August 03, 2007

ASEAN hype

The press releases churned out of the 40th Ministerial Meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) this week gives the impression ASEAN is well on the way to becoming a formidable economic bloc and a force to reckon with in the geopolitical landscape. This self-congratulatory stance was exemplified by the braggadocio in the keynote speech of de facto Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, that the lofty vision of an “ASEAN community” is achievable by the year 2015, and not the official target of 2020.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. While it is true that ASEAN leaders had decided to eliminate tariffs on practically all goods by 2015, there is no way this could translate into maximal trade flows among the group’s 10 member-nations. Business World reports that intra-ASEAN trade only rose marginally to one-fourth of the region’s total trade even with tariff cuts that began way back in 1993 with the ASEAN Free Trade Area or AFTA. This is considered dismal compared to the other trading blocs such as the European Union (EU) to which Mrs. Arroyo has repeatedly, and erroneously, likened ASEAN.

The Institute of Political Economy (IPE), a local think tank explains, “In practice AFTA and its three core agreements (on tariff, investment and services) have so far merely given the appearance of political cooperation on economic liberalization policy changes that were happening anyway. Also, because of the depth of unilateral liberalization in the ASEAN countries, there do not appear to have been any significant tariff or investor benefits for being an ASEAN member as opposed to a non-ASEAN member.”

How can the ASEAN countries achieve real economic integration, such as that of the EU or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for it to wield collective economic clout? It must be underscored that the European Union arose from the common interest of its individual member-nations to protect their traditional markets and to better challenge the US economically by pooling their resources and presenting a common front against its main rival.

In contrast, the US and the EU are still the main export markets of ASEAN with Japan and China close behind. At a time when bilateral free trade agreements are fast being inked between individual countries in ASEAN and the big economies such as the US, EU, Japan and the economic powerhouses, China and India, the regional grouping is easily overshadowed or relegated to the sidelines.

Most of the individual countries in ASEAN, especially the five core members -- the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – historically and currently have more closely identified their economic and security interests with external big powers, principally the US, than with each other. They have not been able to autonomously define a substantial, so-called regional, agenda. As pointed out by IPE, “(T)he major direction of ASEAN today -- as embodied in the targeted ASEAN Community by 2020 – is conspicuously framed in terms of building closer security and economic links with non-ASEAN powers.”

When it comes to assessing the ASEAN’s political coherence and independence as a regional body as well as its supposedly distinct approach to building unity the “ASEAN way”, the hype far outstrips reality.

The ASEAN was formed in 1967 with the blessings of the US, as a bulwark against the spread of socialism mainly coming from China, North Korea, Indochina and national liberation movements waging armed struggles within the original five member-countries. It was comprised of member-states with governments that were unabashedly pro-US and anti-communist as well as openly authoritarian; among them were Suharto of Indonesia, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Brunei, an Islamic monarchy, was admitted after gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1984.

Ateneo history professor, Dr. Francis Gealogo, points pout, “The ASEAN, though presented as an economic and cultural grouping, (unlike the earlier groupings that were military and diplomatic alliances), still retained its anti-communist character as the single most common and binding attribute of the formation. Despite its official pronouncements, ASEAN was being presented as a counterweight to the formation of a consolidated socialist bloc of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and a reclusive Burma.” But much more than Cold War alignments was the fact that at the height of the US embroilment in the Vietnam War, US military deployments and operations were being launched from the territories of ASEAN member-nations.

In addition, Dr. Gealogo recalls, “(M)ost of the original members of ASEAN did not confine the anti-communist rhetoric to its foreign policy orientation. The suppression of the communist movements … under various official government doctrines (e.g., New Order in Indonesia, New Society in the Philippines; Emergency in Malaysia) meant that democratic governance and the pursuit of social justice were more rhetoric than actual principles that were being implemented in the governments of member states.”

State terror under the guise of countering communism was adopted, according to Dr. Gealogo, “ in order to further cement the support that governments of original member nations were getting from the United States. .. (and) to prolong the stay in power of most of the rulers of the member states. Thus, while ASEAN would pride itself as the ‘democratic’ representative of the region, in contrast to ‘undemocratic’ communist Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, for all intents and purposes, the respect for human rights and individual freedoms of people of member states would be proven to be of low significance to the definition of ASEAN and the ASEAN way.”

Moreover, the ASEAN’s expansion to virtually all of the countries in the region could not be correctly attributed to its performance or strength as a regional grouping but to largely extraneous factors and circumstances. The collapse of the Soviet bloc provided the condition for the Indochina states to gravitate towards a regional association that could facilitate their integration into the global capitalist arena. In a similar vein, Myanmar’s military junta, seeking to break prolonged international isolation, sought legitimacy by participating in whatever international arena it could avail of.

Meanwhile, the reported resistance by Myanmar and the three Indochinese countries to the establishment of an ASEAN human rights body is being attributed to their “authoritarian or single-party governments”. This discriminatory line resurrects the anachronistic “democracy vs. communism” divide and plays up the “black sheep” image of Myanmar while completely ignoring the internationally condemned human rights record of the Arroyo regime, the unchanged politically repressive, elite rule in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and the reigning military junta in Thailand. The human rights, pro-democracy stance of the ASEAN is clearly hollow and hypocritical.

The ASEAN delegates are congratulating themselves. The US representative and the EU foreign minister heaped lavish praise for what the ASEAN has accomplished. The Arroyo government is basking in the glow of the “successful” meetings it has hosted and vainly claims credit for advancing ASEAN economic integration, human rights and security in the region.

But who’s cheering? ###


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