Thai shadow over the ASEAN

P. S. Suryanarayana

New proposals of East Asian harmony must be studied in the context of the growing importance of Group of 20 major and emerging nations and not just in the light of ground realities within the Association of South East Asian Nations.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is dismayed at the ferocity of the latest clashes between Thailand's security forces, including soldiers, and the anti-government protesters in Bangkok. Thailand is a founding member of the ASEAN.

The Thai authorities and protesters are still coming to terms with the murky political meaning of Saturday's clashes, the worst since the 1992 riots in Bangkok against the country's military powers. As at the start of the current month-long crisis, the issue still remains a simple but profound choice between a really representative order and a system with considerable political space for the military establishment.

For the 10-member ASEAN, which aspires to stay as the prime mover for ensuring inter-state harmony in East Asia, the latest Thai crisis could not have occurred at a more awkward moment. Already, the association has been in a state of embarrassment over the political scene in the military-ruled Myanmar, another member-state. Having promised a “democracy-restoring general election,” the Myanmar junta, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), recently crafted the relevant poll laws in such a manner as to dissuade the dissident National League for Democracy from thinking of contesting. A level-playing poll arena is something that the SPDC is not prepared to extend to those wishing to participate in the promised transition to democracy.

Until recently, major ASEAN powers did not feel compelled to bracket Thailand with Myanmar as being equally burdensome to the association. For a number of years now, the ASEAN leaders, excluding the SPDC minions but including the Thai politicians, have felt frustrated over the Myanmar junta's hostility to the idea of democracy as widely understood. In contrast, Thailand's fellow-members in the ASEAN did not, until recently, feel the need to see the association's collective future under the prism of Thailand's unabated political crisis since the 2006 military coup there.

Nearly three years ago, when Thailand took up the ASEAN's rotating Chair, the other members even expressed confidence that Bangkok, with its tradition of statecraft, could be trusted to lead well. However, Thailand's now-completed role as the ASEAN Chair belied such expectations, with the prolonged political crisis in Bangkok being a major contributory factor. And, the latest mood in the collective ASEAN forum over Thailand is one of deep dismay laced with a degree of plain-speak criticism.

Responding to media queries on the political clashes and killings in Bangkok on April 10, the Singapore Foreign Ministry took a decisive stand. Singapore said: “If the situation [in Bangkok] is unresolved, it will have serious implications for Thailand's future and the future of the ASEAN. Singapore hopes that all Thais, whatever their political views, will place the interests of the country first and reach a durable compromise that will enable Thailand to return to normality as soon as possible. This is important not just for the Thai people but also for the ASEAN as a community. The ASEAN cannot progress if one of its most important members remains mired in political instability.” Singapore's views echo the sentiments of several other ASEAN players as well.

Such forthright comments, even as an advice of goodwill, are rare within the ASEAN bloc. This should reflect the extent of the ASEAN's collective concerns over its future role in East Asia at this sensitive time.

Some critical factors for political stability in East Asia are the continuing rise of China as a potential superpower, the hint of a changing axis of focus in America's foreign policy under President Obama, and his new nuclear-posture deal with Russia ahead of the ongoing nuclear security summit he is hosting.

Unsurprisingly in these circumstances, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has now proposed the idea of an informal ASEAN+8 grouping. The idea is that such a new group could gather on the margins of the summit meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum whenever they are held in the Asian continent. The eight countries, as the ASEAN's dialogue partners in this proposed process, will be, in alphabetical order: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea (South Korea), Russia, and the United States. Of these eight, only Russia and the U.S. are currently not members of the East Asia Summit (EAS), a group convened by the ASEAN for summit-level meetings every year.

Singapore's proposal will be studied by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers who are expected to assess the relative merits of two other initiatives, one each by Japan and Australia, as well. The Japanese idea of an East Asian Community is also aimed at creating an EAS-Plus forum, with no finality yet about the possible new members and the logistics of a larger dialogue. Another proposal doing the rounds is Australia's push for an Asia Pacific Community. Here too, Canberra has left the clarity on all relevant issues to be decided through wide-ranging consultations among the major powers with a direct stake in the stability and progress of the EAS region.

Each of these three proposals does provide India with some political and economic space, whatever the extent, in East Asia. New Delhi's interactions with Beijing and Tokyo on some parallel or overlapping tracks are nothing particularly new. Of some relative novelty, though, is the increasing intensity of the dialogue between New Delhi and Seoul. This was exemplified most recently by the Foreign Policy and Security Dialogue, which India's Secretary (East), Latha Reddy, held in Seoul. The objective was to inject greater substance to the bilateral “strategic partnership.”

The comparative equations among the EAS powers and their individual levels of comfort in their collective and independent interactions with the U.S. will become evident during the ongoing nuclear security summit in Washington. As Japanese official Kazuo Kodama notes, counter-terror measures in the nuclear domain rather than the U.S. nuclear umbrellas for its allies drives the interactive agenda of this summit.

About the bigger global picture, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has said, in response to a question from this correspondent in Singapore, that the equation between the U.S. and China, as an informal Group of Two, will be crucial within the G-20 framework of dialogue among the major and emerging powers. Given such thinking, the new proposals of East Asian harmony must be studied in the G-20 context as well, not just the ASEAN ground realities.


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