High activity in Southeast Asia, not ASEAN

By Tunku 'Abidin Muhriz

November 2011 is proving to be a busy month for Southeast Asia’s political and diplomatic offices. This is in contrast to the end of October, which saw private sector-led initiatives like the CIMB ASEAN Conference and the launch of the ASEAN Business Club in Kuala Lumpur, both of which brought business leaders together under one roof, reflecting their commitment to making ASEAN “open for business” across borders. The conference allowed captains of industry to share their views about the state of economic integration and suggest ways to move forward. One example was the suggestion by Dato’ Seri Nazir Razak, Group Chief Executive of CIMB Group, that the next Secretary-General be supplied by the private sector.

The events in November, however, have brought together the more usual assemblage of political leaders, diplomats and civil servants. While a cursory look at the calendar on the website of the ASEAN Secretariat reveals a regular roster of meetings including those concerning defence, human rights, trans-boundary haze issues and free trade agreements (in addition to less well-known meetings of the ASEAN Cosmetics Committee or the ASEAN Technical Working Group on Nuclear Power Plants), this month saw the most senior level meetings of the year.

First, on 12 and 13 November, the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting (known more popularly as the APEC summit) was held in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), founded in 1989 now has 21 member economies (a term that enabled the admission of Hong Kong and Taiwan (as ‘Chinese Taipei’)) seeking to promote free trade and economic growth. This meeting was the forum’s 23rd. Its dominant quotation was President Obama’s emphasis that “the United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay”, and his stressing that the Asia-Pacific region is critical to US economic growth – thus marking a shift after a US foreign policy focus on the Middle East in the last decade.

The President’s preferred vehicle in achieving this economic growth with the Asia-Pacific is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), involving Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam. The broad outlines of the TPP were achieved at the summit, according to the leaders’ joint statement, which declared: “we are delighted to have achieved this milestone in our common vision to establish a comprehensive, next generation regional agreement that liberalises trade and investment and addresses new and traditional trade issues and 21st century challenges.” Potential stumbling blocks have already been pointed out, with China’s Assistant Commerce Minister expressing scepticism as to whether the “very high benchmarks” will be attained by the member countries, and Malaysia’s International Trade and Industry Minister wanting flexibility to protect “sensitive” areas of the economy. On the other hand, the partnership has been buoyed by the interest shown by Japan’s Prime Minister Noda to participate. This in turn may spark interest in other countries wanting to join the pact.

The APEC summit was followed by the 19th ASEAN Summit and the sixth East Asia Summit (EAS) held in Bali from 17 to 19 November. The EAS originally comprised ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, but the United States and Russia participated as official members for the first time on this occasion. Alongside the summits, the third US-ASEAN Leaders Meeting took place, in addition to a slew of other meetings amongst officials.

In contrast to the APEC summit, the media chatter from the East Asia Summit focused on security issues. Particularly prominent was the United States’ agreement with Australia in which more US marines and equipment would be stationed in the latter’s north. The response from China has been most intriguing: it did not criticise this agreement, and instead called the US “an important player in Asia ever since the Second World War”. According to a Hong Kong-based academic, China is “soft-talking to prevent more members of ASEAN from joining the Washington-led containment policy.”

Also in the mix is the Philippines’ vocal interests in the South China Sea. Though the US has promised the Philippines a second warship (the first having arrived in August and soon to be deployed to secure Philippine territorial waters in the South China Sea), President Beningo Aquino has also asked South Korean President Lee Myung Bak for aircraft, boats and other military hardware.

An article on the website of China’s official news agency perhaps provides some insight into the thinking of the Chinese government. Condemning the Philippines’ alleged practice of renaming some water areas as the “West Philippine Sea”, it wonders aloud why “Washington would stake its prestige on a remote and strategically third-rate ally when it provokes a clash with a neighbouring far stronger nation”. The writer goes on to say that the China-ASEAN free trade zone has created new opportunities for cooperation, pointing out that in 2010 alone, “China-Philippines trade amounted to 27.7 billion dollars, making China the third largest trade partner of the Philippines”. The reassuring conclusion to this? “The Philippines will never be so naïve that it would sacrifice its vested interests for an intangible and unreal promise from Washington to counterbalance China.”

Indeed, some of the rhetoric emerging in the aftermath of these two summits seem to indicate that the near future will see the economic imperative of free trade across the region facing stiff competition from ethnic and nationalistic sentiments in individual countries. Like so much in ASEAN, it will inevitably take time before joint statements and declarations solidify into action.

Not that people in ASEAN are likely to have been paying attention in the past two weeks. The Southeast Asian Games took place in Palembang between 11 and 22 November, and national newspapers in all member countries have been splashing their medal achievements across their back (and sometimes front) pages. The biennial sports event is one example of an increasingly successful regional event involving ASEAN countries, yet not branded as an ASEAN event. Interesting: the same could be said about APEC and the EAS.

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