ASEAN seeks to create one big village
A pink dragon-like alien from outerspace (who for some odd reason is called “Blue”) is driving through space one day when he gets into a traffic accident with some space debris and falls to earth. The creature lands in Southeast Asia (where bizarre traffic accidents are commonplace) in a place called “ASEAN Village”. It is here, waiting for his spaceship to be fixed, where Blue learns about ASEAN and its acheivements over the past 40 years, and its aspiration to become one big happy ASEAN Community.
Environmental activists dressed in orangutan suits at the ASEAN summit in Hua Hin, Thailand, Feb. 28, 2009. REUTERS PHOTO/Adrees Latif
This is the storyline from a new comic book and animated cartoon for schoolchildren that the ASEAN Secretariat has commissioned to propagate the idea of an ASEAN Community, one not so unlike the European Community, which the leaders of today are hoping to bequeath the children of tomorrow. And as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gets set to host its annual pow-wow with other Asia-Pacific powers this weekend in Thailand, the story of a stranger in a strange land seems apt.
At the risk of being snide, observers can sometimes feel like they’ve dropped out of the sky and landed in a puzzling world where people speak in a profusion of arcane acronyms at ASEAN’s confabulations. (North Korea barked at ARF. AWGEE issued an impressive enviornmental paper. BIMP-EAGA went to CARD, connected the DOTS, and an agreement was nearly in their GRSP before they had to go back to the KRIBB for a ZOPFAN)
What is this ASEAN village anyway? The devil is truly in the details here. ASEAN is aiming to become an integrated political/security, economic and cultural community by 2015. But what does an integrated political community mean exactly in a grouping that includes Myanmar’s truculent junta, not to mention the communist states, kingdoms and boisterous democracies that comprise the rest of the ASEAN village?
If all that isn’t confusing enough, ASEAN is also intent on creating some sort of East Asian community with its dialogue partners in the “East Asia Summit” — Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India — though it seems even more vague and ambivalent about that.
The idea had its genesis in the early 1990s, when Malaysia’s outspoken premier Mahathir Mohamad campaigned for a conclave of Asian tiger economies which he dubbed the East Asia Economic Caucus — pointedly exlcuding non-Asians from the clique. (Some wags called it the “caucus without the Caucasians”.) The United States, loathe to see China gain ascendancy in the region, pushed strenuously (working through Japan) to include its allies “Down Under” in the group.
A demonstrator walks past a picture depicting ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as a superhero during an anti-government protest outside Government House in Bangkok April 7, 2009. Supporters of Thaksin are holding big demonstrations to try to embarrass it an the annual East Asia summit this weekend that Thailand is hosting. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
I remember covering an ASEAN meeting in Brunei in 1995 when Australia’s then foreign minister Gareth Evans unrolled a huge map of East Asia which absurdly showed Siberia at the top, Antarctica at the bottom and the Australian continent smack dab in the middle. Malaysia’s foreign minister (and future prime minister) Abdullah Badawi was beside himself. He stormed up to the podium, pointed with a shaking finger at the map and declared: “Australia is not there, it’s down there,” gesturing vehemently at the floor.
So ASEAN wound up caucusing with the Caucasians in the end, launching this annual East Asia Summit four years ago, as an encore act to its annual meetings. And as in a Bertold Brecht play, they have been 16 leaders in search of an existential purpose ever since.
The first summit in Kuala Lumpur was almost an umitigated disaster. China and South Korea were barely on speaking terms with Japan because of its prime minister’s visit to the controversial Yakusuni war shine. At the second summit in Cebu Philippines, the voluble host, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo took a stab at defining the East Asia community, describing it as “many concentric cirlces” converging on areas of common ground such as trade. You could almost see the bubbles floating around.
This weekend’s meeting in Pattaya, Thailand will try to find common ground in dealing with the financial crisis, which has begun to pinch Asia’s largely export-dependent economies. The leaders will sign agreements on energy, climate change, food security. They will be filled with important sounding acronyms and they will be legally pretty much worthless.
If the leaders ever begin to talk seriously, say about a single currency or monetary union as Europe did a quarter-century or so ago, then they can truly start being a community. Or a village if they prefer. Until that happens, Dr. Mahathir had it right. This is a caucus without much focus.
A farmer pushes a bicycle as he walks along a paddy field in Ngai Cau village, 20 km (12.5 miles) outside Hanoi, April 4, 2008. The East Asia summit this weekend in Pattay, Thailland is expected to talk about a food security agreement. REUTERS/Kham