ASEAN’s Growing Importance after Bali Concord III

By Phar Kim Beng

No one can dispute that the seriousness about ASEAN has gone up appreciably after the 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali. There are five tell-tale indicators. First of all, Timor-Leste, which used to reject any overt Indonesian influence, was determined to be the 11th member of ASEAN. In all likelihood, this could happen by the next ASEAN Summit in Cambodia, or, the subsequent one in Laos. However, with Prime Minister Hun Sen as the longest serving ASEAN leader, Timor-Leste’s inclusion would not suffer from any detrimental press; especially if Prime Minister Hun Sen were to stand up for it.

Secondly, Myanmar lobbied hard to be the chair of ASEAN in 2014 – just a year shy of the three pillared ASEAN community. Myanmar knew, as the rest of the member states did, that President Thein Sein has upped the ante on ASEAN with the rest of the world. Myanmar not only wants to be a normal member of the international community, but a normal member of ASEAN too.

Thirdly, the United States (US) was implicitly encouraged by several member states of ASEAN to raise the issue of South China Sea with China time and again. This has effectively internationalised the issue since the US is not a part of the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) yet. The US has to accede to it in order to engage China with any degree of persuasiveness. China, in turn, has to decide how to transform UNCLOS into an instrument that can accommodate its historical and archaeological claim; something that had never happened before.

Fourthly, the member states themselves engineered the growing importance of ASEAN by consigning everyone to accede to the Bali Concord III. Yet, Bali Concord III was no other than a mere document to unify the foreign policy positions of the member states in international institutions, especially a multilateral forum like the Group of 20.

Finally, the physical size of the ASEAN building in Jakarta was enlarged to the dimension of two soccer fields too. This was not because ASEAN needed it now, but rather in light of the growing importance of the East Asian Summit (EAS), the layout of the secretariat had to be expanded first, lest some other countries offered to host the EAS Secretariat in future. The latter would have allowed other countries to steal the thunder from right under the nose of Indonesia after Jakarta had worked hard to invite President Obama to the EAS.

The 19th ASEAN Summit, therefore, laid down many important markers on how ASEAN can retain the “centrality” of its importance. To begin with, one of the most deviant members to date, Myanmar, worked hard to make amends. By doing so, it brought the US into the fray. The subsequent visit of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Rangoon on 1-2 December further strengthened the hand of President Thein Sein in continuing with his reforms.

More importantly, it also gave Myanmar the added gravitas to balance China. In so doing, it took ASEAN back to the original position of absorbing Myanmar in 1997 with the goal of preventing it from becoming a Chinese satellite completely.

Secondly, it made ASEAN’s centrality more realistic than ever. In the original formulation, it was agreed by all the senior officials of ASEAN that ASEAN must host the summits in the region. No one else has the right to do so. Key issues affecting ASEAN cannot be decided by others without first having received the consensus of the member states. These two criteria were not breached by the US and China. Prior to her visit to Myanmar, Hillary Clinton consulted with Premier Wen Jia Bao and other rulers of the member states of ASEAN. The Myanmar issue, which had a decisive Chinese dimension, was kept within the region. China did not make a big case out of it.

Thirdly, although the thrust in the 19th ASEAN Summit was basically defined by the Myanmar and the US rapprochement, the member states themselves rose to the occasion by backing Myanmar as the chair in 2014. The timing is critical because it shows the faith of the original five members of ASEAN on one of the newest member, just one year shy from the formation of the ASEAN Community in 2015.

In 2015, all member states would have to comply with the terms and conditions of the three pillared community. Indeed, between now and then, Malaysia and other member states of ASEAN have to ensure that Cambodia (2012), Laos (2013), Myanmar (2014) can each perform their tasks credibly as the chairman of ASEAN. In sum, the recent ASEAN Summit raised the stakes for all. But ironically all the original member states are in a better position to meet the expectations now since they have had more than fifteen years of understanding the weaknesses and strengths of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam (CLMV).

Before this, only Thailand was the key interlocutor on CLMV. Now, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines can be on a common page on CMLV. The distribution of diplomatic, social and political knowledge is now more even than ever, which makes for sounder policy platforms without the attendant platitudes.

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