Asean’s function is often described as being limited to a “talk shop” that merely provides venues where ministers and leaders from larger states come together to exchange views on regional security and economic issues.
So long as the so-called Asean Way — which informally stipulates non-intervention, non-binding and consensus-based decision-making approaches to regional cooperation — is maintained, Asean’s major role will not go beyond hosting the talk shop. Yet the talk shop’s value could be enhanced if delegates discussed the hard issues, regardless of whether any binding agreements ensued.
The recent series of Asean foreign ministers’ meetings, including the Asean Regional Forum held in Bali last month, proved that Asean’s talk shop function is still worth something. Three factors highlighted this.
First, the meetings were held in the midst of growing tensions between China and some Asean members, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. And although China is yet to show any intention of making a compromise — insisting on bilateral negotiations with other claimants as the only way to resolve the disputes rather than utilizing multilateral meetings such as the ARF to broker a resolution — the Asean meetings this year have confronted the issue in a more serious manner.
Second, the increased US engagement in Southeast Asia, including President Barack Obama’s scheduled participation in the East Asian Summit later this year, has given renewed significance to the Asean ministerial meetings. The Obama administration’s commitment to the region — epitomized by the slogan “The US is back in Asia” — is in sharp contrast to the apathetic attitude of the Bush administration as evinced by former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s two absences from the ARF in just four years. With the Obama administration and its participation in the Asean meetings we are seeing the first serious US engagement in Southeast Asia since the end of the Vietnam War.
Finally, the talk shop provides an opportunity for Southeast Asian states to display leadership. This year Indonesia has assumed the chairmanship of Asean. But it has been under pressure to host meetings successfully after its failure to find a solution to the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia undermined confidence in its leadership. That leadership will continue to be tested as Indonesia is set to host more meetings, including the EAS.
Prior to the Bali meetings, Asean had never been an effective shield to protect the interests of its members in territorial disputes. However, the United States, playing a key role in placing the disputes on the recent ARF agenda has confronted China over the disputes in the South China Sea.
Of significance was the US claim that both parties should provide legal evidence to support their territorial claims. This legal-based approach to the territorial disputes, initially promoted by the Philippines, is something China has previously not paid serious attention to.
The US engagement in Southeast Asia and its planned participation in the EAS this year have also helped settle another debate over Asian regionalism: arguments over the most effective framework for regional cooperation.
The options available include Asean+3, the EAS and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Finding an answer does require clarification as to what cooperation implies, but US engagement in Asean regionalism has contributed to reducing competition and clarifying the division of labor. The US push for the development of a free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific and initiatives for the negotiation of a Trans-Pacific Partnership as a first step towards its formation, have made APEC the most advanced institution for market integration.
However, for regional financial cooperation, Asean+3 is considered the most effective regional financial cooperation mechanism.
And with regard to regional security, the EAS — whose stature has been boosted as both the United States and Russia are set to join this year — has emerged as the most useful framework.
The value of the EAS in this regard is underscored by the comments of Kevin Rudd, the Australian foreign minister, who called for an Asia-Pacific Community a few years ago when he was prime minister. A major rationale behind his proposal was a belief that there was no Asian regional institution that had “the ability to deal comprehensively with all of the economic, political and security issues.” No existing institution brought together all of what he called essential participants like the United States, China, Japan, India, Russia and Indonesia.
However, the EAS is now going a long way toward fulfilling this role, having emerged as a comprehensive regional institution with 18 participants, including all those essential nations. One of the items topping the agenda at the upcoming EAS in Indonesia will be the South China Sea, as President Obama declared during his visit to Indonesia last year.
The US engagement remains key to maintaining and enhancing Asean’s talk-shop function. But, to continue improving Asean, the traditional anxiety that its institutional significance would be diminished in the face of larger arrangements such as the EAS or APEC should be abandoned. The first EAS with 18 leaders, to be held in November in Indonesia, will be a litmus test of Asean’s determination to challenge this mind set.