Despite Setback, Asean Has Important Role

Without Asean the region lacks a suitable forum to ensure stability and promote growth

The cancellation of the Asean Summit scheduled to be held in Thailand on 11 April was a disaster not just for the host country but for the entire grouping of Southeast Asian states. Unless the organization dusts itself off and resumes normal functioning it can change the path of Asian regionalism and hinder efforts to deal with the global financial and economic crisis.

The failure is all the more stark because, going into the meeting, considerable hopes had been raised about its role in tackling the global crisis in the Asian follow up to the G-20 meeting in London

For Thailand, the Asean Summit was a chance to showcase its return to normalcy after the earlier shut down of the capital and airports by protesters.

For Asean, the Summit was to convene the leaders of China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia and New Zealand and start a new dialogue with international institutions like the IMF.

Some will conclude from the Summit’s cancellation that Asean is broken and cannot be taken seriously. Those who have long criticized Asean as a mere talkshop might feel vindicated when the shop cannot even be open for talk. At the other extreme, Asean loyalists may claim that the group has been through crises and that this is too will pass.

It would be equally wrong to reach a hasty judgment about the irrelevance of Asean or to be blindly sanguine about its future.

The fact is there is much for Asean to do, and little time to do it. But if Asean responds well, it can continue to be relevant. To understand why there is a need for Asean one has to consider realities.

Over the past four decades not only has the organization managed to contain historical animosities among the members and minimize frictions, it has succeeded in bringing together major political rivals in the region – Japan and China and India and China.

The second reality is the rise of a new sense of Asian identity, forged during the financial crisis in 1997 when the region felt abandoned by the US and ill-served by international institutions like the IMF. Asean has helped grow this new regionalism but moderated it so as not to exclude the US and allow the rise of a regional hegemony.

In this period, Asean has been the only entity able to bring together consistently the giants of Northeast Asia – China, Japan and South Korea -- in the ASEAN+3 meeting. It is also Asean that has reached out to the wider East Asian Summit to include Australia, New Zealand and India, which is often seen as a hedge against Chinese domination.

Even during a cold spell in China-Japan relations, Japan’s premier Koizumi and China’s prime minister Wen Jiabao, would meet under the auspices of Asean. And India, as it has looked eastwards beyond its own region, has reached out first to Asean.

The free trade and economic agreements among Asians revolve around Asean. In the security realm too, the Asean Regional Forum has become the main multilateral dialogue, even if hard security alliances continue with the USA.

Recognising the organisation importance, China has sought to improve its relations with the region by working through the organisation. It has sought to sooth the regional anxiety over its contentious claim to the South China Sea by signing a code of conduct in 2002. Although the territorial claims remain unresolved, the code has managed to maintain peace.

The litmus test of cooperation between the grouping and China has been the China–Asean Free Trade Agreement. This example of a successful intra-Asian trade agreement has inspired other Asian powers to offer similar agreements with Asean.

While the record has been noteworthy, in the wake of the Pattaya fracas, Asean must attend to some immediate needs. For the sake of credibility, Asean must reconvene the Summit as soon as possible.

Even before the Pattaya cancellation, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed setting up an Asia Pacific community which has no special place for Asean. Now it is doubly important that Thailand, as the current chair, quickly make a decision on whether it can manage the event and if so when and where it should be.

A meeting in Thailand is possible notwithstanding domestic problems. If not, Asean can be flexible and creative in coming to a decision acceptable to all. Witness the decision in 2006 for Myanmar to bypass the chairmanship in favor to the Philippines, who was next in the alphabet.

Asia as a whole is at something of a juncture. The wider region must consider how to keep growing amidst the global turmoil and exchanges perspectives on measures such as stimulus packages and currency policy.

Some steps can and should go ahead even without the Summit. The Chiang Mai swap mechanisms, first introduced after the 1997 crisis, continue to be bolstered and can foster greater coordination in currency and finance. Another example is China’s intention at the Summit to announce a new investment fund for infrastructure in Asia. The sum of $10 Billion is not so large, but it is a welcome precedent in using Asian funds for Asian investment and expenditure.

The present global crisis again presents Asean the opportunity to further its role in the region but we need to be realistic in looking at more ambitious projects.

Some contemplate an economic and free trade agreement to encompass all of Asia. Others aspire to deal with hard security issues and balance the rising powers through alliances. Some dream of pan-Asian economic integration with a common currency. There is desire for an intra-Asian development fund to stimulate the entire region.

Asean cannot deliver on many of these lofty ambitions in the short term. Such outcomes even if desirable are not within ASEAN's control. The obstacles lie more with the major and rising powers.

Asean should not pretend to drive the region ahead regardless of these obstacles. It can, and has, instead to manage the difficulties and differences, and move ahead as and when politics permits.

Socializing the states to a greater sense of regionalism is a long haul and a difficult undertaking; one that Asean takes seriously. Those who recommend abandoning Asean must bear the burden of showing that there is a ready alternative. They risk pulling apart a truly indigenous effort at regionalism and pushing Asean closer to those, like China, which has said it will still support Asean.

We should hope first to see steady implementation in Asean's existing plans. Secondly we must expect Asean to continue to help keep the wider region at peace and to be inclusive, without contention among rising rivals. Thirdly, we can also hope for Asean to play a role in shaping Asian responses to the global crisis.

Asia is at something of a juncture in this crisis. While global in nature, and stemming from the West, increasing intra-Asian coordination and cooperation is a key response. Just as it was after the 1997 crisis, Asean is the acceptable hub for this.

And if and when, as at Pattaya, Asean fails we should take it seriously enough to call for Asean to pick itself up and try again because it matters.

Simon SC Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and, for 2009, Schwartz Fellow with the Asia Society in New York.

© 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization