The Meaning of ASEAN Jamborees

By Phar Kim Beng

The ASEAN Charter affirms that leaders from the member states will meet twice a year. When they do meet, they have many bilateral meetings at the side. This is a reflection of the growing connectivity of the region, which was put on display at the 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali. ASEAN jamborees are also held back-to-back with the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit and the East Asian Summit (EAS).

The 19th Bali Summit chaired by Indonesia had many related side events too, such as the ASEAN Supreme Audit Institutions Summit; the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit; the ASEAN Investment Forum; ASEAN Fair; and the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs Summit on Green Energy. While the frequency of these events marked the growing importance of ASEAN, they tend to raise more expectations than they can ever immediately hope to achieve. There are three main reasons for the failure to reach the expectation level: First of all, ASEAN’s approach to any issue is often cautious and consensus-driven. The Senior Officials in the economic and security realms continue to hold the sway. These sherpas often reflect the prudence of their own societies and ministries with which they come from. Invariably, the ministers who rely on the senior officials to express their views are prone to issuing declarations and charters that may be implemented more in spirit than substance.

Secondly, its secretariat is deliberately under-powered; with each member state contributing only US$ 1.5 million per year. In fact, The Economist was surprised that the dollar contributions of Japan and the US to ASEAN Secretariat often exceed the amount paid by the member states themselves. At the 19th Bali Summit, the office space of the ASEAN Secretariat was formally enlarged to that of two soccer fields almost. But there was no attempt to strengthen the ASEAN Secretariat at all. Meanwhile, the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) which has one ambassador being nominated to serve in Jakarta by each member state serves as the coordinating council between the ASEAN Secretariat and the missions at the respective countries. But there are increasing laments that the CPR has focused on mixing among themselves especially at the green.

Finally, there is great diversity within Southeast Asia: the richest economy has a per capita income which is 50 times of the poorest one, while its political systems range from vibrant democracies to totalitarian states. Closing the development gap of ASEAN should be the number one priority, without which a true ASEAN Economic Community would come to naught. Yet, the theme of the 19th ASEAN Summit was “ASEAN Community in the Global Community of Nations.” What did this mean? It sought to encourage the member states of ASEAN to develop a common view of the region in the United Nations (UN), G-20, and other multilateral settings. In other words, the economic and foreign policy of the respective member states should be more unified. Yet, at the same summit, the Philippines complained that it had not received more support on its position in the South China Sea from the other member states of ASEAN. Ostensibly, other member states were not keen on offending China. This is understandable given the growing (commercial) reliance of many countries on China, including the US. But Manila’s lament shows the shallowness of most ASEAN declarations.

Indeed, it has been noted for several years now, especially by analysts in Indonesia, that the APT and EAS are almost identical in nature in terms of the economic and security issues they cover. However, what made the latter different this year was the participation of the presidents of the United States and Russia at the EAS. Barring their participation, the line that separates the APT and EAS would not have been clear at all. Can the housekeeping issues between APT and EAS be resolved? A big part of the answer lies in merging all the ASEAN Summit under one tent. But the risk to that is an ASEAN overshadowed by the EAS completely. Thus one can expect more ASEAN Summits and “related summits” in future. This modus operandi is here to stay. Business organisations and non-governmental organisations that want to register their presence in the region would simply have to adjust their operations to this reality at stake.

At the 19th ASEAN Summit, Myanmar finally understood the importance of making use of the ASEAN Jamborees. Instead of avoiding the journalists stationed outside the halls of the meetings, for example, key officials met them, to underscore the importance of Myanmar as the chair of ASEAN in 2014. Myanmar also promised to deliver more reforms, which in turn had President Obama agreeing to send his Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Myanmar in December 2011. Myanmar also used the occasion to meet with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at the ASEAN Summit. Invariably, due to the active usage of the ASEAN Summit and “related summits,” Myanmar walked away as the big winner of the event. ASEAN, in this sense, does matter, especially to smaller member states trying to adopt important and strategic measures to join the world.

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