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  • Introduction
  • Daljit Singh

It is not possible to pull together into this introductory essay the many rich themes and insights contained in this volume. Instead I have selected eight points which, in my view, deserve the reader's attention when looking at Southeast Asia in the year 2008.

A Region Mostly At Peace

First, Southeast Asia enjoyed a relatively peaceful year. While it is true that Thailand and Cambodia fired at each other in anger, the fighting was quickly ended. As Michael Vatikiotis says in his chapter in this volume, "the instinctive avoidance of conflict which is rooted deep in the region's cultural DNA" helped to defuse a potential crisis. Southeast Asia has also been fortunate that relations between the major powers in its broader Asian and Pacific environment, especially U.S.-China relations, have remained generally stable, which is crucial for the region's peace and tranquility. Further, several internal conflicts within Southeast Asian states have been settled or mitigated in recent years, mostly within Indonesia. Al Qaeda-linked terrorism has continued to suffer setbacks (see below).

The principal blots on this generally peaceful scene have been the conflicts in the southern Philippines and southern Thailand. The unfortunate breakdown of the Malaysian-brokered peace negotiations between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main armed Muslim group confronting the government in the south of the country, was a significant setback, while the insurgency in the southern provinces of Thailand continued to rage as before with no prospect of an early end.

Given the virtual absence of interstate conflict and relative freedom from big power tensions and conflicts, at this moment in history, the security threats to Southeast Asia are largely of the 'non-traditional' type —like violence or tensions associated with ethnic, religious or separatist conflict; terrorism; illegal migrations; and pandemic diseases. [End Page ix]

ASEAN's Progress

Second, ASEAN's institutional evolution advanced a few more steps. The ASEAN Charter came into force on 15 December, giving a legal identity to the organization and setting institutional and normative benchmarks towards which it must move if it is to achieve its goal of becoming a more cohesive rules-based organization that also respects human rights and democratic values. Member countries now have Permanent Representatives to ASEAN based in Jakarta, while some ASEAN Dialogue Partners have Ambassadors accredited to ASEAN. A high-level task force has been appointed to recommend the responsibilities and powers of the human rights body provided for in the Charter. During the year, past agreements on trade in goods and services were consolidated into one agreement, while the two investment–related agreements were likewise consolidated into one. A free trade agreement was signed with Australia and New Zealand, but one with India unexpectedly did not materialize because of technical and legal problems. There was also progress in moving the Chiangmai Initiative, under the ASEAN Plus Three framework, beyond a network of bilateral swops towards in effect a central pool of funds which a country in crisis could draw from.

However, the challenges facing the Association as it seeks to move towards its proclaimed goals were also significant, as Catharin Dalpino points out in the first chapter of this volume. Basically, they revolve around implementation, given ASEAN's tendency to agree on principles and goals first and leave the practical steps of implementation to be worked out later. For instance, how will ASEAN implement the norms adopted in the Charter about the internal behaviour of states in relation to matters like good governance and respect for human rights? Likewise, while it is laudable to set the goal of achieving economic integration by 2015, how will ASEAN take the practical steps to achieve this?

Still, whatever its challenges and shortcomings, ASEAN continues to provide Southeast Asia with a certain common identity and an invaluable cooperative framework. Without it, the region would be more fragmented, and pulling in different directions. ASEAN also remains the anchor of wider Asian regional cooperation involving the major powers through which ASEAN seeks to nurture friendly and cooperative relations between the major powers, between them and ASEAN, and an equilibrium in their influence in the region. [End Page x...


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