by Simon Tay
Originally published on YaleGlobal Online, April 27, 2009
The cancellation of the ASEAN Summit scheduled to be held in Thailand on April 11 was a disaster not just for the host country but for the entire grouping of Southeast Asian states. Unless the organisation dusts itself off and resumes normal functioning, it can change the path of Asian regionalism and hinder efforts to deal with the global financial and economic crisis.
The failure is all the more stark because, going into the meeting, considerable hopes had been raised about its role in tackling the global crisis in the Asian follow-up to the G-20 meeting in London.
For Thailand, the ASEAN Summit was a chance to showcase its return to normalcy after the earlier shut down of the capital and airports by protesters.
For ASEAN, the Summit was to convene the leaders of China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia and New Zealand and start a new dialogue with international institutions like the IMF.
Some will conclude from the Summit's cancellation that ASEAN is broken and cannot be taken seriously. Those who have long criticised ASEAN as a mere talkshop might feel vindicated when the shop cannot even be open for talk. At the other extreme, ASEAN loyalists may claim that the group has been through crises and that this is too will pass.
It would be equally wrong to reach a hasty judgment about the irrelevance of ASEAN or to be blindly sanguine about its future.
The fact is there is much for ASEAN to do, and little time to do it. But if ASEAN responds well, it can continue to be relevant. To understand why there is a need for ASEAN one has to consider realities.
Over the past four decades not only has the organisation managed to contain historical animosities among the members and minimise frictions, it has succeeded in bringing together major political rivals in the region — Japan and China and India and China.
The second reality is the rise of a new sense of Asian identity, forged during the financial crisis in 1997 when the region felt abandoned by the US and ill-served by international institutions like the IMF. ASEAN has helped grow this new regionalism but moderated it so as not to exclude the US and allow the rise of a regional hegemony.
In this period, ASEAN has been the only entity able to bring together consistently the giants of Northeast Asia — China, Japan, and South Korea — in the ASEAN +3 meeting. It is also this organisation that has reached out to the wider East Asian Summit to include Australia, New Zealand and India, which is often seen as a hedge against Chinese domination.
Even during a cold spell in China-Japan relations, Japan's premier Koizumi and China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao would meet under the auspices of ASEAN. And India, as it has looked eastwards beyond its own region, has reached out first to ASEAN.
The free trade and economic agreements among Asians revolve around ASEAN. In the security realm too, the ASEAN Regional Forum has become the main multilateral dialogue, even if hard security alliances continue with the US.
Recognising the organisation's importance, China has sought to improve its relations with the region by working through it. It has sought to sooth the regional anxiety over its contentious claim to the South China Sea by signing a code of conduct in 2002. Although the territorial claims remain unresolved, the code has managed to maintain peace.
The litmus test of cooperation between the grouping and China has been the China–ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. This example of a successful intra-Asian trade agreement has inspired other Asian powers to offer similar agreements with the organisation.
While the record has been noteworthy, in the wake of the Pattayafracas, ASEAN must attend to some immediate needs. For the sake of credibility, ASEAN must reconvene the Summit as soon as possible.
Even before the Pattaya cancellation, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed setting up an Asia Pacific community that has no special place for ASEAN. Now it is doubly important that Thailand, as the current chair, quickly make a decision on whether it can manage the event and if so, when and where it should be.
A meeting in Thailand is possible not withstanding domestic problems. If not, ASEAN can be flexible and creative in coming to a decision acceptable to all. Witness the decision in 2006 for Myanmar to bypass the chairmanship in favor of the Philippines, which was next in the alphabet.
Asia as a whole is at something of a juncture. The wider region must consider how to keep growing amidst the global turmoil and exchange perspectives on measures such as stimulus packages and currency policy.
Some steps can and should go ahead even without the Summit. The Chiang Mai swap mechanisms, first introduced after the 1997 crisis, continue to be bolstered and can foster greater coordination incurrency and finance. Another example is China's intention at the Summit to announce a new investment fund for infrastructure in Asia. The sum of $10 billion is not so large, but it is a welcome precedent in using Asian funds for Asian investment and expenditure.
The present global crisis again presents ASEAN the opportunity to further its role in the region, but we need to be realistic in looking at more ambitious projects.