Region: ASEAN As An Articulated Community


Kim Beng Phar

ASEAN was formed in August 1967. Unlike the United Nations (UN) or the Organization of American States and other such regional bodies at that time, ASEAN was created on the basis of a mere declaration: That all current member states in Southeast Asia, which were then comprised of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, would seek to improve their social economic and cultural cooperation.

In the same declaration, the option of including other countries in the region in future was kept open. Invariably, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam became member states of ASEAN in 1997, only to be followed by Cambodia's admission two years later, to create an ASEAN 10.

That ASEAN was non-committal to its early institutional direction/evolution could be discerned from the gaps marked by its early and subsequent periods of growth. To begin with, it was a full nine years before the first Bali Summit was held in Indonesia.

Between 1976 and 1992, ASEAN kept true to its mission to improve social economic and cultural cooperation in the region by launching various 'ASEAN projects' and industrial cooperation schemes, all of which failed miserably, however.

But behind the scene, member states of ASEAN cooperated strategically and successfully with the United States (US), China and Japan, to ensure regional peace and stability.

Indeed, so successful was ASEAN's public rhetoric of seeming neutrality that Chan Heng Chee, who was the former Singapore ambassador to the United States wrote that ASEAN was a "deviant organization." In other words, it did not stick to its stated mission, rather it succeeded in using ASEAN as a front to lay the seeds of early solidarity.

Thus, rather than a corporate mission focussed purely on social economic and cultural cooperation, leaders of ASEAN gained more from security and political consultation on how to handle Vietnam which was then deemed as threat to Indo-China and the region at large. The intra-mural collaboration among the early member states of ASEAN also intensified with Hanoi's invasion of Cambodia in 1976.

But if ASEAN has retained its organizational cohesion, it is because of its nature as an "articulated community." Whether at its early inception, or subsequent development, ASEAN has always found a way to allow its declaratory principles to carry the day.

At the first Bali Summit, for example, the member countries signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia. TAC has since been regarded as the bedrock with which member states of ASEAN now build their relations with one another, and with external powers too.

Indeed, TAC spelled out the basic principles for good relations with one another and the conduct of the association's programme for cooperation:

- Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations; - The right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion; - Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another; - Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means; - Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and

- Effective cooperation among themselves.

At the Bali Summit II in 2003, the rhetoric took a further turn towards creating the ASEAN Economic, Security and Cultural Community by 2020.

In other words, in spite of the attendant weaknesses of ASEAN, member states were further asked to embrace the rhetoric of community building.

To be sure, these aspirations invariably manifest themselves in the form of speeches and documents of regional leaders, which collectively become the blueprint for the creation of one region; notwithstanding the difficulties at hand, or Myanmar's visible lack of political will to do so.

Indeed, whenever the secretary general of ASEAN makes a speech about ASEAN, he is wont to re-state the various templates that guide it.

In a speech given at the ASEAN Gala Dinner in London last November 2006, for example, Ong Keng Yong who is ASEAN's secretary general affirmed:

"The commitments so far made to create ASEAN Economic Community include, to name just a few, the ASEAN Free Trade Area of 1992; the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services of 1995; the ASEAN Agreement on Customs and the ASEAN Customs Vision 2020 of 1997; the Framework Agreement on the ASEAN Investment Area and the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Mutual Recognition Agreements, both of 1998; the Initiative for ASEAN Integration of 2000; the ASEAN Framework Agreement for the Integration of Priority Sectors of 2004; and the ASEAN Policy on Standards and Conformance of 2005."

Yet, with barely 25 officials working in the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, it is just as presumptuous of anyone to believe that these officials could make a region of 500 million people more united than ever. Indeed, with Indonesia unable to lead the region since1997, ASEAN is far weaker than many care to accept.

Be that as it may, ASEAN has tried its best to keep up with its neoliberal rhetoric. To date, some 99.8 per cent of the products in the Inclusion Lists of ASEAN-6 (Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) have been brought down to the tariff range of 0-5 per cent, with about 65 per cent of those products having zero import tariffs.

In addition to the above, 91 per cent of the products traded by the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Myanmar and Vietnam) under the Common Effective Preferential Tariff package have been moved into their respective Inclusion Lists. About 77 percent of those products are already within the 0-5 per cent tariff band too.

However, regional free trade achieved through tariff reduction alone is not sufficient to enhance the formation of ASEAN economic, let alone, security and cultural community by 2020.

If anything, deeper economic integration is necessary for ASEAN to cope effectively with the unprecedented opportunities as well as the unprecedented challenges posed by globalization. ASEAN also has to deal with the non-traditional security threats that are increasing in severity by the day, such as SARS, threats posed by tsunami, flooding, haze, terrorism and drought.

WATCHPOINT: Does ASEAN have the ability to re-invent itself in order to retain its relevance or will it be sidelined by the growth of the Asian giants?


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