Asean grapples with divisive issues

As Asian leaders meet for the 11th Asean conference in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, there seems to be little consensus on how to bridge divisive issues.

Asean leaders line up at the start of the conference

A disparate mix of East and West, democracies and dictatorships, the meeting has already been criticised by former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad as an “East Asia-Australasian summit” for its inclusion of Australia and New Zealand.

He called Australia “the deputy sheriff to America … Australia’s view would represent not the East but the views reflecting the stand of America”.

A last minute extended invitation to the two Australasian countries, as well as India, has exposed the East versus West fault lines upon which any future Asian Union would be built.

Asean is the acronym for the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations that comprises Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei.

Chinese counterbalance

In 2001, Asean was expanded to Asean + 3 – to include Japan, China, and South Korea.

India is seen as a counterweight to China in the regionIndia is seen as a counterweight to China in the region

India is seen as a counterweight
to China in the region

But this year’s addition of India, Australia and New Zealand, as well as a more minor participatory role for Russia, is forcing countries to reconsider what an East Asia community, or union might entail.

Although no country has admitted it publicly, observers believe the underlying reason support was given for extending the summit’s membership was concern that under the Asean + 3 arrangement, there was no potential counterbalance to China’s physical size and projected growth.

“So far Chinese foreign policy has been quite benevolent but this does not matter. For their neighbours it is the existence of China that is the problem,” Dr Andrei Lankov, a South Korea expert at the Kookmin University in Seoul, told

Making the comparison with the European Union, Lankov says East Asia lacks a polycentric makeup.

“At present, China will have 70-80% of the region’s population. It reminds me of the Warsaw Pact when members were all Soviet satellites.”

Marred relationship

A Japanese foreign affairs official, who spoke to on the condition of anonymity, said the inclusion of more Asian states was conceivable because Asean membership had not been decided.

China Premier Wen Jiabao axed a summit with Japan and S Korea China Premier Wen Jiabao axed a summit with Japan and S Korea

China Premier Wen Jiabao axed a
summit with Japan and S Korea

Neither confirming nor denying speculation that his country had backed the idea to bring Australia, India and New Zealand into the summit, he warned that it would be premature to expect much progress in the near future.

“As far as real closeness is concerned it will be important to share common values like democracy. In this sense it will take a long time to achieve an East Asian Community,” the official said.

Chinese relations with Japan have remained strained because of visits to the Yakusuni shrine – a Tokyo war memorial that includes the names of convicted war criminals – by Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

China believes the onus for reconciliation is on Japan.

And to emphasise the point, China cancelled a trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea that was to take place on the sidelines of the Asean conference.

China is currently lobbying participants on the wording of the summit’s final declaration, wanting the declaration to say “this entity must take Asean + 3 as its core”, thereby sidelining the intended counterbalance of India and Australia.

Others, including Japan, are pushing the more inclusive, “to build a future East Asia Community”.

Noticeable absentee

With over a quarter of its exports going to the Asia-Pacific region, one noticeable absentee from Wednesday’s summit is the United States, which is adopting a wait and see approach.

Security for the conference in the Malaysian capital is tight Security for the conference in the Malaysian capital is tight

Security for the conference in the
Malaysian capital is tight

Writing in the Wall Street Journal in August, Dana Dillion, an Asian studies analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation says that with no formal allies in the region, China’s influence will be less than anticipated.

“The new body does pose a potential challenge for the US. But it’s unlikely the East Asia Summit means real trouble, particularly if America makes its interests known and encourages its friends and allies to harness the dragon,” wrote Dillion

Taking a more centralist line, former WTO negotiator Charlene Barshefsky, also writing in the Journal, urged the government to take a more proactive policy in engaging Asia, including negotiating further trade agreements with Asean countries, something China is already doing.

One reason for Washington hands off approach could be that not all have faith in the summit succeeding.

Kookmin University’s Lankov said: “Personally I do not expect an Asian Union to emerge within the next century. This is mainly because of nationalism.

“Like Europe in the late nineteenth century, it will take 60, 70 years to overcome.”

Likely to keep the initial round talks tuned to less controversial trade issues, the wording of the joint declaration will give some indication as to which camp is calling the shots.

What would be a practical result of the summit? Professor Corrado Letta, an adviser to the Asean meeting, told “Perhaps the most concrete result will be to agree to meet again next year in Beijing.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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