CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A new acronym emerged recently in the world of international relations: APT. For those unaware of its meaning, we translate: “ASEAN Plus Three,” i.e., the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea.
How should we summarize the various expectations and reservations regarding the future of the APT and ASEAN?
It seems rather positive. It is encouraging, for the region and beyond, that the half billion people of the 10 ASEAN countries are now joining hands with China and Japan, as well as with dynamic South Korea.
Whether the idea is considered a reincarnation of the older Malaysian East Asian Economic Caucus or not, it is a fact that Northeast and Southeast Asia are integral members of a broader concept: “East Asia.” At least, it is positive as long as it is understood that the initiative is not divisive, that it does not aim at creating a closed area, and “does not wish to split the Pacific into two,” as one Indonesian strategic thinker explained.
Second, it seems that supporters have placed perhaps undue emphasis on APT’s magic recipe “to pull” ASEAN out of its present woes. (I don’t subscribe to the notion that ASEAN is a “sunset organization,” at least not yet.) New fields of cooperation will create new incentives and dynamics. But ASEAN will have to redefine its goals within the present regional and international landscape.
But I do not mean by this that we should merely reconsider ASEAN’s guiding principle of “nonintervention in the domestic affairs of member states” — a mantra continuously gaining popularity, even though that could be the product of its repetition in the media. More importantly, there is the need to put member societies, economies and law in order, internally. Without harmony in ASEAN’s largest member, Indonesia, little can be achieved with outside help.
Third, potential “benefits” should not be viewed as flowing only in one direction: toward ASEAN. There are also gains for the other three members, which are all players within ASEAN’s confines.
Fourth, APT, in order to achieve substantial success, has to deepen relations not only in the economic sphere, but also in the area of security, where mistrust still prevails. This is easier said than done, but planners, from both groups, should focus on both dimensions. That could benefit not only group-to-group relations, but also relations between the two giants, China and Japan, contenders for leadership in tomorrow’s Asia. Some analysts are hoping, in a restrained way, that APT may contribute in the long term to lessening tensions between those countries.
Finally, it is one thing for distant outsiders, like the United States or Australia, to feel some disappointment at not being included in this experiment. It is quite another for a closer and great Asian neighbor like India to be left out. This is especially so when issues like information technology, migration of computer specialists, etc. — fields in which India is strong — constitute an important part of the APT agenda.
India cannot be considered a part of “East Asia,” but it is Asia as a whole that has to project a greater image and dynamism in the years to come.
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