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Relegated to the Sidelines?
ASEAN members try to boost their image

As this year's meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers wound down on July 25, some officials gathered in Bangkok were lamenting that North Korea would inevitably steal the show. That's what happened when Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun flew in to attend a July 27 meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the seven-year-old security panel in which Pyongyang would participate for the first time. As soon as he stepped off his plane, in Bangkok the North Korean became an instant star. At the first of about a dozen bilateral meetings he will have during his stay, Paek appeared discomfited by the intense press interest, prompting his Thai counterpart Surin Pitsuwan to assure him: "You'll get used to it."

Paek also seemed impatient to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was set to arrive in the Thai capital on July 28, delayed by her duties at the failed Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David. "Hasn't she arrived yet?" he asked reporters. The North Korean minister declined to meet Albright's deputy and temporary stand-in Strobe Talbott. For the most part, though, Paek's busy dance card will be limited to relatively short sit-downs. His head-to-head with Japan's Kono Yohei will last only 20 minutes. Albright may have little time to thoroughly discuss Pyongyang's plan to stop building ballistic missiles in exchange for space technology.

The attention given to North Korea and the big powers left many of the core ASEAN members feeling like wallflowers. Singapore's S. Jayakumar alluded to this with a refreshingly candid assessment of the group's image problem. "We must ask ourselves why the [economic] recovery has not translated into a restoration of international confidence in ASEAN," Jayakumar said. "We may not like perceptions of ASEAN as being ineffective and a sunset organization. But they are political facts. Perceptions can define political reality." He concluded: "If we continue to be perceived as ineffective, we can be marginalized as our dialogue partners and international investors relegate us to the sidelines."

Thailand's Surin seemed especially keen on proving ASEAN's continuing relevance. He pronounced an informal closed-door "retreat" among ministers in a penthouse room of the luxury Peninsula Hotel "splendid," insisting that they were all "extremely honest towards each other." The group of ten tussled over sensitive issues including the formalization of a so-called troika mechanism for resolving crises. The Thai-proposed initiative was approved, but officials were hard-pressed afterwards to explain exactly how it would work.

Basically, the idea is to give the sitting chairman more latitude in dealing with problems. After consulting his nine colleagues — a new region-wide hotline system is planned — he may then move to act on his own, convene an emergency session of foreign ministers or call in the troika, made up of the present, past and incoming chairmen. Explains ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino: "It will have a flexible composition. If you deal with an event in one country, it would hardly be appropriate to include the minister of that country. It doesn't even have to be just three ministers." As with everything else in ASEAN, the key word is "flexibility."

Severino, a Philippine diplomat, has held the thankless job of secretary general since January 1998. Based in Jakarta, the affable ambassador confesses to not playing golf — the sport of choice for Southeast Asia's movers and shakers. That meant that instead of joining in the annual ministerial tournament the morning of July 26, he had the time to meet Asiaweek's Senior Correspondent Alejandro Reyes to discuss ASEAN's international profile and other issues.

Is the perception that ASEAN is flagging hurting the organization?

As in anything in life, perception and reality interact with each other, and perception often shapes the reality. It can be very damaging. You have to do something to change the reality. We're doing that with internal reforms and greater regional economic integration.

Will the troika work as well as the E.U.'s crisis mechanism?
ASEAN always suffers by comparison with the E.U. We're doing well compared to other regional organizations, but maybe because Europeans set the perception agenda and because the E.U. has been ahead of this game historically, people tend to use it as a benchmark.

What happens if a weak ASEAN member or one that is less proactive is chairman?
In the E.U., what happens if France doesn't agree to a move? Do you think anything is going to happen? The reason the E.U. meets so often is that they require consensus. People think that ASEAN invented that. But in matters of great importance the E.U. doesn't just require consensus but unanimity too. [To protest sanctions against it,] Austria is now threatening to block all kinds of important arrangements. While the level of political development in Southeast Asia is very much behind if one values transparency and democracy, you have to deal with that reality and you have to work with what you have. The troika may not bring us to the level of the E.U., but it is an incremental step [that way].

Some are saying that the ASEAN Free Trade Area is failing.
At the height of the Crisis a lot of people said AFTA is finished. The ASEAN countries will go the way of every-man-for-himself and retreat into isolationism and protectionism. But, of course, it would not have been logical to do this. It is the last thing to do in the face of a crisis of confidence. Indeed, the decision was to accelerate AFTA rather than to retard it. Unfortunately, the [recent postponement of including] Malaysian cars has been singled out. In a way it is an example of backtracking, but what about other products? And autos are just a sub-sector; it doesn't include car parts. It's unfair for people to jump on this, but people do.

What about the poorer members' ability to meet commitments?

Why would they have difficulty? Because of the loss of revenues from customs duties? Before the Cambodians joined, they were telling us that was their main worry because such a large percentage of their trade is with Southeast Asian nations. But now Cambodia is quite open, and I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't meet their commitments. WTO is upon us, so what is the point? It will happen anyway, AFTA or not. We have responded to the Crisis adequately, but there are new competitive forces at work. The world is not standing still. You can't stop the advanced countries from using technology to press their advantages. You would expect Taiwan and South Korea to do the same. So unless ASEAN implements its economic integration even faster than the current timetable and unless we embrace technology, then we will have a difficult time.

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