Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Asean Faces a Testing Time

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Asean Faces a Testing Time

Article excerpt

Anthony Smith comments on ASEAN's Sixth Summit Meeting in Hanoi in December 1998.

In December 1998 Hanoi hosted the Sixth ASEAN Summit Meeting, which was attended by the heads of government of each of the member countries. The summit occurred in the midst of growing criticism of ASEAN's inability to solve various regional problems. With growing debate in the region about the rationale of ASEAN in the post-Cold War era, many commentators are now putting the case for a far more institutionalised regional organisation. The outcome of the summit was agreement to the admission of Cambodia by an unspecified date and confirmation of the creation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) by the revised date of 2002 (one year ahead of schedule). Divisions within the organisation were apparent over the admission of Cambodia. However, in accordance with ASEAN's much bandied rhetoric of unanimity and consensus, a compromise agreement was reached. The summit effectively reaffirmed that ASEAN is still valuable but also demonstrated that in the midst of the Asian financial crisis ASEAN will only seek to consolidate its past gains.

In many respects a degree of momentum has been lost by ASEAN. Founded in 1967, the members, who were the non-communist and nonsocialist countries of South-east Asia, wanted a regional organisation that would improve regional resilience. Broadly speaking this was achieved in two ways. First of all, the ASEAN states agreed to form a united front on regional issues, notably during the 1980s when the ASEAN states agreed to support the anti-Vietnamese resistance forces in Cambodia, despite the misgivings of Indonesia and Malaysia. Second, the ASEAN countries agreed to respect each other's territorial integrity, codified in the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation, where regional resilience would be enhanced by the greater stability of the individual member states.

Despite the fact that the rhetoric surrounding the creation of ASEAN was of economic and social integration, primarily the organisation existed as a diplomatic community. Attempts to engage in integration at the economic and social level were halfhearted and usually did not amount to much. The Preferential Trading Arrangements of 1977 failed significantly to improve intra-regional trade and the ASEAN Industrial Co-operation Scheme did not get off the ground.

However, at the 1992 Singapore Summit it was agreed to create AFTA, which involved the removal of tariffs on all goods bar unprocessed agricultural products and `sensitive items' by 2008 (later shortened to 2003 and now 2002). This process represents a modest step in the direction of economic integration, but further steps are planned for the long term. Historically Indonesia has been the most reluctant to consider wider economic linkages, but changes to that country's polity may have altered this stance, although at the same time hampering its ability to participate fully as `regional leader'.

Since 1997 the South-east Asian region has been buffeted by a series of problems that have tested both ASEAN and bilateral relationships in the region. The Indonesian forest fire problem of 1997 and 1998, which destroyed 750,000 hectares of forest and caused dangerously high pollution levels in much of South-east Asia, caused tensions with Indonesia's neighbours. Neighbouring countries were largely muted in their comments on Indonesia, following the principle of not commenting on `domestic issues'. When it was revealed in late 1997 that the fires were caused by large land holding companies with links to the Suharto administration, and not by the slash and burn practices of small farmers, Suharto publicly apologised on two separate occasions. This highlighted the fact that rampant corruption in Indonesia could have a dramatic effect on the region. It also illustrated that what ASEAN member states have traditionally regarded as `domestic issues' can have trans-border implications. …

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