CHIANG MAI, Thailand — As long as regional cooperation develops in various parts of the world, it is only natural that some concerns are voiced from time to time, especially about the composition of these groupings.
Leaving aside the larger ones — for instance, APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum), where extensive membership appears to somehow defeat the original caveat — we would rather dwell on some smaller ones who aim at expansion.
Critics of ASEAN in particular, apart from a wider skepticism over the present functioning of the organization, concentrate their fire on the wisdom — or rather the lack of it — of accepting “liabilities” like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Undoubtedly, one can argue along these lines, as the newcomers have presented older members with various degrees of complications. (We could mention by way of further example a series of difficulties regarding the framework of cooperation between the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations because of the persisting “thorn” of Myanmar.)
It is undeniable that the regimes of the newcomers contrast negatively with those of the founding members. Besides, the additional members, because of lower degrees of their development, have raised several questions about with their technical ability to discharge their obligations as full-fledged members of the organization.
The dynamics of ASEAN are reflected not only in the traditional parade of leaders holding hands before the photographers lenses, but also in a sophisticated network of officials meetings, seminars, workshops and any other similar gathering. How could the new friends cope with all these?
Such reservations were once more expressed before last November’s summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and especially with that country’s ability to guarantee total security for so many leaders and delegations in an environment desperately cloudy in the aftermath of the Oct. 12 tragedy in Bali, in the very core of ASEAN.
Even with the best of will, it is argued, these countries still do not have enough experience to handle large official gatherings. The challenge is huge and even more difficult when we have to consider the institutional, larger meetings between ASEAN as one group and its various dialogue partners on the other side.
When we consider another Asian organization, SAARC of South Asia, other concerns are expressed, apart from the ones focusing on the smallness of members (e.g. Maldives) or low levels of development (e.g. in Bangladesh) or internecine conflicts (e.g. Sri Lanka and Nepal.)
Here, critics mainly direct their arrows against the simultaneous participation of giants like India and Pakistan who introduce into the organization the agony of their own never-ending disputes, something which paralyzes the work of the grouping and weakens the whole scope of regional cooperation in the area of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
One cannot easily dismiss all the above arguments. Unfortunately, there is a lot of truth in this type of thinking.
Ideally, regional groupings should be composed of members with similar levels of development or democratic functioning and sterilized against any notion of neighborly or internecine conflicts in order for such cooperation to really flourish.
But the crucial word here is precisely the term “ideally”: We are far from living in an ideal and harmonious world where all those preconditions can be assured. So we are doomed to be contented with the “lesser evil.” This means to proceed with efforts of regional cooperation within each region’s limitations.
The counterarguments — to which I admit I subscribe — can be illustrated in the following framework: ASEAN without its “liabilities” was deprived of a considerable portion of its geographical content. Moreover, something was missing from what historically had been viewed as the “southeastern world” — religiously, culturally, artistically, commercially, socially.
The actual 10-member grouping represents for the first time the whole of the region, a symbol of unity and of sharing a common destiny. No one can deny the importance of this if one examines properly the map and ponders on the lessons of regional history.
The “lesser members” — if such terminology can be forgiven only for technical reasons — stand to benefit from their association with the rest of the region. Given time, they will overcome their difficulties, soften their positions and proceed to the necessary adjustments.
We have witnessed already summits in Vietnam and Cambodia and no one seems to put them in a lower category than the others because of practical lapses and shortcomings. Besides, original members themselves can speak with a louder voice internationally after their grouping has expanded. Of course, time is of the essence as adjustments cannot emerge overnight.
Turning to SAARC, one may observe that problems can be easier addressed within a “family” of neighbors than if they are left to grow in relative isolation. There is no magic recipe, but all these nations have historically demonstrated resilience and patience. The exclusion of the perennial enemies, India and Pakistan, could reduce tensions within the organization but at the same time, it would produce a real vacuum as the other members cannot pretend to live and strive in spaces where the shadow of the former has totally and magically disappeared.
One could go on and on examining other regional patterns of cooperation in Asia; the final impression is that in a far-from-perfect world, such efforts have to be encouraged. Wherever and whenever possible, Asians should add to the potential of their individual voices by being able to raise their aspirations and articulate their dreams in partially collective patterns.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.