International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Asean's elusive quest
Sunday, November 25, 2007

HONG KONG: This was supposed to be a banner year for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The organization celebrated its 40th anniversary and for the first time came up with a charter of principles to which its members are supposed to adhere.

Yet, despite the best diplomatic efforts of Singapore, which acted as host, the group's annual summit meeting left Asean with a diminished reputation. The more flesh the group tries to put on its skeleton, the more crippled it appears. Fewer words and sharper focus are badly needed if Asean is to be taken seriously.

Indeed, without the regional Asian meeting that followed the summit, in which Asean's 10 members engaged with their larger neighbors - China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand - Asean's failings would have been even more conspicuous.

The best news out of Singapore had nothing to do with Asean - it was a constructive meeting between the Japanese and Chinese prime ministers. The biggest diplomatic winner was, once again, China, on hand to smile, offer help - and side with those resentful of Western pressures on human rights issues.

There have been some positive Asean developments. The group's secretariat in Jakarta is to be beefed up and each member will have permanent representation there. The new secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, a persuasive Thai politician and former foreign minister, should give the post a higher profile than his Singaporean predecessor. The group has set a 2015 target date for internal free trade and investment and concluded a trade pact with Japan, a major building block (at least in theory) in creating a free trade area encompassing China and South Korea

But the main message from Singapore was that the gap between words and actions has become wider than ever. Asean unveiled a charter that is supposed to commit the grouping to democratic and human rights objectives. But noninterference in one another's affairs remains the pre-eminent principle, and consensus the overriding factor in practice. Both were shown by the ease with which the Burmese leadership, fresh from its bloody suppression of protesting monks, was able to prevent the gathering from being briefed by the UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari.

It is not surprising that a group that encompasses many different political systems and levels of freedom cannot find common ground on Burma, let alone take a stand against a member government. But this simply reinforces the meaninglessness of much of the charter. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines warned that her country's ever-obstructive Senate might reject ratification. If so, it will do Asean a favor.

Even at its most basic level as an economic block - the Asean Free Trade Area - an Asean that includes Burma is bizarre. While other members have economies that are mainly market driven, Burma's mix of state direction and corruption bears more resemblance to North Korea than to other countries in the region. Yet the Burmese generals are still treated as though their country were a serious member of AFTA.

The free trade agreements that Asean signs are bits of political grandstanding driven mainly by the needs of its large neighbors and the European Union to compete with one another. In practice Asean (with or without Burma) lacks the machinery to deliver on promises, or even to put a stop to the bilateral agreements that individual members have been signing up to with countries from Mexico to New Zealand.

Trade and cross-border investment within Asean have been growing quite fast. But almost none of this is attributable to Asean itself, or even to its national governments. The credit belongs to tariff cuts under the World Trade Organization, China's thirst for Southeast Asian resources, the flow of capital from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the West, and the integration of most Asean economies into East Asian-centered global production systems.

Some sense of community does exist among the elites of most member states, and there are many examples of cooperation that would not have been possible without Asean's existence. Once the Burmese begin to reform their economy, membership of Asean will be a help, just as it has been for Vietnam.

But Asean's pretense that it is more important than it actually is only invites bigger countries to exploit the organization's divisions. One day, Asean could have sufficient coherence to deal with China, India and the United States on roughly equal terms. But the group's 40th year has shown how not to get there.