ASEAN is back. That is the message coming from Bangkok this week as foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations hold their annual get-together. North Korea’s debut at the ASEAN Regional Forum, which follows the foreign ministers’ meeting, has contributed to the optimism, as has the economic recovery among the group’s members. Both are promising signs; neither is permanent. If ASEAN wants to reclaim its place on the international stage, the group’s members are going to have to make some hard choices about their organization, its purpose and its operating principles.
ASEAN could be a major global player. It is home to about 500 million people, and its members include some of the fastest growing economies in the world. It is strategically located, at both an economic and geographic nexus. It is the only international institution in this part of the world, and has gradually expanded to include, in one manner or another, all the significant players in the region.
Yet ASEAN has not lived up to expectations. Its members account for only 1.5 percent of world gross domestic product; by contrast, the United States alone has more than 20 percent. The organization’s lackluster response to the 1997 financial crisis and the chaos in East Timor last year prompted many to dismiss it as a talk shop, incapable of responding to crises no matter how important.
This year, questions about ASEAN’s relevance have been drowned out by the hubbub over North Korea’s debut at the ARF meeting. Pyongyang’s decision to apply for membership is part of a broader diplomatic offensive, but North Korea’s attendance at this week’s ARF marks the first time that all the players in Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula are sitting at the same table.
Just as important — if not more so — are the meetings that Mr. Paek Nam Sun, North Korea’s foreign minister, is having with his counterparts. On Wednesday, he had historic talks with his South Korean counterpart and with Foreign Minister Yohei Kono. A similar encounter is expected today with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. On Wednesday, Canada announced diplomatic recognition of North Korea, which is a step toward establishing full diplomatic relations.
Once the novelty of a North Korean representative wears off — and it will not take long — ASEAN will have to face the relevance question. Fortunately, members have recognized the problem. Singapore’s foreign minister noted that Southeast Asia’s rebound since the 1997 crisis had not changed the view that ASEAN was a “sunset organization ” and that a continuing failure to act would further marginalize it. That view was echoed by the chair, Thailand’s prime minister, Mr. Chuan Leekpai, who opened the conference with a call to resist a “false sense of complacency” and to speed up economic integration to help ASEAN compete with other trading blocs.
In response, foreign ministers agreed on a new mechanism to tackle regional problems. A “troika” composed of the current, preceding and next scheduled chair would be able to deal with emergencies and help set ASEAN’s stance on international issues. The group also initiated the “ASEAN plus three” meetings, which include China, Japan and South Korea. This gathering brings Northeast and Southeast Asia together in an institutional setting for the first time.
While some have expressed concern about the “ASEAN plus three” group — the U.S. in particular has said that it could lead to a regional trading bloc — weakness should be the chief worry, not strength. Despite the region’s recovery, foreign investment, which drives growth, has declined from $21.5 billion in 1997 to $13.1 billion last year. The sustainability and durability of the recovery are being questioned.
While some governments are pushing for structural reform and deeper integration, others are slowing down. Malaysia demanded and won an exemption from provisions that would liberalize regional trade in automobiles by 2003. Other countries are sure to be tempted to ask for similar concessions.
Similarly, the “troika” initiative could be rendered useless by ASEAN’s doctrine of strict noninterference in the affairs of members. Officially, the group represents the foreign ministers, and will only operate with their consent. It will not be able to make decisions for them. In other words, it will be powerless.
This is ASEAN’s dilemma. The members must decide if they want to stick to the principles that served them well during ASEAN’s first years, when the group was much smaller — as were its ambitions. As has become apparent in recent years, noninterference is the same as inaction.
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