Nov 19, 2007
Asean at a turning point
ASEAN countries will sign a Charter at their annual summit here this week that is both a milestone and a paving stone. The document marks the notable strides Asean has covered in 40 years in maintaining peace through non-violent dispute resolution and non-interference in members' internal affairs. The stability achieved has allowed relations to develop and Asean diplomacy to grow in cohesion and effectiveness beyond the region. But the Charter also represents the beginning of more intricate groundwork for more purposeful cooperation in a globalised, post-9/11 era. To a greater extent than during the Cold War, when the grouping came into existence, transnational problems, from terrorism to climate change, require trans-national solutions.
In signing it, members are acknowledging the need not only to deepen cooperation to meet these challenges but also to evolve the manner in which they should conduct such partnership. They are giving the clearest signal yet of their readiness to move, however gradually and without abandoning principles of sovereignty and consensual decision- making, to a tighter regionalism. The grouping will be bound by rules but unafraid of closer engagement that may essentially be constructive but, as needed in the Myanmar case, could also edge towards being critical. Asean not only has to cope with expanded membership, requiring integration of economies at various stages of development; it also has to compete effectively and cooperate credibly where size does matter, with economically vibrant China and India.
Most notable among areas the Charter will promote will be trade and development. Economic union is envisaged by 2015. A blueprint will enhance Asean investment allure by liberalising flow of goods, services and capital. The Charter encompasses other vital areas - security, energy, the environment and human rights - where understandings and discussions also need to evolve into agreements, regulations and norms. The mature European Union still is on such a path. Asean could profit from the experience, while avoiding such pitfalls as an overwhelming structure and red tape. Far from being a finished product, the Charter is the beginning of a long process. Members will implement its articles at various speeds, depending on their readiness, without holding back others more ready to proceed. They will elaborate its provisions by precedent, practice and trial and error. But there is no denying that what is being done in Singapore this week initiates an irrevocable phase towards a more substantive grouping.