A publication of the Asian Development Bank No. 3     April 2009
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Will ASEAN’s New Charter Bring Greater Cooperation?

Joining Hands ASEAN heads of state hope symbolism leads to strong relations.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) completed its annual summit in Thailand in March, hoping to usher in a new era of regional cooperation. The heads of government boasted of a new charter, a new anthem, and a grand plan to make ASEAN a European-style economic community by 2015.

The chair of the summit, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, said in his opening address: “I will join hands with fellow ASEAN citizens across the region to make ASEAN a household name, not only for the people of Southeast Asia but for those beyond.”

What is surprising, according to analysts, is that ASEAN, after 42 years in existence, is not a household name among its combined population of 570 million in 10 member countries—Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

It is not only public recognition that has been a long time coming. ASEAN became a legal entity only last December when its new charter came into effect.

“It is not how old we are but how much we achieved in the past and will achieve in the future,” said Mr. Abhisit.

ASEAN experienced two disappointing cancellations of summits in Thailand, one in December 2008 and another in April 2009, due to political unrest. Skeptics say such problems are part of a pattern that illustrates few past achievements and dim prospects for the organization’s future.

“ASEAN policies have proven to be mostly rhetoric, rather than actual implementation,” said Pokpong Lawansiri, a Bangkokbased independent analyst of ASEAN, in a commentary published widely at the time of the summit. “It has been noted that less than 50% of ASEAN agreements are actually implemented, while ASEAN holds more than 600 meetings annually.”

“This question is so silly,” said Rodolfo Severino, a former secretary-general of ASEAN, who heads the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “First of all, what is wrong with being a talk shop? Talking frequently and regularly clarifies positions, forms valuable networks, leads to mutual understanding and often to peace and a measure of stability.”

Among ASEAN achievements cited by Severino is the conclusion at the summit of a free trade pact between ASEAN, Australia, and New Zealand—which goes with similar agreements ASEAN has with the People’s Republic of China, Japan, and Republic of Korea.

“Another was clearing the way to international assistance to the victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar,” he said. “Another was the cooperation among ASEAN members that stopped SARS in its tracks in 2003. Still another was leading the diplomatic resistance to the invasion and occupation by Viet Nam of Cambodia in the 1990s and the search for a political settlement that culminated in the 1991 agreement and the elections of 1993. And so on and so forth.”

Cooperation in security is one pillar on which ASEAN rests. Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand originally formed the group as a counterweight to communism in Southeast Asia.

Perhaps ASEAN’s most telling achievement is that countries once in the communist bloc—Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Viet Nam—are now members.

Mr. Pokpong is not impressed. “While ASEAN bureaucrats often credit ASEAN for having created peace in the region since its establishment, they forgot to acknowledge that ASEAN stood still during the genocide in Cambodia, which then was not a member of ASEAN. Similarly, ASEAN allowed Indonesia to take extreme measures against East Timor from 1974 to 1999, when Jakarta then viewed it as a renegade province. The conflicts in Cambodia and East Timor claimed approximately 2 million and 102,800 lives, respectively,” he said.

Security challenges persist: international terrorism, the dispute over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, piracy in the Straits of Malacca, and the political confrontation in Myanmar. ASEAN has a counterterrorism pact, although it has yet to come into force and there are still flash points in the region.

Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore cooperate in tackling piracy, and ASEAN has brokered an accord meant to prevent fighting over the Spratly Islands, although the conflicting territorial claims of Brunei Darussalam; People’s Republic of China; Malaysia; Philippines; Viet Nam; and Taipei,China remain.

A political settlement in Myanmar is still elusive, not least because of the reluctance of ASEAN members to meddle in each other’s internal affairs, said analysts.

Another ASEAN pillar is economic cooperation. In 2006, according to ASEAN figures, the group had a combined gross domestic product of almost $1.1 billion and the value of its trade was about $1.4 billion.

The group has stated that it intends to become a European Union–style economic community by 2015 (although without a common currency). The idea is that greater trade and investment among members will make them less vulnerable individually to the vicissitudes of the global economy. However, the diversity of the economies in the region—rich and poor, big and small—is an obstacle.

The establishment of an ASEAN Free Trade Area means tariffs on intra-regional trade have been falling, but trade is still constrained by nontariff barriers.

Of more immediate concern is the global economic crisis. The summit endorsed the expansion of a currency-swap arrangement under which ASEAN members can borrow to prevent liquidity drying up in the event of a foreign-currency shortage. Apart from this, the meeting confined itself to discussions about speeding up regional integration, resisting protectionism, and reforming the international financial system.

The new charter calls for ASEAN “to be a more rules-based, effective and people-centered organization.” But in a region so diverse—politically, economically, and socially—it is difficult to make rules that individual countries, protective of their sovereignty, will respect. This, skeptics say, limits ASEAN’s effectiveness and keeps it remote from its people.

“As ASEAN claims itself to be a ‘people-oriented’ body, it surely must finally get it together and implement its policies and ensure that ASEAN will be able to respond to the needs of its peoples on issues such as democracy and human rights, if it wants to change its image as a relevant organization to the people it says it wants to serve,” said Mr. Pokpong.

Mr. Severino scoffs at the notion that ASEAN is irrelevant, but recognizes that the group still has work to do. “ASEAN might do a better job of informing the public about itself and what it is doing. It could also carry out its commitments to regional economic integration and closer cooperation on environmental protection, contagious diseases, and transnational crime,” he said.

“ASEAN could integrate the regional economy more deeply,” Mr. Severino continued. “It could also take more forthright positions on the global economic crisis that is none of its fault but is deeply affecting it.”

At 42, ASEAN still has a lot to do.

John McLean is a journalist and broadcaster based in the Philippines. He has covered Asian affairs for 27 years for various international media, including the BBC and The Economist.