Thursday, 25 August 2011

Outlook for ASEAN and East Asian Community (EAC)

US's President Barrack Obama applauds at the East Asia Summit in Bali, 18 November 2011. The US and Russia's official participation in the EAS provides a landmark achievement for ASEAN in East Asian regionalism.

Cambodia Foriegn Minister Hor Namhong shook hand with his Thailand counterpart at the Special ASEAN Foreign Minister Meeting on Cambodia-Thailand border issue in Jakarta on 22 February 2011. The meeting has provided a constructive engagement for the ASEAN Chair, Indonesia, to help solve border disputes between the two members.   

ASEAN is not only the political hub of East Asian regionalism, but it is also the hub of economic integration in the region.  ASEAN centrality has maintained its status quo in EAC since the Plus Three countries (China, Japan, and South Korea) are denying anyone in the group to take supremacy or regional dominance. However, as the institution building in EAC develop, especially ASEAN+3 and East Asia Summit (EAS) frameworks, it is inevitable that ASEAN centrality would be affected negatively. This will depend on ASEAN itself, new institutional discourse, and the pace of the development process of East Asian Community building.

On ASEAN itself, I argue that ASEAN centrality has two main elements: ASEAN way and balance of power, which are the underlying forces for development in ASEAN and East Asian regionalism.  So far, ASEAN has maintained the balance of power in itself and in external relations.  Thus, ASEAN needs to act neutrally and actively as the driving force in East Asian regionalism. It seems that the best way to maintain ASEAN centrality is to preserve the “ASEAN way” which has secured cohesiveness in ASEAN and in conducting external relations with the regional powers and the great powers.  With ASEAN Way, the environment of mutual trust among member states increase significantly due to non-interference on each other’s affairs.  Given Asian nationalism, ASEAN way promotes trust and the habit of cooperation for all countries in the region at the present time, and probably in the future.  However, there is still the possibility of political and economic integration in the long-run.  In economic perspective, it is of utmost importance that ASEAN should accomplish its goal as an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 through economic integration, narrowing development gap, and human resource development.  This will depend on political commitment of ASEAN leaders, assistances from major dialogue partner countries, and the successful implementation of IAI Work Plan II (2009-2015) and other relevant roadmaps that will bridge the development gap between the CLMV countries and the ASEAN-6. By achieving full integration in itself, ASEAN Economic Community will be seen as a market niche with total population of more than 500 million.  Therefore, the accumulation of economic attractiveness will generally enhance ASEAN centrality in the wider regional framework.  However, lack of political leadership from ASEAN has caused its centrality under question since human resource development in ASEAN is very limited in comparison to China, Japan, and South Korea.  So, human resource development, especially in the CLMV countries, should be strongly promoted to sustain ASEAN’s leadership.

For institutional discourse and the pace of regionalism in EAC, ASEAN centrality may be gradually downgraded by the emergence of new norms and values, identity, and common interests in EAC building process, in which all these new elements may affect the foreign policy behaviors of the member states.  When the development process involves political and security integration in EAC, there may be friction between the current US-led security structure in East Asia and EAC.  This problem would hamper regional community building efforts.  Therefore, in order to maintain ASEAN centrality, the pace of East Asian regionalism should be slow and based on step-by-step basis. Please see figure 2. 

          Although it is very difficult for overcoming the regional barriers, especially Asian nationalism, there is still optimism for the future of East Asian regionalism. In light of this, ASEAN and its dialogue partners have actively applied some short-term measures for East Asian regional community building such as promotion of economic and financial cooperation, socio-cultural cooperation, mutual understanding and trust, cultural and social cohesiveness, and ASEAN awareness.  Such cooperation would create a new social dynamics and emergence of new identities and interests, which act as a catalyst for political transformation in the future.

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