CHANG MAI, Thailand — The attention paid by the international media to the ASEAN gathering in Bangkok has been unusually lavish. If the Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum was in need of publicity, it was certainly obtained in abundance. The beautiful land scape near the River of Kings, usually a focus of colorful tourist activity, has now been converted into a prominent diplomatic stage, not only for deliberations but also for ministerial retreats.
A number of developments took place at the ASEAN get-together, including:
* the institution of a new “troika” mechanism to tackle regional problems;
* a new, welcome emphasis on human resources, education, information technology, social safety nets, increased interaction with NGOs, academics and grass-roots organizations;
* progress on a new framework of cooperation under the heading of “ASEAN plus Three,” and;
* the historic induction of North Korea to the ASEAN Regional Forum.
The troika, whose members would include the current, proceeding and next-scheduled chair, would be instituted to respond to emergencies and help establish ASEAN’s position on international issues.
ASEAN Secretary General Rudolfo Severino emphasized to me at a private meeting that it would be misleading to completely equate the ASEAN troika with its counterpart in the European Union. The ASEAN troika, he noted, is fundamentally a results-oriented mechanism based on intense consultations.
Needless to say, the Thais, who first proposed the troika, are elated by its acceptance, despite the fact that some observers have noted that concerns over sovereignty issues resulted in the original troika proposal being watered down.
Naturally, the new mechanism will have to prove its worth in future applications, but it must be hailed as a daring attempt to reconcile ASEAN’s golden rule of “nonintervention” with new needs that stem from “spillover” issues, such as drugs and crime.
To the extent that the troika will result in a closer integration of new ASEAN members within the organization, the experiment may be a positive one. Of course, everyone is well aware of existing difficulties that stem from the fact that some ASEAN member-states are less open than others.
Severino spoke of the need for additional efforts by ASEAN members to not only promote further economic integration in order to compete other trading blocs, and emphasized that top priority must be given to areas such as information technologies, human resources and efforts to secure investment.
The secretary general also acknowledged the importance of the “ASEAN plus Three” group, which includes China, Japan and South Korea, as a new framework that would bring Northeast and Southeast Asia, with all its diverse potential, together for the first time in an institutional setting.
In a series of related articles in the international press, Severino was quick to dismiss some critics, including the United States in particular, who characterized the ASEAN plus Three group as the start of what could eventually become a regional trading bloc, or an “East Asian fortress” as some critics have said. “East Asian regionalism does not threaten anyone,” he emphatically stated.
In response to skepticism expressed toward the ASEAN plus Three group and claims that ASEAN has been superseded by a stronger Northeast Asia, it can be said that the ASEAN plus Three group points to a positive direction, one that involves a natural, complementary relationship between Northeast and Southeast Asia, and to a forum where the huge potential of East Asian giants China and Japan — as well as South Korea to a lesser extent — is engaged for the benefit of the whole region.
The inclusion of North Korea into ARF presents a linkage of important security concerns which, realistically, must be taken into account in conjunction. It also marks the first time that all the players of Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula are seated at the same table.
As is the case with any regional organization, a growing membership brings ASEAN both benefits and liabilities. But the experience is also showing the group’s adaptability, its increasing emphasis on human resources and its determination to seek new ways to foster more efficient action and interaction.
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