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A Gathering Storm?

Ellen Frost (pictured) is author of Asia's New Regionalism.
by Stephanie Valera
1 April 2009

NEW YORK, April 1, 2009 – As Southeast Asia strives to stay afloat
amidst the global economic downturn, the region faces prospective
shifts in the dynamic of financial and military relations with the
United States and China, and a changed role for international
institutions in the region. The impact of the economic crisis on each
Southeast Asian nation will also determine the future of the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and shape the politics
of East Asian regionalism. These views emerged from a panel discussion
by Donald Emmerson, director of Stanford University's Southeast Asia Forum; Ellen Frost, author of Asia's New Regionalism; and John Ciorciari, a national fellow at the Hoover Institution; and moderated by Donald Weatherbee of the University of South Carolina.

The panelists discussed how the future political influence of China
and the US in the region could hinge upon which country takes
responsibility for stimulating global economic recovery—although
military relations are unlikely to change, given the stability of
existing security architecture. Domestically, political personalities
are more likely to come under fire than free-market ideology for
economic problems.

On the other hand, the traditional roles played by Western-led
institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, and APEC are likely to be
challenged by ASEAN leadership in its institutional extensions, the
ASEAN + 3 (with China, Japan, and South Korea) and the East Asia Summit
(further adding India, Australia, and New Zealand). The region has
already established a centralized monetary fund for Asia worth $120
billion in response to the current financial crisis. Yet any
demonstrated capabilities of the region continue to be undermined by
lack of political coordination and coherence, an entrenched incapacity
for decision-making, and understandable preoccupations with domestic
politics by some states such as Thailand, the current chair of ASEAN.

The panel agreed, however, that there remains some cause for
optimism. Regional economic growth has generated a robust civil society
pushing for human security and sustainable development. There are also
potential contenders for visionary leadership among the ASEAN nations.
Indonesia, a proud democracy whose economy is the largest in Southeast
Asia and set to grow 4 per cent this year, initiated the open and
inclusive Bali Democracy Forum (launched in December 2008), to which
Myanmar's leadership was invited. From the US perspective,
trans-Pacific relations can also only get stronger and more intertwined
in the future, which is cause for sustained American engagement with
the region and its institutions.

Reported by Su Yin Tan