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The New ASEAN Takes Form

East Asian leaders (L-R) Lao Prime Minister Boussone Bouphavanh, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdulah Ahman Badawi, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jaibao, Philippine president Gloria Arroyo, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pose for a group photo prior to the signing ceremony of the declaration on energy security at the end of the East Asia Summit held on the sideline of the 12th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the central city of Cebu 15 January 2007. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Martin Walker
UPI Editor Emeritus
Washington (UPI) Jan 15, 2007
The most important place in diplomacy over the weekend was not with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the Middle East, nor with the "21st century Socialism" rhetoric of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on his Latin American tour. It was in the pleasant resort of Cebu in the Philippines that the real shape of the future was to be discerned.

Cebu was hosting the 40th anniversary summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, which was also attended by the Asian heavyweights of China, India, South Korea and Japan. ASEAN has already become the nuclear of a much greater Asian community, with its free trade negotiations with China and India under way, and its new progress toward an ASEAN Security Community.

Most important, the leaders of the 10 ASEAN nations over the weekend approved a series of visionary agreements that are intended to create a local version of the European Union, an integrated community of pooled sovereignty, a single market and a common series of security and economic policies.

Significantly, the plans acknowledge that the old ASEAN rules of reaching decisions by consensus and non-interference in the internal affairs of other members would have to be modified if such a community is to work. With rules demanding a common commitment to the rule of law, human rights and democratic values, the new ASEAN Community will need mechanisms to suspend or even expel members that fall below the required standards.

The proposals for the "ASEAN Community" came in a detailed report with 28 recommendations from an Eminent Persons Group of senior diplomats, politicians and officials that was appointed at the ASEAN summit two years ago to come up with proposals for integration. Their report was released Friday, based on the principles of "strengthening of democratic values, good governance, rejection of unconstitutional and undemocratic changes of government, respect of the rule of law, including international humanitarian law, human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The key recommendation, which is being embraced with enthusiasm by ASEAN leaders, calls for a charter that establishes the Southeast Asian community as a legal entity, committed to an EU-style, complete with a free-trade zone by 2015, a security agreement that intensifies cooperation in the war on terrorism, codifies structures and rules for migrant labor across ASEAN, and coordinates the campaign against HIV and AIDS.

"We want to advance the sense of community in our shared interest to look after each other in terms of justice, economic development and common security," President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines said as she opened the ASEAN summit meeting.

ASEAN includes the five original members of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia, and the more recent members of Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. It now comprises an economic community of 560 million people, which with the signing of the new free trade pact with China will become the world's biggest trading bloc.

ASEAN has already become the focus of jostling by Asian power as the new security structure of the region starts to emerge. China sees it as core component of an East Asian Community based around a group called ASEAN plus 3, which includes China, Japan and South Korea.

But Japan, suspecting Chinese ambitions to dominate the region, wants the group widened further to include India, Australia and New Zealand. India is equally keen to give institutional force to its own involvement with ASEAN, fearing exclusion from what could then become a Chinese-dominated Asia. Australia and New Zealand are determined to be seen as members of the Asian community, since their trade and economic prospects are increasingly dependent on Asian markets.

So the stakes at the ASEAN summit in Cebu concern the future structure of Asia, as an economic, a diplomatic and a security system. And the ASEAN nations are clearly determined to club together to be a major player, rather than remain separate and small and easily dominated by the larger powers like China and Japan.

In this context, the proposal for an ASEAN Security Community is of particular importance. ASEAN already has an agreement to keep its region a nuclear-free zone, and has also taken the lead of organizing talks with China intended to resolve the territorial disputes over the potential oil riches of the disputed Spratley chain of islands. The new accord on anti-terrorist cooperation, along with the decision to hold regular meetings of ASEAN defense ministers, takes the ASEAN military and intelligence cooperation to a new level.

"We signed the ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism to enhance the region's capacity to confront terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and to deepen counter-terrorism cooperation among our law enforcement and other relevant authorities," notes the formal report of President Arroyo, the summit host.

There are other building blocks for the proposal ASEAN Community, including forums on socio-cultural and on economic policies. But these are not easy to coordinate when the per capita income of Myanmar is less than one-tenth that of Singapore, by far the richest of the ASEAN states. The disparities of size, between Indonesia's population of 225 million and Singapore's 4.3 million, are as glaring as the disparities of wealth.

There are also religious and cultural differences, far wider than those between the states that make up the EU, which mean that building the ASEAN Community will be a real challenge. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are predominantly Muslim states, Thailand is traditionally Buddhist, and Vietnam is nominally a communist state, albeit in a state of dramatic economic reform. The Philippines is a robust if sometimes shaky democracy, while the military government of Myanmar is shunned by much of the world.

And yet they all seem to get along reasonably well within ASEAN, perhaps because they have little choice. With the rise of China to the east and of India to the west, it may seem safer to be part of a group rather than face such massive security changes alone. After all, few in Asia are entirely convinced that the United States, distracted and bogged down in Iraq, will continue to play its traditional role as the region's security guarantor. And while the heads of government of India, China, Japan and South Korea all flew to Cebu to pay their respects, no really high-ranking American even bothered to show up.

Source: United Press International

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