ASEAN’s FTA negotiation with India has hit a snag with the latter declining to make deeper cuts in tariffs on four highly ‘sensitive’ items- palm oil, black tea, pepper and coffee.
Thus far, both sides have failed to meet deadlines for the FTA to come into effect- the first in January 2006 and the other in January 2007. The joint secretary ofIndia’s Commerce Ministry P.K. Dash, warned that if ASEAN does not accept the latest Indian offer, there might be an indefinite delay.
ASEAN’s difficulty with India contrasts with the warming of bilateral ties between two other East Asian states. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent visit to Japanwas lauded by the Thai newspaper, The Nation. The Nation’s article argued better Sino-Japanese relations would be a positive impact on the region. However, it noted that, “…steadier China-Japan relations will make it harder for Asean to capitalise on their differences by playing one off against the other. Between 1995 and 2005, which coincided with the stalling of their relations, Asean effectively used the China card to extract concessions from Japan both in political and economic areas.”
More troubling for Japan was the fact that its ‘heart-to-heart’ diplomacy towards ASEAN for the past 3 decades amounted to little when it tried to seek ASEAN’s support for its bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations in 2005. Most ASEAN members only gave lukewarm support to Japan’s bid, fearing earning China’s ire.
The deputy executive director of the Centre of Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta, Rizal Sukma also welcomed the warming of ties between the two giants and their endorsement of ASEAN’s role in East Asia regional community-building. He also called for Japan and China to recognize the “continued primacy of theUnited States… the revitalization of Japan’s international role… but also the arrival of India as a new power.”
This theme of continued presence of the United States in Southeast Asia would also be stressed by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his upcoming talks with President Bush early next month. Lee cautioned, “The Chinese are very active, assiduously promoting their relationship with South-east Asia… They're very good at it.”
Rizal also urged ASEAN to “consolidate itself further so that.. [its driving force] can be more effective in the future.” This call was echoed by Indonesian Vice-President and also taken up by the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ABAC).
At the 4th ASEAN Leadership Forum in Jakarta on 18 April, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said, “We have a dream that ASEAN will be a better community and bring welfare to its people by embarking on more cooperation. However, we have different resources and capabilities.” It was then the job of the region’s leaders to ‘make plans and order their implement.’
Kalla might take comfort that ABAC is doing its part to promote greater economic integration within ASEAN. ABAC will be giving out four awards for ASEAN businesses for impressive growth, successful human talent development, innovative cultures or a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility. The Chairman of ABAC, Robert Yap explained the rationale for the awards, saying, “We recognise that intra-Asean cooperation is not growing as fast as inter-Asean trade. Why don't we do more business with each other? We are neighbours.” (19 April 2007)
ASEAN Countries Must Complement Each Other To Prosper: Kalla (Jakarta Post, 19 April 2007)
India Stands Firm on FTA List (Straits Times, 18 April 2007)
Keep Focus on ASEAN, US Urged (Today, 18 April 2007)
ASEAN Stands to Benefit From Better Japan-China Ties (The Nation, 17 April 2007)
Good Sino-Japanese Ties Imperatives For East Asia (Jakarta Post, 17 April 2007)
Business Awards Launched to Boost ASEAN Integration (Business Times Singapore, 17 April 2007)