Ignore the documents; find substance in the gestures. That was, not for the
first time, the lesson from the annual Asean summit meeting that just ended in
Vientiane, Laos, and from its parallel meetings involving the prime ministers of
China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
The most telling aspect of this mix of
multi- and bilateral meetings was that the focus was more on the non-Asean
dialogue partners than on the issues of Asean itself and its members. This was
understandable, given the neighbors' international weight compared with that of
the Asean 10. Their presence, however, seems also to have become useful as a
distraction from Asean's own modest progress.
Indeed, at the insistence of next year's
host, Malaysia, the gathering is morphing into an East Asia summit, to include
China, South Korea and Japan but not India and Australia. That is supposed to be
a one-time event, but there are reasonable concerns among some members that it
will further detract from Asean itself. Others, especially Indonesia, are
concerned that it will increase the regional clout of China at the expense not
only of India and Australia, but of Asean, too.
In Vientiane, Asean diplomatically
sidestepped the difficult issue of the role of pariah member Myanmar and did
nothing more than acknowledge the existence of concerns about the situation in
Muslim southern Thailand. Such evasions were understandable in the context of
Asean's mantra of "noninterference in one another's affairs" and the failure of
Asean's own efforts to persuade Myanmar's generals to soften their politics and
improve their economics.
Less understandable was the failure to
have meaningful discussion on one issue that is important to almost all its
members and where they are in a position to have some international impact -
currency values. Instead they discussed issues like North Korea's nuclear
ambitions, over which their influence is nil.
China again stole the show by signing on
to a deal, outlined two years ago, for a free-trade agreement with Asean to come
into effect between 2005 and 2010. This had already sent Japan and Sough Korea
clamoring to make similar pacts. India, Australia and New Zealand have now
joined the list.
All this needs to be treated with
skepticism. To start with, Asean's own free-trade area continues to be beset by
exceptions and implementation problems. The trade regimes and interests of the
likes of Japan, Australia and India are also far apart. Such politically
inspired trade gestures are damaging the wider World Trade Organization deals to
which these mostly trade-dependent nations are supposedly committed. Meanwhile,
some Asean members like Thailand and Singapore are signing bilateral agreements
with Australia, the United States and other countries outside Asia.
The Vientiane meeting can only add to the
hopeless confusion of existing paper trade pacts. Asean members must take a
slice of the blame.
Australia, once a fierce opponent of
bilateral trade deals, must take some too. It continues to shoot itself in the
foot in its political relations with the region, meanwhile pushing for trade
pacts as a substitute. Prime Minister John Howard refused to have any truck with
a regional nonaggression pact on the curious grounds that it would conflict with
Australia's defense treaty with the United States. His repeated defense of
pre-emptive strikes also annoyed his Asean neighbors. The proposed pact is
another empty document, but Howard's attitudes toward Asia ended any chance that
Australia might have had of being invited to join the East Asia summit, or any
other specifically Asian grouping.
Japan, too, continued to damage its
international clout for the sake of domestic politics. China is surely
exaggerating the significance of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to
the Yasukuni shrine for Japanese war dead. But the diplomatic cost to Japan is
Likewise, though Japanese trade and
investment remain more important to Southeast Asia's development than that of
China, Japan has again proved incapable of the sort of trade gestures that have
given China such regional clout. Nor did it provide any leadership on the
currency issue. With a convertible currency and the world's largest foreign
reserves, it is in a position to seize Asian leadership and play a global role.
Instead, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China was able to claim the headlines with
the most absurd line in Vientiane, criticizing the United States for its weak
dollar while insisting that his own currency remain artificially pegged to it.