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Within And Beyond Asean

Asean member states need to pay as much attention to concerns among themselves as to connections with countries and regions beyond them, if Asean is to remain relevant in its fifth decade.

Opening the 41st Asean Ministerial Meeting earlier this week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong touched on both intra- and extra-Asean consultations. He warned that multilateral platforms taking shape elsewhere might sideline Asean as a diplomatic convener and networker. The Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear programme have certainly emerged as a major forum in Northeast Asia.

They offer obvious potential in lessening other tensions. Building trust is also a key objective of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which groups China and Russia along with four Central Asian countries. Its mutual security as well as economic collaboration role lends it standing.

For the time being, the Asean Regional Forum, or ARF, remains the premier security institution in Asia and the Pacific. With 27 members--including at its core the 10 Asean states--it has an impressive agenda, encompassing confidence-building, preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution. In practice, however, decision-making has been slow and cooperation uneven. Subsets of members with pre-existing defence arrangements get into the consultation and joint action habit more readily than others new to multilateral security collaboration. As well as being an asset, its large membership is also too unwieldy to deal quickly with developments in the dynamic global security environment. A discussion paper Singapore circulated at the Asean meeting this week envisages measures to reinvigorate ARF.

ARF's Asean core should lead in developing a clearer vision for the forum, while sustaining Asean's extensive calendar of other useful consultations with East Asian, Pacific, European and American partners. But success depends crucially on Asean credibility and commitment to sorting out intra-Asean issues. The Thai-Cambodian dispute centred on the Preah Vihear temple is flaring so soon after Asean barely managed to tackle the Burma humanitarian situation. The grouping needs a thicker institutional web to absorb and resolve such differences. Internal politics may currently preoccupy too many Asean countries for them to intensify Asean institution and capacity building. But keenly felt and externally driven concerns require Asean to redouble integration efforts by implementing its new charter, setting up a human rights body and seeing to other internal mechanisms. Building effective extra-Asean platforms for engagement with powers beyond the region must start with cohesion within it. (The Straits Times/ ANN)

MySinchew 2008.07.24


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