The news is in a frenzied uproar. Apocalyptic phrases are being thrown around with an almost alarming hysteria: ‘unprecedented failure’, ‘break down’, and the ever ominous and most dreaded word to come from a leader’s lips, ‘disappointing’.
First, let us analyze the facts. Yes, the end of the summit broke with previous tradition in that a joint communique was not issued. Yes, there was no conclusion and no consensus; at best a tense impasse and a messy tangle of unearthed issues. And yes, the South China Sea still remains contested territory. The foreign ministers and ambassadors of the member nations are all caught up, dejected and lamenting the implications of ASEAN’s inability to reach a solution on the presented issues. ASEAN’s credibility is now in question, frets Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam; how can ASEAN hope for community by 2015 when it cannot even issue a concluding joint statement at the annual summit which is supposed to be a forum to address and resolve urgent issues affecting the region?
But here is why the outcome of the ASEAN Summit should not be cause for alarm.
The lack of a joint communique is actually a decisive victory for regional integration in Southeast Asia. The territorial dispute in the South China Sea is not a small issue. The ten member nations of ASEAN arrived in Phnom Penh with divergent opinions and different ways to approach a solution in the South China Sea. Their hope: to frame a binding code of conduct that would govern the way China and the Southeast Asians settled competing territorial disputes. Of course, if we take a step back and look at this, we can agree that this is an ambitious goal in any setting.
The South China Sea issue is complicated multifaceted case. The waters are resource-rich; the site of a third of the world's shipping traffic, plentiful of fish and potentially oil and gas as well. China has unilaterally laid territorial claims over the waters, and action which has sparked conflict, especially with Vietnam and the Philippines. In the recent months, tensions have threatened to erupt amid standoffs between Chinese and Philippine ships –look at the confrontational behaviour in the disputed Scarborough Shoal off northwestern Philippines-, as well as competing Chinese and Vietnamese claims. The denial of access to vessels and the use of military and government force in disputes among fishermen has heightened the fear of the smaller Southeast Asian nation at being swallowed up by China’s greater and expanding power.
To this end, ASEAN sought to make a power play and assert the geopolitical power the global community has attributed to her in the wake of ASEAN’s 45th birthday. The goal was a common position; to act together as one and in doing so demand Beijing to accept a code of conduct for resolving territorial disputes that would not consist in China brushing off the appeals of the smaller nations. Here, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are particularly concerned as to their political and economic identity vis-à-vis the Asian giant of China. However, the dynamics of the conference were such that though the Philippines and Vietnam pushed adamantly for a strict and binding agreement, Cambodia resisted any steps that would embarrass China.
The annual conference of ASEAN failed to budge China: the ten member nations could not agree on a framework which would “foster cooperation where interests align, and manage difference where they don’t.” So, was not the end of the 19th ASEAN Summit an unprecedented disaster?
No. Because the fact remains that the ten member nations met and argued about a very critical and contentious subject. It is all well and easy to issue a joint communique where the issue discussed presents no conflict, but it is even greater that ASEAN has become a regional forum where actors feel they can address and potentially successfully resolve major disagreements. That all the summit attendees lament the issuance of a concluding joint statement implies that they believed such a thing would be possible within the ASEAN framework.
On their 45th year of existence, ASEAN can finally boast a failed summit. No longer is ASEAN a puppet regional forum where the member nations discuss consensual issues and scoff at the idea that such a summit would be a forum for debating serious and complex conflicts. A shift in ideas has taken place: multilateral action over bilateral agreements. And a future of deep ASEAN community suddenly looks much more ideologically feasible by 2015.
Even at conferences about political security in the region, the various officials at both the regional level (here, I am referring to the ADB and ASEAN) and the national level (especially Indonesia and Thailand), are adamant in bringing up their interest for the development of rail infrastructure. This initiative goes hand in hand with the push towards fostering a habit and culture of technical research and innovation for Southeast Asia. The development and promulgation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), and the expansion of a connectivity network (not just digitally based, but including rail and market connectivity as well) are clearly the two major directions of economic development in the region right now.
The commitment is visible: one of the largest financial agreements coming out of Rio+20 is the $175 billion USD pledge made by the ADB (with seven other multilateral development banks) for sustainable transport. “These sustainable transport improvements will benefit billions of people, especially the poor, and support environmental sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Bindu Lohani, ADB’s Vice President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development. ADB’s portion of the commitment numbers at $30 billion USD.
At this point, I must be specific (given that I have demonstrated a tendency above to highlight rail as the focus of transportation infrastructure development in the region): the funds will go towards promoting all forms of sustainable transport. This means public transport, bicycle and walking infrastructure, energy-efficient vehicles and fuels, and inland waterways. The manner in which the funds will be utilized will be parallel to the already existing projects of the ADB in sustainable transport. In example: funding will be directed towards ADB’s current support of the development of bus rapid transit systems in cities of Bangladesh, Mongolia, and China. The projects are ambitious; when completed, the systems will carry from 100,000 to a million passengers daily.
The emphasis on sustainable transport is not misplaced. Apart from the obvious need for the development of public transportation infrastructure – rapid motorization and urbanization have drastically increased air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and health and social problems; complications which account for losses at more than 10% of GDP for the Asia and Pacific region – this initiative will also bolster economic development, by providing people with better access to center of employment and services. Sustainable transport neatly fits into the unique green model for development that Southeast Asia is interested in creating, supporting environmental sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the move must happen now: statistics for Asia and the Pacific show that Asia’s share of the global vehicle fleet is projected to rise from 9% in 1980 to 46% in 2030. When the transport sector already accounts for nearly two-thirds of total oil consumption in the world, this trend (to provide a contextual mental picture, motor vehicle growth is almost four times faster than population growth in Asia) could have devastating consequences not only for the environment, but also the economy.
