Southeast Asia is back. That is the message sent by leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last weekend after their annual two-day summit. With member economies set to expand between 2 and 3 percent this year and looking forward to “higher and sustainable growth” in the future, the heads of state gathered in Manila claimed that their countries have recovered from the economic crisis that began in 1997. As a result, the group declared its intention of reclaiming its rightful place on the international stage. It will take considerably more than a year or two of revived prospects for that to happen.
Events since 1997 have revealed the “ASEAN success story” to be considerably different than advertised. Nonetheless, ASEAN and its East Asian neighbors have two-fifths of the world’s population and $7.75 trillion in combined gross domestic product. The international community must be prepared for a newly assertive East Asia. But ASEAN, and its dialogue partners — Japan, China and South Korea — have much to do to earn that place on the world stage.
The message was well-timed. Representatives from 135 economies are meeting in Seattle this week to kick off another round of world-trade talks. Although the “ASEAN+3” has not developed a unified position on the planned round, the group pledged to “intensify coordination and cooperation” in such forums. The world received a taste of that newfound spirit during the hard-hitting campaign to get Mr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, the former Thai deputy prime minister, elected head of the World Trade Organization. Now the group is reportedly throwing its weight behind Japan’s efforts to have Mr. Eisuke Sakakibara, the former vice finance minister, replace Mr. Michel Camdessus, who will step down as managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
Size alone will not give ASEAN the role it desires. The organization must demonstrate a capacity for action and a willingness to deal with crises that it has not shown in the past. Last week’s summit provides some grounds for hope.
First, the group agreed to move up the target completion date for tariff liberalization under the ASEAN Free Trade Area. Originally, ASEAN set a deadline for abolishing tariffs on most industrial products for 2015 for old members and 2018 for new members; the dates have been moved forward to 2010 and 2015 respectively. While there is still wiggle room for some laggards, the renewed commitment to trade liberalization is important, especially given the events of the last two years and the growing doubts about the value of continuing reform.
Also important is the group’s decision to form a minister-level “troika” to tackle problems that might develop. Stunning economic growth during the 1980s and ’90s propelled ASEAN onto the international stage. But its claims to have developed a new model for relations were badly hurt in the aftermath of the economic crisis, when the group was seen as unable to respond to a rapidly changing economic and political environment. The new troika is intended to overcome that obstacle.
It will take more than a new problem-solving mechanism to be effective, though. The chief hindrance is the principle of noninterference in the affairs of member nations that has been ASEAN’s watchword since its foundation. The reluctance of members to criticize one another has allowed problems to fester and rise to levels that threaten all nations in the region. While criticism need not be public, it must take place. But it is still unclear — and very doubtful — whether ASEAN is of one mind on the matter. Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia stick to tradition, and will put up spirited resistance to any changes in ASEAN policy. Adding the three dialogue partners will only make it harder to find a consensus, as the stalemate over creating a code of conduct for the South China Sea — blocked by China — only proved.
But the group’s unanimous agreement that Indonesia’s rebellious province of Aceh would not be recognized is a sign that ASEAN can act as one when it needs to. ASEAN must do that more often, and Japan should work to make that easier.
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi assumed a high profile at the summit. He unveiled a $500 million aid package for the region — dubbed “the Obuchi Plan” by his host, Philippine President Joseph Estrada — that targets long-term development. In addition, he resurrected the idea of an Asian Monetary Fund for use in the event of another financial crisis, and supported turning the ASEAN+3 forum into a permanent group. Each of those steps will help ASEAN and East Asia claim a more prominent role in world affairs. Ultimately, however, hard work, and not some executive fiat, will determine whether the group lives up to those high expectations.
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