ASEAN dilemmas - too many bilaterals, too little unity?

Updated On: Jun 26, 2007

According to Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo, ASEAN is currently playing a `shrewd game' as it works on economic integration on three fronts.

It is pushing for economic liberalisation on three levels- ASEAN Plus Three, East Asia Summit and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). He said, “Let's push for free trade areas in all of them. If we play this in a cunning way, all the powers will be nice towards us.”

However, he warned that ASEAN members would have to be united. “If we play our role right in Asean, engage China and India, moderate their differences, bring them to the regional architecture, which gives everyone a fair deal, we will achieve that', he added. Interestingly, he did not mention Japan's role.

Despite constant reminders of the need to be more united and coherent, ASEAN might not be doing enough. An article in Bernama asked if there have been too many on the brake and too few on the gas pedal in ASEAN. The ASEAN members themselves have been busy with their bilateral external relations with the major powers.

On 18 June, Indonesia and India agreed to expand bilateral cooperation to cover new areas such as exclusive economic zones, alternative energy development and mutual legal assistance during a visit by the Indian Minister for External Affairs . The Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is visiting India this week to sign two Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs); one on non-conventional energy and the other on cultural exchanges to strengthen cooperation with India.

Surayud is also pushing to revive talks on the stalled India-Thailand free trade agreement (FTA). Both this move to revive the India-Thailand FTA and the recent signing of the Thailand-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) suggest that the Thai military government is reversing its original objections to the FTA policy of Thaksin, possibly to jumpstart the Thai economy especially given the political instability.

Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet made the first state visit to the United Statessince the Indo-China conflict last week. Both Vietnamand United States also signed a trade and investment framework agreement (TIFA). This TIFA will pave the way for a FTA between the two. A MOU was also signed between New Yorkand Ho Chi Minh stock exchanges.

The disagreement over human rights issue is not likely to dampen the economic ties between both countries. Despite President Bush's comment- “I also made it very clear that, in order for relations to grow deeper, that it's important for our friends to have a strong commitment to human rights and freedom and democracy” and President Triet's disagreement, the latter added that “we are also determined not to let those differences afflict our overall, larger interest.”

On another note, a recent comment by the European Union (EU) envoy to Kuala Lumpur (KL) on Malaysia's New Economic Policy (NEP) has raised a ruckus. The envoy, Thierry Rommel was chided for “interfering in the internal affairs and policies” of Malaysiawhen be commented in his speech to local and foreign businessmen that KL was using its affirmative action policy to practise “significant protectionism of its own market”.

In the case of Myanmar, it has already been accepted by many within and without ASEAN that Chinaplays a much more significant role than ASEAN or even India. In an opinion piece in the Bangkok Post (21 June), Larry Jagan noted that China's influence in Myanmaris increasingly become too visible. More than a million Chinese farmers, workers and businessmen have moved to Myanmarin the past decade.China is also proposing to finance a new road connecting southern Chinato northeast India through north Myanmar. 40,000 Chinese workers will build the road, with 20,000 remaining to maintain the road. In some towns along the border, local Myanmar government officials acknowledged that their clocks were set to Chinese time (rather than Myanmartime) to facilitate cross-border trade.

Nonetheless, India has been trying to keep pace with ChinaIndiahas been keen to cooperate with Myanmar to deal with some Indian insurgency groups which operate out of Myanmar. The Indian Minister of External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee commented during his two-day official visit to Indonesia, saying, “We have strong economic relations with Myanmar and we should consider all aspects of the relationship. However, we hope that Myanmarkeeps its own promise of moving toward a democratic path.” He also called for closer “institutional linkages between SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).”

The United Nations has been anxious not to be left out of the Myanmar issue. The United Nations Special advisor to the Secretary-General, Ibrahim Gambari, recently met with independentMyanmarspecialists, UN senior officials and UN resident coordinator in Yangonto map out a UN strategy for Myanmar. Gambari will have two challenges- the first to help Myanmar return to democracy and to coordinate areas such as human rights, humanitarian aid, economic reforms and the establishment of the rule of law in Myanmar.

The United Nations is likely to benefit from the Myanmar military leadership fears that China might dominate Myanmareconomically and politically. However, Gambari will still have to work hard to persuade both the Myanmar leadership as well as some of Myanmar's neighbours, particularly China that Aung San Suu Kyi has a key role to play in Myanmar's reconstruction.

ASEAN members also have many challenges which would require greater regional dialogue and cooperation. This is particularly in the area of energy alternatives and environmental security. With several ASEAN members, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, all expressing their interest in developing nuclear energy to alleviate energy shortage, it is perhaps timely to take this up at a regional level instead of having each ASEAN country going its own way

Of all the talk about nuclear power, news of Myanmar's interest in nuclear has roused the greatest concerns. Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo, is sceptical of news of Myanmar's turn towards nuclear energy, saying, “I can't believe that a nuclear programme is high up on their list of priorities... They have enough problems of their own.”

The issue of the ASEAN Charter is still unsettled. The aim is to have the Charter ready for signing at the ASEAN Summit in Singaporethis year. However, there are still some differences that need to be bridged. ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong alluded to the difficulties in forging a consensus saying, “The fact is, the new members - MyanmarVietnamCambodia and Laos- see things in the long term because they are in ASEAN for perpetuity. They want to develop a Charter which serves their national interest, without neglecting the ASEAN perspective.” With the geopolitical conditions unfolding rapidly around them, ASEAN members urgently need to come to an agreement of how their future cooperation should be framed.

The lack of buzz and enthusiasm for the Southeast Asian region at the most recent World Economic Forum (WEF) despite its attempts to draft a Charter and build an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 was noted by a editor in her commentary in the Straits Times. The two-day discussion at the WEF held in Singaporeon 24-25 June focused on the problems that ASEAN faced and questioned if ASEAN had the leadership to enable its economies to shine in the increasingly competitive global marketplace. These are real issues that ASEAN need to resolve if it does not want to be left behind in the global race for investment dollars and development. (26 June 2007)


Moving Asean ahead: A question of pedal and brakes (Straits Times, 26 June 2007)

KL summons EU envoy over criticism of pro-bumi policy (Straits Times, 26 June 2007)

International Role In Rangoon; UN aims to restart Burmadialogue (Bangkok Post, 25 June 2007)

Asean must unite to drive E Asiagrowth (Business Times Singapore, 25 June 2007)

Asian powers to the fore; Arroyo urges JapanChinaand Indiato lead Asia, and ensure integration and security (Today, 25 June 2007)

Free trade: Asean 'playing shrewd game' (Straits Times, 25 June 2007)

Vietnam-US ties take root (Nation, 24 June 2007)

ASEAN - Too Many On the Brake, Too Few on the Gas Pedal (Bernama, 24 June 2007)

Singapore FM sees Myanmarnuclear programme as unlikely (Agence France Presse, 24 June 2007)

New members want views heard in drafting of ASEAN Charter (ChannelNewsAsia, 24 June 2007)

Thailandlooks to Indiato balance China's economic weight (Agence France Presse, 24 June 2007)

Bush Prods Vietnamese President On Human Rights and Openness (WashingtonPost, 23 June 2007)

Indiarenews its affair with South-east Asia(Straits Times, 23 June 2007)

Once bitter foes, US and Vietnamsign trade pact (Straits Times, 23 June 2007)

Nuclear plans in Asean (Straits Times, 23 June 2007)

Manilaconsiders going nuclear again (Straits Times, 23 June 2007)

IndiaThailand To Ink Pact on Non-Conventional Energy (Financial Express, 22 June 2007)

Surayud to pay visit to Indiaon Monday (Bangkok Post, 22 June 2007)

China's Thumb In Every Burmese Pie (BangkokPost, 21 June 2007)

Indiahopes military-ruled Myanmarwill keep its democracy promises (Jakarta Post, 19 June 2007)

RI, India Agree To Expand Economic, Energy Cooperation (Antara, 18 June 2007)