A Gathering Storm?

Ellen Frost (pictured) is author of Asia's New Regionalism.
Ellen Frost (pictured) is author of Asia's New Regionalism.

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