Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, current Chairman of ASEAN, has returned from the G-20 summit in Toronto, just in time to host the upcoming 43rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam. Dung has proven himself to be more of an active leader than prior ASEAN chairmen. This past year has been marked by a push for new projects such as the ASEAN Customs National Single Window Initiative, TPP agreements, and a call to meet the goal for regional integration by 2015. At the end of this month, Dung has the opportunity to inspire his colleagues to action.
The 2010 ASEAN meeting will be more of a challenge than any prior summit. This year, the organization will review each country’s progress in fulfilling the pillars of the ASEAN Charter. It is imperative that, in order to continue to be seen as a legitimate regional organization, ASEAN demonstrates to Asia and the world that it is an active organization fulfilling its objectives.
The 10 foreign ministers of the organization will be meeting from July 19–23 to discuss how to make the visions of the ASEAN Charter a reality, and how to increase regional political and security cooperation. On the agenda is a proposal for a new security plan, with a focus on non-militaristic issues, such as energy security and economic integration. The meeting will most likely be a déjà vu experience for many of the attendees, with an all-too-familiar call for political transparency, cooperation with other regional organizations, economic integration, and stability.
The topic of Burma may also be on the table. In the midst of an election year, Burma has recently attracted a large amount of international attention with rumors of nuclear weapons development. Development of nuclear weapons and related ballistic missile capabilities violates ASEAN’s Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty, which all members of ASEAN have signed. ASEAN’s emphasis on non-proliferation was accentuated in its regional forum meeting last year, when the foreign ministers condemned North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches.
ASEAN has a policy of not involving itself in the political process of its members. It often devolves into a soapbox where leaders can promote policies that are best for their nations, and voice their concerns on global issues. ASEAN has long been resistant to American pressure on Burma. The Obama Administration has taken some of this pressure off. One would hope, however, that ASEAN will someday muster the strength to truly press the Burmese junta—even if that means violating one of its core agreements.
The inclusion of ASEAN in meetings of the G-20 summit has been seen by many as an acknowledgment of its growing influence as a regional organization. Prime Minister Dung used this opportunity to draw global attention to ASEAN. In his speech at the Opening Plenary Session of the Summit, Dung portrayed ASEAN as an influential and action-oriented regional organization. He highlighted ASEAN’s important role in promoting trade and economic cooperation in East Asia, and the growing importance of a closer ASEAN-G-20 alliance. Dung’s speech highlighted ASEAN’s commitment to free trade and economic growth, as per standard operating procedure, omitting the complexities of inter-ASEAN economic integration and the real extent to which the organization has extended its fiscal efforts.
The upcoming ministerial meeting will most likely also highlight ASEAN’s increased exports to Asia and the importance of its growing political and economic influence in the region. Regional organizations like ASEAN are often constructed around nation-state proximity, rather than similar national security, political, and economic interests. This tends to cause more conflict and tension, rather than eliminate it. An inevitable lack of full cooperation in the region has caused ASEAN to rely on key Asian trading partners, such as the United States, China, Japan, and Korea for security assistance. Ironically, all of these countries are distinguished members of G-20, three of which participate in the ASEAN+3 Forum. Unlike the United States, which only has a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with individual countries in the region, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, and India have all established a FTA with ASEAN as a whole. The increase in extra-regional cooperation shows that ASEAN has come to realize that in order to achieve regional stability, it will need outside cooperation.
It is important to note that in recent months, China’s trade with ASEAN has been overshadowing U.S. influence and investment in the region. China’s new FTA with ASEAN and the Chiang Mai Initiative has continued to eliminate tariffs and barriers, resulting in an increase in trade between China and six of ASEAN’s founding members, in spite of the global financial downturn.
The recent financial crisis has shown Washington the significance of the Asia-Pacific region. It is in the interest of both the U.S. and ASEAN for America to engage itself in the region. Seeming U.S. indifference has played into a regional political dynamic that resists America’s presence. An anti-American shift would damage the United States’ influence in the region, a development that would threaten U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic presence is crucial for maintaining stability in the region. Action always speaks louder than words.