Investing in an alternative to motor vehicle usage will benefit billions of people, especially the poor – who have been increasingly marginalized in the export-oriented-foreign-investor-lead economic boom in the region. An expanded transport system will provide basic access to rural communities, linking them to cities, jobs, and markets.
Of course, the regional integration dimension of an extensive transportation infrastructure is of particular interest – especially when we take a look at the actors involved (ASEAN, the ADB, as well as the regional powerhouses of Indonesia and Thailand, whose banks are major funders of community building movements). Linking rural and urban centers and connecting countries will promote regional cooperation and integration. From there, it’s a small leap to a connectivity superhighway of ideas, building a foundation for addressing shared issues.
This statement was repeated incessantly throughout the ‘ASEAN at 45’ Summit organized by the Friends of Europe. The ASEAN officials quoted great tales of progress – regional stability; political reform and development; and economic growth despite the world crisis – and the European officials were more than eager to agree. However, the state of relations between the EU and ASEAN did not correlate with this optimistic agreement. Where the European side hailed EU-ASEAN relations as a working accomplishment of step-by-step partnership building - starting at the national level and building towards cooperation with the region as whole -, the Asian side clearly considers EU efforts lacking.
ASEAN’s growth as a regional actor in Southeast Asia has certainly been a success story. Asia is no longer just China, Japan and Korea. In both a political and economic sense, the nations of Southeast Asia, the so-termed Rising Asia, have become major strategic players in both Asia and the world. Recent political reforms in Myanmar, as well as settlement of border disputes among the founding members of ASEAN, have achieved regional stability and security in Rising Asia (notwithstanding small disagreements between the states, which in itself is a demonstration of regional commitment towards political stability and development). ASEAN is in the driver’s seat of pan-Asian integration.
Within the ASEAN member nations, integration is market driven and output oriented. The challenges facing ASEAN are clearly identified and appear to be systematically dealt with within the organization’s framework. Most talked about these are: the formation ASEAN community along the three pillars of the established ASEAN Charter; the building of extensive ICT and infrastructure to raise connectivity; a focus on innovation and, in this regard, a fostering of a tradition of research and higher education, modeled after the South Korean framework; and increased discussion on the pressing social issues in civil society, notably human rights, corruption, and migrant workers. At a national level, the ASEAN states show commitment towards implementing projects to meet ambitious targets prioritized by the region.
The EU as a whole has not capitalized on the growth of opportunity in the ASEAN region. While trade and economic relations between the two regions are extensive, these are characterized as bilateral agreements that do not overflow into the realms of security or political collaboration on global issues. The Chief Operating Officer of the European External Action Service maintains that Europe has “always understood the importance of the [ASEAN] region as whole”. But apart from a series of loosely stated diplomatic niceties – assurances that the EU supports ASEAN efforts in peaceful negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as initiatives for sustainable development of infrastructure – the EU does not commit to the region.
Of notable importance is the statement made by EU Commissioner for Trade, promising an EU-ASEAN free trade agreement by 2015. That this statement came off as ambitious and surprising is a reflection of the shallow ties between the two institutions. At this point, it is important to mention the recent progress made in EU-ASEAN relations. Officials have met for the ASEAN-EU Business Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to explore business and investment opportunities. In late-April, ASEAN-EU foreign ministers adopted a plan for reopening dialogue to enhance, intensify, and strengthen mutual cooperation. The aims and objectives of the two, however, do not seem to coincide.
The ‘ASEAN at 45’ Summit itself was split into two panel discussions, one focusing inwards at ASEAN regional integration, and the other examining ASEAN’s global outreach. Overall, the conference was well managed and the panel discussion was not afraid to broach sticky subjects, political reform in Myanmar and territorial disputes both within the borders of ASEAN and in the South China Sea, to name two. However, the symbolism of hosting the conference in a fake library, stocked with weathered encyclopedias as props, was not lost.With just a cursory glance across the room, it was easy to see the great imbalance: the ratio of Asian visitors to the EU bureaucrats of Brussels was overwhelming. To add to this, while the Asian representatives tabulated amongst themselves an impressive and distinguished list of officials – the Managing Director General of the Asian Development Bank, the Deputy Governor of Bank Indonesia, representatives from ASEAN High-Level Task Forces, etc. -, the European attendance was composed predominantly of interns. Then, take into account the fact that these leaders of ASEAN had to travel long flights and commit a substantial chunk of their time in order to attend this conference, and the disparity in interest and commitment to an enhanced partnership is starkly thrown into relief.
Europe cannot hope to gain the trust and working relationship it seeks with ASEAN by saying a few words and promising the moon.
True, the European officials who did partake in the panel discussion showed a serious commitment and belief in ASEAN’s importance. The member states of the EU are extensively involved bilaterally with the ASEAN Secretariat, and the Italian Foreign Minister has in the last two months visited five of the ASEAN member nations. Business interests have also already integrated themselves into the beginning stages of infrastructure development. Europe is present in Southeast Asia, and ready to establish stronger ties.
The general feeling of the conference, however, was disappointing. Another summit in a long list of failed meetings. We should not be surprised though. The EU Commissioner for Trade, the highest EU official present at the conference, cannot hope to gain any grounds for negotiation if he leaves the summit directly after saying a few opening words. ASEAN came to Europe, prepared to talk, but where does it leave us if Europe is not prepared to listen?