Asean: morphing into a powerhouse

Updated: Aug 6 2005, 05:30am hrs
The recently concluded Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Vientiane, Laos, succeeded in demonstrating the growing bargaining power of this group. However, things did kick off on a rocky note. There was the absence of foreign ministers from China, India, Japan and the US Condoleezza Rices no-show was the first time a US Secretary of State had missed the Asean summit in 20 years. Myanmars impending chairmanship had invited censure from America and the EU. And then there were question marks over whether Australia, among other countries, would sign the Non-aggression pact and participate in the East Asia Summit in December. But then things quickly started falling in place.

Myanmar voluntarily declared it would take a bow and forgo its turn to chair the next Asean meeting in mid-2006. The reason was ostensibly to focus on ushering in democratic reforms at home. Many feel that staying out of the international spotlight may only make it easier for the country to sweep its human rights violations under the carpet most noticeably the continuing house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Nevertheless, the announcement was a victory for Asean nations as it averted a showdown with the West. In keeping with the practice of choosing the host in alphabetical order, the summit will be held in the Philippines next year.

Subsequently, Australia succumbed to the requirement of signing the Amity Treaty so that it could garner an invite for Decembers maiden East Asia Summit. The move marked a turnaround from Prime Minister John Howards previous stance. Howard had vehemently defended the countrys right to strike pre-emptively against any nation that posed a threat to Australia. Of course, the Aussies have been quick to clarify that signing the pact doesnt mean it has given up its right to self-defence under the UN charter. Neither, as they have stated, does it impact their alliance with US nor does it impinge on their right to criticise the internal policies of Asean countries, like Myanmar. The caveats and bluster aside, this does mark a victory for Asean members. Its just not in their interest to rub Australias nose into it.

The first East Asian Summit (EAS), scheduled for Kuala Lumpur in December, could soon be contending with the likes of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum as a platform for economic co-operation. The ten Asean countries plus China, South Korea, India, Japan, New Zealand and now, Australia will be participating ensuring its relevance and clout on the global economic and political stage. Further acknowledgment of the forums importance came when both Russia and the EU expressed an interest to join in. For now, they have not been invited and it remains to be seen if they granted an observer status.

The US is still watching from a distance. America for its part created a bit of a stir in Laos with the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. The pact has been signed by the US, Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and India. It will see member countries commit to developing new technologies, including clean coal, wind power and nuclear technologies to cut pollution. Significantly, the agreement doesnt set any targets to reduce emissions. Many are citing it as an attempt to undermine the Kyoto Protocol, which Australia and America have refused to ratify. The Asean member countries have been invited to join this new partnership but have not responded. Whether this is an attempt by Australia and America to assuage their environmental conscience or to create a breakaway faction from the Kyoto protocol will become evident over time.

In spite of all the political manoeuvrings that have been played out at Laos, one fact came through loud and clear Asean is a force to reckon with. It is no longer a small regional gathering happening on the sidelines of world politics even America is now seeing it as forum in which to voice its position. And with the establishment of the East Asia Summit, Aseans importance can only increase in the coming years.