ASEAN at 40: Coming of age or midlife crisis?
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia » ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, turned 40 this summer. Is it facing a midlife crisis? Or is it on the verge of maturing into a more cohesive, more relevant organization capable of promoting peace and stability not only within Southeast Asia but beyond, given its self-proclaimed "driver's seat" role in East Asia community building?
Only time will tell, but there are some encouraging signs that ASEAN could be coming of age, beginning with the creation of an ASEAN Charter to add a "legal personality" and a greater degree of cohesiveness and clarity to earlier efforts to build an ASEAN Community.
ASEAN's Eminent Persons Group had provided the assembled leadership a draft charter at the 2006 annual ASEAN Summit (which was weather-delayed until January 2007) in Cebu, Philippines. Since then an ASEAN High-Level Task Force (HLTF) has been hard at work, refining (read: toning down) some of the more dramatic suggestions -- the controversial section recommending sanctions, including expulsion from ASEAN for those violating the charter, has reportedly already been dropped. The EPG also had recommended that ASEAN relax its style of decision making by full consensus; it remains to be seen if this suggestion, and one opposing "extra-constitutional" methods of changing government, will make the final cut.
One controversial provision that apparently did make the cut when ASEAN's foreign ministers reviewed the task force's work last month was the establishment of a Human Rights Commission, over initial objections by Myanmar (Burma), among others. While the final version has not yet been seen -- it is scheduled to be unveiled and approved at the November 2007 ASEAN Summit in Singapore -- the charter is expected to "accelerate ASEAN integration" while making it a more "rules based" organization.
More good news came in the naming of former Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan as ASEAN's next secretary general, effective Jan. 1. Surin, a Muslim, is seen as a proactive supporter of greater constructive engagement both within ASEAN and between ASEAN and its neighbors. There is no questioning his energy, enthusiasm and commitment; what remains to be seen is how much of a collective voice he will be able to employ, and to what end.
As part of its coming-of-age process, ASEAN is also developing a plan of action to further enhance its 10-year-old Treaty of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, which prohibits the development, testing or basing of nuclear weapons within its territories, while permitting nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. I would offer a suggestion to those tasked with drawing up the implementation plan: namely, an amendment to the SEANWFZ that would prohibit reprocessing or enrichment activities within the region, thus closing one of the current Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty "loopholes" that has contributed to the current difficulties with North Korea and Iran. This should increase the treaty's attractiveness to those non-states parties, including the United States, that have not yet acceded to the treaty.
Meanwhile, Washington's relations with ASEAN have never been deeper or appeared more shallow. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, at last month's annual ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, marked the 30th anniversary of U.S.-ASEAN relations by further refining and strengthening the Enhanced Partnership Plan of Action signed between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her ASEAN counterparts in July 2006.
The enhanced partnership complements a U.S.-ASEAN agreement that established a regular and formal dialogue on trade and investment matters and a joint work plan to enhance two-way trade that exceeded $168 billion last year. Collectively, ASEAN is America's fourth-largest trading partner; to date, U.S. companies have invested nearly $90 billion in ASEAN countries.
That's the good news. Unfortunately, when it comes to U.S.-ASEAN relations, form has not matched substance. Secretary Rice missed her second ASEAN regional meeting this year, and President Bush canceled the full U.S.-ASEAN Summit. As a result, Bush's third summit with the "ASEAN Seven" -- the ASEAN members of APEC (less Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) -- appears to be a consolation prize, rather than another significant step forward, and one frequently hears the accusation that Washington is "neglecting" Southeast Asia, despite the above-cited significant advancements.
To correct this perception, and given that Bush has yet to make his first trip to Asia this year, he should consider visiting Asia coincident with this year's Singaporean-hosted East Asia Summit, to underscore Washington's support for ASEAN's coming-of-age process. It would permit Bush to be invited as a special guest to the EAS while skirting tricky membership questions, thus showing support for East Asian community building as well.
Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute, and senior editor of Comparative Connections.