Last weekend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held its first summit since its new charter went into effect. The charter has been heralded as inaugurating a new era for the organization, which formed in the 1960s to fend off the threat of communism but has since evolved into an all-inclusive regional organization that serves as the foundation for Asia-wide regionalism. Yet, the “new” ASEAN looks a lot like the old one: united more in word than reality. If its divisions are not bridged and ASEAN does not become a vehicle for real action, the charter may prove to be ASEAN’s tombstone rather than its future blueprint.

Since expanding in the 1990s — adding Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to original members Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — ASEAN has been criticized for being a talk shop where procedure was more important than outcome. Such criticism was justified, but governments insisted that the disparities among its members forced ASEAN to adopt a go-slow approach that respected each nation’s particular circumstances, avoided the imposition of mandates, and did not interfere with a state’s internal affairs.

Frustrations mounted, however, and the prospect of ASEAN’s irrelevance forced members to adopt the charter. Yet even that proved to be a frustrating experience as the charter that was approved was considerably weaker than that drafted by a high-level panel of experts. That gap kept several governments from initially ratifying the charter, but ultimately all signed up and it went into effect late last year.

It was quickly apparent that little had changed. The charter was to have been unveiled in Bangkok, as Thailand currently chairs the organization. Unfortunately, political turmoil there forced cancellation of the summit. Typically, ASEAN was silent as Thailand dealt with the unrest: Its “see no evil” approach remained in place.

When the delayed summit was finally held last week — in Hua Hin, a resort town in Thailand to avoid the prospect of interference by Thai demonstrators — old habits were evident. Despite pledges to make ASEAN more responsive to the 570 million people that live in the region and the charter’s call for creation of an independent human rights body, a planned meeting to discuss human rights was threatened when leaders of Myanmar and Cambodia said they would walk out if activists were included. The civil society groups were excluded and the meeting went ahead. This suggests that the proposed human rights body, which is supposed to be set up by October, is likely to be toothless and ineffectual.

Much of summit discussion focused on ASEAN’s response to the global economic crisis. While Southeast Asian nations have been largely insulated from the financial excesses that triggered the current downturn — they learned their lessons in the financial crisis of 1997-98 — they have felt the ripple effects as Western economies that serve as markets for their exports have been rattled. Singapore is forecasting 5 percent contraction in its economy in 2009. Thailand’s economy shrank 4.3 percent in the last quarter of 2008, its first decline in a decade, and is bracing for a further slide in the first quarter of 2009. Malaysia grew 0.1 percent in the same period. Indonesia, the largest economy in the region, expanded just 5.2 percent, its worst performance in two years and substantially below forecasts.

At last week’s summit, the assembled leaders signed an agreement that promised to cut trade barriers. They “reaffirmed their determination to ensure the free flow of goods, services and investment,” and “agreed to stand firm against protectionism and to refrain from introducing and raising new barriers.” Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who hosted the summit, said ASEAN will “take assertive action” against protectionism and will emphasize the point “to the rest of the world.”

In a positive signal, the group signed free-trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand, which is expected to increase trade among the 12 countries by $48 billion by 2020. A similar deal with India is expected later this year. Equally significant, ASEAN is moving forward with plans to put a $120 billion currency swap agreement in place by April. This deal, financed largely by Japan, China and South Korea, will provide liquidity for governments in trouble — if they can agree on terms.

For all the good words, however, ASEAN governments, like others around the world, are succumbing to the protectionist impulse. Taxes have come down, but nontariff barriers remain high. Governments continue to privilege local companies in procurement contracts and “buy local” campaigns. Financial incentives encourage companies to lay off foreign workers rather than local ones. Such policies may be “a normal reaction” to tough times, as Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi explained in an interview, but that is a dangerous rationalization when all countries use it. A new charter does not appear to have recalibrated ASEAN’s logic as its members struggle to balance their national interests and those of the region as a whole.

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