The Rice Stalks Are Ripening: Asean May Not Be the European Union of Southeast Asia, but It May Hold the Key to the Emergence of China and the Fate of the Tiger Economies

By Browne, Peter | New Statesman (1996), July 18, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Rice Stalks Are Ripening: Asean May Not Be the European Union of Southeast Asia, but It May Hold the Key to the Emergence of China and the Fate of the Tiger Economies


Browne, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


A fortnight ago, just a month short of its 30th anniversary, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was looking forward to admitting to its ranks the last three countries in the region, Laos, Burma and Cambodia. There were one or two small clouds on the horizon Europe and the US remain opposed to Burma's entry, and the larger membership would undoubtedly generate extra tensions within the association - but the process was unfolding in the usual low-key manner of Asean diplomacy.

A day later Hun Sen's Cambodian Peoples Party, the junior partner in the country's coalition government, launched a military takeover in Phnom Penh. Their pretext for acting was the series of negotiations taking place between the CPP's senior parmer in government, Prince Norodom Ranariddh's Funcinpec Party, and remnants of the Khmer Rouge, aimed at assembling a winning coalition for next year's election. This was the real source of instability, Hun Sen told journalists a few days later. But he failed to convince Cambodia's prospective Asean partners.

By the end of the week Asean foreign ministers had met and decided to defer Cambodia's membership indefinitely. Despite its new symbol - ten golden rice stalks bound together - Asean will be one member short of a full regional grouping after its summit next week.

Temporarily overshadowed by the coup was the controversy surrounding Burma's entry. Member states are being careful to make it clear the decision does not represent approval for Burma's political and human rights record; rather, it's argued, Asean has chosen a different means of promoting change. "Constructive engagement" is the phrase used by Asean officials, Singapore's government-aligned daily, the Straits Times, goes further, arguing that Burma "is on probation; nothing more, nothing less".

The debate over Burma gives some indication of how Asean sees its role in the region as it enters its fourth decade. After 30 years of growth, this is a much more self-confident grouping, which believes it offers an alternative approach - not a blueprint, for the differences within Asean are significant, but a broad approach - to economic and political development.

For Asean, progress towards full regional coverage has been slow. The grouping emerged in 1967 in the thick of cold war Asia. Although cracks were opening up within the US Administration over the conduct of the Vietnam war, Lyndon Johnson had approved a rise to 525,000 in the ceiling on US troops in Vietnam. Ostensibly neutral, Laos had become a massive staging point for the US airforce and supply route for the North Vietnamese. At the time, the idea that Asean would one day admit Vietnam and Laos, still under avowedly communist governments, would have seemed unimaginable.

Burma, pursuing its ultimately disastrous policy of economic self-reliance, showed no interest in joining Asean. Nor, in the late 1960s, did Prince Sihanouk's increasingly unstable Cambodian government. So it wasn't until 1984 that the founding five were joined by the tiny, newly independent Sultanate of Brunei. Eleven years later, in mid- 1995, Vietnam joined too.

Originally formed as an act of "institutionalised regional reconciliation", in the words of Michael Leifer of the London School of Economics, the association allowed countries with conflicting territorial claims and competing economic interests to work together to create the conditions under which internal stability could be maintained. Two decades of enormous change and instability were still fresh in the minds of national leaders. In 1965 alone Singapore had been forced out of the Malaysian Federation and a confused coup d'etat in Indonesia had sparked an upheaval that claimed perhaps half a million lives.

Yet the aims of the grouping were relatively modest. A few talked in terms of an Asian Common Market, but any possibility of formal economic or military treaties was played down, and positively discouraged by the US, the largest aid donor to the region. …

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