Perhaps as a sign that ASEAN is back on the radar screen of the international community after years of being “overshadowed” by China, this year’s Davos meeting featured two panels on ASEAN – one on “ASEAN’s 40 years – A New Future”, and an additional one looking at the challenge to moderate Islam in the region.
Present at the panel on ASEAN’s future were President Arroyo of Philippines, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of Malaysia and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam. Both Malaysia and the Philippines trumpeted the arrival of a more institutionalized form of ASEAN as it reaches 40 years, bringing it a baby step closer to EU-style integration. President Arroyo referred to the ASEAN Charter to be drafted as a “bold step forward” by the organization. It signaled ASEAN’s willingness to transform from a loose forum to a more formal organization with legally binding rules and regulations. She said that the aim of the Charter is to achieve "One Vision, One Identity, One Community: and hopefully, someday, "One Union" for Asean.
The hope of the Philippines is that the greater institutionalisation of ASEAN will bring it closer to the reality of becoming “one of the world’s great trading blocs”. She also took the opportunity to emphasize Philippines’ success in “decimating” the Abu Saayaf, a terrorist group said to have Al-Qaeda links. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi also emphasized the importance of regional cooperation in information-sharing and regular communication in tackling terrorism.
In addition, Malaysian Prime Minister spoke of the importance of closing the development gaps between the original member states of ASEAN and the new members as ASEAN integrates further. While one of the reasons ASEAN is seeking to integrate faster, particularly economically, is to remain competitive, Prime Minister Abdullah in response to questions, reiterated that ASEAN does not see China and India as competitors but as friends.
Vietnamese Prime Minister was also quick to acknowledge the benefits of ASEAN’s membership to Vietnam. But he seemed to have some reservations about the greater institutionalization of ASEAN. While the Philippines and Malaysia were trumpeting a greater ASEAN with more interventionist power and clearer institutional platform, Vietnam asserted its red-hot booming economy was a result of ASEAN non-interference and non-intervention approach which allowed it to set its own pace in transforming from a centrally planned economy to a market-based economy.
This could be a subtle reminder of a two-tier ASEAN, one with the older members seeking greater political teeth to the regional organization, and to strengthen the organization to meet new security challenges. The other tier, mostly former socialist bloc countries, seek a more economically-focused organization that is non-interventionist politically which allow socialist states to develop their economy along the lines of Chinese-style market reforms while politically consolidating power over their people.
Prime Minister Nyugen Tan Dung, said by joining ASEAN it had gained access to a market of more than 500 million through the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA). This is what it wants, an ASEAN market and not political interference from other ASEAN states.
Vietnam has indeed played catch up since it joined ASEAN and is now one of the most dynamic economies of ASEAN. The new leadership is eager to consolidate and even accelerate Vietnam’s booming economy, but on the political front, it still has its ups and downs. In a new policy that seemed to reflect the “restrictive attitude” towards the media prevalent before Doi Moi, Prime Minister Dung had called for a crackdown on the media on those “whose political and professional quality is found to be lacking”.
Mr Robert Dietz, Asia programme coordinator for the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists, criticized these decisions taken to penalize journalists and the new government’s attempt to reassert control. However, others see it only as a tactical move by the new Prime Minister, who must bide his time and move cautiously as he set to revamp this Cabinet and bureaucracy, and in time to come, “PM Dung will gradually permit greater media freedom in Vietnam”.
The Vietnamese media though operating under tough guidelines has become critical over the past decade, and has on several occasions went so far as to expose corruption within the bureaucracy and the communist party. PM Dung and the new Vietnamese leadership has promised to crack down hard on corruption and shake up the bureaucracy to “inject new blood into ministries and government departments that are not performing up to scratch”.
In a significant move towards more accountability and gathering feedback, party leaders, including Prime Minister Dung himself, will engage in online dialogue with its citizens.
GMA briefs Davos on Asean’s big gains (Manila Times, 28 Jan 2007)
Vietnam takes baby steps to accountability (Straits Times, 28 Jan 2007)
Vietnam Benefit From Asean's Non-interference Stance (Bernama 27 Jan 2007)
Viet Nam PM to hold first-ever online dialogue with citizens (ANTARA News, 25 Jan 2007)