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CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The current tour of some ASEAN capitals by East Timorese hero Xanana Gusmao has triggered soul-searching in various places around the region.

His first point is an eventual association of East Timor with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The idea is not new: It surfaced at the time of the dramatic independence struggle of the former Portuguese colony. Some analysts focus on ASEAN’s support of Jakarta during East Timor’s struggle, which has left bitter memories in Dili. Seen through the institutional prism of the time, however, ASEAN’s position was not so abnormal. The crux of the matter is how best to integrate East Timor into ASEAN, if the fledgling state desires to join.

The East Timor issue also invites a broader discussion of ASEAN’s expansion. Here we are talking about two different things: expansion in membership and in dialogue partners on one hand, and expansion of observers of various degrees on the other.

This discussion is not taking place exclusively within ASEAN. It is common for any regional organization (I recall endless discussions on candidacies for APEC as well, as well as similiar terminology on moratoriums) to put a brake on excessive enthusiasm.

As far as membership is concerned, ASEAN appears to be “geographically complete,” to quote a recent editorial in The Bangkok Post. (East Timor can fit equally well into ASEAN or into the South Pacific Forum.)

Regarding the status of dialogue partners and observers, ASEAN possesses a well-tested framework through its interactions with the United States, the European Union, Australia and Canada. What has not yet been mentioned, though, is the most important of ASEAN’s associations: its cooperation with Japan, China and South Korea. This reincarnation of the Malaysian idea of the East Asian Economic Caucus appears to have particular meaning today.

Countries and groups as distant as Mexico and the Andean group have shown interest in developing ties with ASEAN. This is proof of ASEAN’s growing influence, and as such is a positive development. But here again, one has to be careful not to exceed some reasonable limit, beyond which the whole exercise is diluted and form prevails over substance. Extreme multiplication of forums and endless association formats may lead to regional fatigue.

With no major membership issue at present, ASEAN, in the words of The Bangkok Post, should pause and “consolidate and meld into the constructive and esteemed representative body this region is seeking.”

The best recipe for such soul-searching is found in history: In the text of ASEAN’s 1987 Jakarta secretariat, it was admitted that since 1967 — the group’s founding year — an effort was made “to bring together a group of states, not always without differences.” The picture is similar today, with the recent additions of Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. The problem is determining how applicable the wisdom is of former longtime Thai foreign minister and senior statesman Siddhi Savetsila, who wrote in 1987: “. . . Unity and joint resolve through consensus have thus become the motto for ASEAN and its strength.” The present expanded membership, particularly considering recent events in Indonesia, has to ponder how best to navigate from now on in oceans geographically similiar but geopolitically so different.

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