International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Asean's growing pains
Monday, March 2, 2009


It is wise never to expect much from summit meetings. But even setting the bar at its lowest level was not enough to save the annual gathering in Thailand of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations that ended Sunday.

It was not simply that the meeting, postponed from December due to Thailand's political turmoil, failed to do more than issue the usual platitudes. The proceedings suggested that the 42-year-old group has lost its way, forced by its ethos of consensus to operate at the level of its lowest common denominator, Myanmar.

This is all the more disappointing given the importance of two issues that its members ought to face together: refugees and the economy. Add to that list the desire of Asean's big Northeast Asian neighbors to compete for its favors, and its recent adoption of a charter that is supposed to define common interests and standards.

The summit had appeared to get off to a good start with a meeting of finance ministers at which it was agreed to extend the scope of arrangements designed to protect domestic currencies from destabilizing swings. Now members will have $120 billion available on a multilateral rather than bilateral basis.

But that achievement was more the result of the willingness of China, Japan and Korea to provide the financial muscle to help their weaker brethren than an indication of Asean solidarity.

Left to their own devices, Asean leaders ignored the big issues and focused on such trivia as the debut of the group's new anthem, "The Asean Way."

Most striking of all was a failure to address the issue of Muslim Rohingyas, refugees from Myanmar who have been brutally treated by the Thai military and are unwelcome in their preferred destinations, Malaysia and Indonesia. For many countries, the dividing line between refugees and economic migrants is an uncertain one. But it's certain that Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingyas as citizens, though they have lived in what is now Myanmar for centuries. Moreover, the summit leaders made no effort to confront Myanmar's blatant racism, which lies at the heart of the Rohingya problem.

Myanmar, together with Cambodia, also undermined Asean's purported efforts to find common standards. The two refused to meet with civil society representatives from their countries.

At the level of paper agreements, Asean continues to make progress. The latest were trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, adding to earlier ones with China, Japan and Korea. But implementation of Asean's own free-trade agreement remains at best partial. As Indonesia's trade minister, Marie Pangestu, remarked: "Agreements look good on paper, but without implementation there is no real benefit."

The recent growth of intra-Asean trade has been almost entirely due to the evolution of specialized manufacturing systems driven by Northeast Asian companies and Western markets. Some Asean members have also been more concerned with making bilateral deals than using Asean itself as a vehicle for liberalizing trade.

The summit delivered platitudes about the dangers of protectionism but made no specific proposals either for advancing implementation of agreements or otherwise addressing the issue of how to sustain economic growth given global conditions.

A good indicator of just how tough times are becoming was Indonesia's foray last week into the international bond market with a $2 billion issue. Despite an excellent record of fiscal rectitude, it had to pay 11.75 percent for 10-year money at a time when U.S. Treasuries yield barely 3 percent.

Asean has over time delivered many benefits to its regional stability and cooperation. Some sense of community does exist, at least among elites. But the organization can no longer claim youth as an excuse for lack of progress.

Judging by the evidence, it lacks the sense of purpose it had when first created, or when it moved in the 1990s to focus on economic cooperation. Inclusiveness based on geography rather than common goals is crippling its development, and its ability to form a united front either in dealing with bigger neighbors or Western trading partners.

Its lack of leadership is palpable, in part due to the reluctance of its largest (and most pluralistic) member, Indonesia, to play that role and in part to the weak political standing of several of the 10 leaders who assembled in Thailand.