Nov 23, 2007
Managed pace for Asean
THIS week's meetings of Asean and its extended East Asia caucus had their charged moments over Myanmar, but gave off no little illumination. It is proper to acknowledge the progress that Asean has recorded - modest, though, and belatedly for a diplomatic entity that is 40 years old - while staying clear-eyed about the obstructions that an unrepentant Myanmar will place in the grouping's path in its international dealings. Relatively uncontroversial was the project on market union, which ambitiously has been targeted for 2015. How to get there will be fought over and exemptions and exceptions allowed the weaker nations along the way can dilute the principle. But there was no disagreement that union is desirable. Also significant was the declaration on environmental protection by both Asean and the East Asia attendees. Again, all were of one voice that the matter was urgent. But the cost benefit to signatory nations and the means of pursuing it will be disputed. Many will, for example, be watching if Indonesia would control its seasonal forest burning. This is one demonstrable test of accountability.
The signing of the Asean Charter, with constituent sections on how disputes are to be settled and the touchy human rights question, was the centrepiece of the proceedings. Much was said by delegations about how the Charter will speed up integration so that the grouping will grow to be a force in international diplomacy and trade. A comparison with the European Union, everybody's model of a functioning supranational organisation, is not irrelevant in the circumstances. Older, patrician EU states are unhappily aware that economic inequities have been creeping up on a supposedly homogeneous club with the entry of East Europeans and the Balts. There is an upper-class EU and a lower-class EU, although no one will be heard talking about it openly. Dissension over Turkey's membership will also expose deeper divisions when candidature talks get more advanced.
Asean's disparities and its difficulties with Myanmar are no less troubling than the adjustment issues an enlarged EU will face. The difference is that Asean has not established itself yet. Myanmar stared members down and created divisions when refusing to have its affairs aired in session. The Philippines gave notice the Charter may not get past its legislature if Myanmar did not change. Asean is wise in wanting to work within the system to have Myanmar rehabilitate itself, but it should be prepared for lurches before it can be cohesive enough to bring broad benefits to its half-billion inhabitants.