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  • Southeast Asia in 2008:Challenges Within and Without
  • Catharin Dalpino (bio)

In 2008 ASEAN intensified its longstanding search for identity. In the final quarter of the year the Association was transformed from a consultative group into a legal entity when the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand became the last member states to ratify the ASEAN Charter.1 However, the translation of the group's new status into policies remains an open question. ASEAN continues to be the bedrock of Asian regional architecture, but signs are emerging that the Northeast Asia members of the ASEAN+3 may not need Southeast Asian training wheels much longer. At the same time, ASEAN was pulled closer into Northeast Asian conundrums —and potential conflicts —with new overtures from North Korea and Taiwan.

However, more tangible challenges to Southeast Asian unity in 2008 came from developments within and between the member states themselves. The protracted multi-party process to forge a peace agreement between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government failed, assuring continued instability in Mindanao and calling into question the efficacy of ad hoc regional diplomacy. A dispute over an historic border temple sparked a brief military clash between Thailand and Cambodia, with each side accusing the other of provoking conflict for domestic political gain. At the end of the year international attention was drawn to Thailand's complicated political crisis when anti-government protestors seized the international airport in Bangkok, disrupting regional air routes and forcing Bangkok to postpone the annual ASEAN Summit.

But arguably the greatest challenge to ASEAN coherence posed by a member state in 2008 was the response —or lack of —by the government of Myanmar to Cyclone Nargis and to offers of humanitarian relief from the international [End Page 3] community. Less than a year after the government's crackdown of the "Saffron Revolution", the disaster became a diagnostic for Myanmar's regional relations. ASEAN emerged as the interlocutor of choice, but the limits of the Association's influence on its isolated and isolationist member were obvious.

ASEAN Charter: Back-and-Fill Institutional Development?

The birth of ASEAN as a legal entity was marked at a special meeting of the Association's Foreign Ministers in Jakarta on 15 December 2008.2 The ASEAN Charter was signed the year before in a game of brinksmanship with a handful of member governments that believed the Charter lacked sufficient mechanisms to handle the difficulties presented by Myanmar's membership in the Association.3 Although doubts on this score continued into 2008 and made for a ragged ratification schedule, there was little sign of that drama at the Jakarta meeting.

The Charter institutionalizes the ASEAN meeting process by moving from a schedule of meetings to a structure of ministerial-level permanent councils, one for each of the three areas of ASEAN community building: economic; political-security, and sociocultural. The Charter also enables ASEAN members to post permanent representatives to the Association, and allows ASEAN's external partners to do the same. The first such country to do so in 2008 was the United States, with several countries following in rapid fashion. Some external partners have based the ASEAN Ambassador position in their own capitals, while others have representatives in Jakarta. The Charter also provides for measures to strengthen the ASEAN Secretariat.

To date, the most developed of the ASEAN communities is the economic one. The Charter stipulates that the original six ASEAN members —Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei —will reduce tariffs on intra-regional trade by 2010, while the four newer members —Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar —will complete that process by 2015. Some analysts attribute the momentum toward economic integration to a desire on ASEAN's part to present a solid bloc in negotiations with China.4 Others trace the origins of the ASEAN Economic Community to the early 1990s, and view it as a defense against the perceived division of the international market into trade blocs, with the rise of the European Union and the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Although the reorganization of ASEAN under the Charter provides for more permanent structures, it is not clear if it provides a sufficient foundation...


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