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Rules or Rue for ASEAN?

Updated On: Jan 05, 2007

After “threatening storms” or terrorist threats or Philippines domestic turmoil caused the unexpected postponement of the 12th ASEAN Summit which was to be held in December 06, the series of ASEAN meetings seems set to take place from 10-15 January.

The Philippines government has announced that “all preparations, all systems go.”

For the second time, the state of ASEAN’s integration will again be placed on the spotlight. While there will be the customary agreements signed and declarations made at the summit giving the impression that all are well with ASEAN’s integration, several regional newspaper articles have been critical of the progress made thus far.

One example of the agreement to be signed on the sidelines of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and Leaders’ Summit in Cebu is the framework agreement for cooperation on the Brunei- Indonesia- Malaysia- Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA). This is a sub-regional development that is loosely under the auspices of ASEAN. The agreement will provide for greater cooperation in several areas such as agriculture, agro-based industry, natural resources development, fisheries, transportation, infrastructure and information and communications technology. The key target for increased cooperation is for these states to better market their products to China.

However, whether it is regional or subregional cooperation, a commentary in The Manila Times went to the crux of the problem – without binding rules, how far can cooperation go?  The commentary “ASEAN Summit Challenges” by Alfredo Rosario examines the extent to which ASEAN has achieved what it set out to do 40 years ago. Rosariopointed out that the ASEAN achievements in the three spheres- economic, social and cultural, have been found lacking. In the economic arena for instance, ASEAN members continue to be concerned about competition among one another instead of cooperating for investments. Given that “a dominant percentage of the population still live in abject poverty”, Rosario concluded that the “creation of a vibrant regional market… has remained a pipe dream.” He placed the blame on the lack of rules in ASEAN to enforce the various declarations, agreements and conventions.

Another article in the Jakarta Post also shared some of the points raised by Rosario. The article questioned the ability of the ASEAN states to integrate faster than 2020. It argued that there was no shared norm within ASEAN except that of concern for their individual sovereignty. The upcoming ASEAN Charter was likely to reflect the current status quo rather than push the boundaries. There was also little awareness of what ASEAN is about at the grassroots level.  

ASEAN’s difficulty at integration is not unique. ASEAN’s problems are symptomatic of the lack of substantive progress of wider East Asian cooperation. Unfortunately, ten years after the Asian Financial Crisis, the East Asian states seem to have forgotten the lessons of the crisis when the contagion of the crisis affected several Asian economies. The Business Times Singapore has warned that “it [East Asia] is the danger of currency market turmoil that threatens Asia’s economic growth and trade in 2007.” This danger is largely due to the lack of cooperation among the East Asian states with regards to handling the depreciating dollar. For instance, Thailand recently tried to impose controls on capital inflows to halt the appreciating baht and South Koreaboasted that it would buy as much dollars as needed to stem the won’s ascent. In the case of the former, it sparked off a sharp fall in Thai stocks and spread uncertainty in other regional markets, highlighting that the regional economies could be adversely affected by their neighbours’ unilateral actions.

Rizal Sukma from the Centre of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta further urged, “ASEAN integration is becoming even more urgent as we prepare for the rise of China and India, as well as the possible normalisation of Japan’s military role. As rivalry heightens, these major powers will use economic and military means to achieve their national goals.” One wonders, will ASEAN members be played as pawns in the game or will they be able to stand together?

Sources:

It’s All Systems Go For 12th ASEAN Summit (Manila Times, 4 January 2007)

ASEAN SummitChallenges (ManilaTimes, 4 January 2007)

‘No Terror Threat, Typhoon Will Stop Summit’ (The Philippines Star, 4 January 2007)

Need For Asian Monetary Cooperation (The Business Times Singapore2 January 2007)

ASEAN Subgroup to Strengthen Cooperation, Targets China(Business World, 29 December 2006)

ASEAN Integration Optimism Needs Reality Check (Jakarta Post, 27 December 2006)