singapore in November 2007 was dramatic in the way Myanmar dominated the proceedings, and overshadowed the concrete results arising from the meetings.

The Singapore summit was notable for the signing of the ASEAN Charter, the adoption of the ASEAN Economic Blueprint and the strengthening of the ASEAN institutions. Institutionally and procedurally the key changes include the posting of permanent representatives to the ASEAN Secretariat, the convening of the ASEAN summits twice a year, the strengthening of the ASEAN Secretariat and strengthening of the Dispute Settlement Mechanism in dealing with compliance on economic matters.

Despite these achievements, many media reports on the summit focused on the poor human rights record in Myanmar and the seemingly little done by ASEAN to punish or sanction Myanmar.  Even the news of the signing of the ASEAN Charter was overshadowed by Myanmar’s objection to the UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s briefing to the ASEAN leaders at the summit. The military junta’s brutal crackdown of protesting monks in September 2007 has already caused significant embarrassment for the other ASEAN members and derailed plans for a summit between ASEAN and US President Bush. Myanmar is also likely to be the bane of the proposed ASEAN-EU FTA.

2008 will see a new ASEAN secretary-general, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, a former Thai Foreign Minister. Expectations on him are high, perhaps too unrealistic given the still limited powers and resources of the Secretariat. Dr Surin will also have to find ways to deal with governments weak on their domestic fronts such as the new Thai government with the uncertain domestic political conditions, an Indonesian polity that is gearing up for the 2009 elections and an increasingly “besieged” Malaysian administration that might call for an elections in 2008. These governments will be sensitive to any potential costs of further economic integration as they focus their attention on domestic issues ranging from rising fuel costs, increasing income disparities, racial and religious tensions.

The ratification for the ASEAN Charter may also face some hurdles.  There is likely to be some public posturing by Indonesian and Filipino lawmakers criticising the human rights record of Myanmar, and trying to score “brownie” by calling for the ASEAN Charter to be rejected. However, hopes are still high that the ASEAN Charter will be ratified by end of the year and ready for adoption at the 14thASEAN Summit to be hosted by Thailand.

ASEAN’s external relations will be another area to watch. The ASEAN-China relations have been the closest since both sides established formal dialogue relations in 1996. Both sides are likely to complete the last major component of the ASEAN-China FTA with the completion of the trade in services in 2008. ASEAN will continue to delight from the continual Chinese economic development in the areas of increased Chinese investments, trade and tourists. However, at the same time, worries over cheap Chinese imports and competition for resources and market are likely to continue.

On the security front, the Chinese-ASEAN relations look less bright. The South China Sea issue remains unresolved. Would the regional code of conduct in the South China Sea bring some sort of amenable concrete outcome for all claimants in 2008? The recent small-scale demonstrations in Vietnam over Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea suggest that there is still some (small) degree of anxieties over Chinese strategic intentions.

Japan has the unenviable position of being the largest economic power in the region, perhaps the largest aid provider as well as one of the largest sources of foreign direct investment to the ASEAN members but yet being seen as an outsider to the region. Nonetheless, ASEAN’s relations with Japan have improved somewhat since the departure of Koizumi in 2006. However, Koizumi’s successor Shinzo Abe did not last long enough for any notable achievements. He did propose the establishment of the ASEAN-Japan Eminent Persons Group to come up with recommendations and suggestions of concrete projects for strengthening the relationship. The report will be made available in 2008. The new premier Yasuo Fukuda had an easy first summit with the ASEAN leaders who recalled the popular Fukuda doctrine named after his father. The status of the ASEAN-Japan FTA will be one of the main items to watch in 2008.

With the exception of President Kim Dae Jung, South Korea has not been perceived to be active in regional diplomacy (outside of the Six Party Talks). There has not been any significant leap in ASEAN-Korea ties in 2007 though the successful negotiation of the trade in services chapter of the ASEAN-South Korea FTA in 2007 counts as a politically significant development.  However, at the business level, there were reports of a surge of Korean investments in ASEAN, particularly in the newer CLMV countries. The outgoing President, Mr Roh Moon-hyun, has suggested at the ASEAN-Korea summit inSingapore the establishment of an ASEAN-South Korea centre to help strengthen ties. What the newly elected president, Mr Lee Myung-bak will bring on the table for ASEAN-Korea relations remains to be seen.   

There were no significant developments in ASEAN’s relations with other dialogue partners in 2007. There was no breakthrough in the ASEAN-India FTA (AIFTA) negotiations on the trade in goods chapter. Unless there is significant change in the Indian government’s defensive stance in liberalising its trade regime, there is unlikely to be much progress in the AIFTA in 2008 despite the Indian government’s optimism that a deal might be possible in early 2008.

ASEAN’s relations with Australia were also unexceptional.  The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd ran a campaign promising stronger relations with ‘Asia’, which in Australian politics, tends to refer toAustralia’s relations with China.

The ASEAN plus three (APT) process also seems to be running out of steam in 2007. One of the most significant achievements of the APT, the Chiang Mai Initiative seems to have stalled. Discussions to multi-lateralise the Chiang Mai Initiative were inconclusive. Studies on the proposed East Asian FTA (comprising of the APT members) continue. There were also no significant initiatives in the East Asia Summit in 2007. Both APT and EAS are unlikely to have much impact in 2008.  (1 January 2008)


ASEAN Faces Stock-Taking On Rights: New Chief (Agence France Presse, 22 November 2007)

Haunted By The Brutality Myanmar's Crackdown Overshadowed Any Progress Elsewhere In The Region, Writes Greg Torode (South China Morning Post, 28 December 2007)

The Year 2007 (Bangkok Post, 27 December 2007)

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