January 18, 2007

After the summitry, more of the same

As expected, de facto President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo lost no time in trying to parlay her claimed “success” at the 12th ASEAN Summit and the East Asian Summit into glowing predictions about the economy not just in the medium-term but within the year 2007.

Understandably, Mrs. Arroyo is basking in the afterglow of two regional summits that turned out to be one grand production (incidentally, with a price tag of two billion pesos) in terms of the sprucing-up of the public infrastructure of Cebu; the elaborate table-settings and sumptuous food served at the official receptions; the pleasing song-and-dance numbers in the program and historical reenactment sideshows; and the spike in the military cum police forces-to-civilian ratio.

There were plenty of nice photo-opportunities and good sound bytes for the expectant foreign and local media that had turned surly after the seemingly arbitrary change in the original schedule last December based on suspiciously manufactured grounds of a threatening tropical storm that turned out to be a brewing political one.

But was there anything of substance, especially for the majority of Filipinos experiencing unprecedented joblessness and poverty? From news reports, the security agenda was the main course and the Convention on Counterterrorism the main output. The so-called legally-binding ASEAN charter, with mechanisms for bringing erring or uncooperative member countries in line, is just so much whipped cream at this point.

While firming up of the trend towards bilateral trade agreements under the auspices of the WTO and the signpost of neoliberal globalization and pushing ASEAN countries into supporting the return to the Doha Round of the stalled WTO negotiations, there is the illusion being foisted that ASEAN has the makings of a regional economic block that can rival something like the European Union.

To understand the outcome of the latest ASEAN pow-wow, there is a need to backtrack a little and revisit its brief and lackluster history. The ASEAN was formed in 1967 with the blessings of the US and initially included only five countries: Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Its main thrust was to be a bulwark against the spread of communism, specifically, from the perceived threat of China, North Korea and Indochina. Over the decades its range of concerns has broadened from political and diplomatic concerns to also include economic issues and now, in the post-9/11 era, to overtly security matters. It also grew to include Brunei, Myanmar (Burma) and all three Indochinese countries by 1999.

Its members vary widely in terms of economic development and political histories which factors combine to make it, so far, a loose and non-binding organization that, according to the policy studies group, Institute of Political Economy (IPE), has been “unable to deal, on its own, with sensitive and potentially divisive internal issues” as exemplified in the tepid ASEAN responses to the 1978 Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, the East Timor crisis, and the long-standing Spratly Islands dispute.

Moreover, IPE points out that the ASEAN is “unlike the European Union (EU) which, pooling economic and political resources to better challenge the US, has formal mechanisms for majority voting in major policy areas that obliges corresponding domestic economic policies. It also does not have ‘supranational’ institutions like the European Commission, European Courts and the European Parliament”.

The same goes for efforts to achieve regional economic coordination. The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992 was a milestone for ASEAN in being its first real region-wide economic integration effort. In practice, however, it was a very limited deal that was even overtaken by aggressive unilateral liberalization moves by member countries. The AFTA merely gave the appearance of political cooperation on economic policy changes that were happening anyway.

The IPE observes that “such weaknesses consequently limit the extent to which the organization can be used to advance region-wide agendas.” Nonetheless, the group recognizes that “recent global developments may be forcing a change in this (situation).”

It is not difficult to see what these developments are, namely the renewed aggressive global political-military and economic offensive of the US at the onset of the 21st century. Since 9-11, this has been packaged as a US-led “war against terrorism” working hand-in-glove with the US drive for “free trade globalization”.

It is no wonder that, despite the conspicuous absence of US government officials at the Cebu extravaganza (last December, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was rumored to grace the occasion), the US economic and politico-military agenda was more than adequately carried by the Philippine delegation, with Mrs. Arroyo more than eager to play the US drummer girl in the regional body.

As a case in point, the ASEAN Convention on Counterterrorism falls in neatly with what the neoconservative cabal in the Bush administration dream of as a “New American Century” of US global hegemony conveniently wrapped in the rhetoric of the “global war on terror”.

The IPE notes, “In 2000, then US Pacific Command Chief, Admiral Dennis Blair, declared that ‘current security arrangements are inadequate for handling the challenges of the 21st century’ and proposed a regional ‘security community’ for Asia. At the same time it was asserted that ‘U.S. bilateral treaties and security partnerships remain the framework for deterring aggression and promoting peaceful development in the region.’ ASEAN correspondingly began to expand its involvement on security issues and, at its 7th Summit in November 2001, issued the ASEAN Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism which signified ASEAN’s unequivocal alignment with the U.S.-led ‘war on terror’.”

On the other hand, the recent declaration to accelerate the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 instead of the original target of 2020, only underscored the ASEAN member countries’ current trend to be sucked into the vortex of the neoliberal doctrines of liberalization, deregulation and privatization peddled by the US- dominated WTO/IMF/World Bank combine.

The ASEAN once more proved itself to be basically a grouping of neocolonial client states of the US or of governments, like those in Indochina, transitioning from their previously socialist moorings, and eager to become integrated into the world capitalist system. The heads of state that gathered at the 12th ASEAN Summit continue to represent their respective countries’ political and economic elites and not the majority of exploited and oppressed peoples in the region.

The ASEAN is not about national economies coming together to strengthen themselves through such a regional formation and merely reflects consistent efforts to open up/liberalize such economies for imperialist plunder.

At the end of the day, the “success” of the 12th ASEAN Summit bodes more of the same failed national policies and regional “cooperation” for facilitating imperialist domination and plunder aka “globalization” and “war on terror”.###


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