A talking shop – or an EU of the east?

Philip Bowring asks if the Association of South-East Asian Nations has a future

Last year Asean celebrated its 40th anniversary, but the ten-state grouping must now face the question of whether its evolution has stalled. The organisation's response to the catastrophe unleashed by Cyclone Nargis on Burma in May this year was hesitant and tardy, and its condemnation of the Burmese regime's crackdown last September was both late and ineffective. Is there the remotest chance of it becoming an EU of the east?

At one level Asean represents the apparent triumph of a market-oriented, pro-western model. It was founded in 1967 as an anti-communist bastion when the Vietnam War was at its height and the Cultural Revolution was in full swing. The recently independent nations of south-east Asia were feeling vulnerable, and so Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore formed the new group, with Brunei joining on full independence in 1984.

Communism's triumph in Indochina and the subsequent Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia helped hold the initial members together - as did the durability and golf-course camaraderie of its leaders Suharto, Ferdinand Marcos and Lee Kuan Yew, with their joint belief in the value of the US military presence. A sense of shared identity, too, came from rapid economic growth in most of the countries, fuelled by foreign trade and investment (particularly from Japan) and from the ethnic Chinese business in the region. Asean solidarity also helped keep border disputes from getting out of hand.

The 1990s brought a shift. The Cambodian War was settled and Vietnam focused on development and the gradual transition to a market economy. Asean then pursued two, not necessarily compatible goals. One was to bring all countries of the region into the grouping, and the other to enhance economic co-operation. In 1992 it launched a preferential tariff scheme with the ultimate goal of becoming a free-trade area. But with Asean driven by Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad, geographical expansion took precedence over issues of compatibility, leading to the admission of the three Indochina states and, most controversially, Burma.

Free-trade goals then had to be pursued on a two-tier basis - fast track for the original members and slow for the new ones, which had very different economic systems. Last year the association adopted a charter of common commitments and standards and a mechanism for sanctioning breaches. But it is all very vague.

Meanwhile, intra-regional trade has grown very fast, but mainly because of developments in global manufacturing driven by Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and by the emergence of China as a world trade giant. Asean is in the throes of a free-trade deal with China, but at the same time, individual members - Singapore in particular - have made bilateral deals with countries from Mexico to New Zealand. This "noodle bowl" of trade pacts creates confusion and undermines Asean's broader goals.

Some sense of shared community (generally excluding Burma) does exist, at least among the political, bureaucratic and business elites. The rise of China should give renewed political impetus - though Beijing tries hard to keep substantive issues on a bilateral basis. For the first time Asean has a secretary general, the Thai former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan, with a high profile and active agenda. The annual Asean Regional Forum has become a significant event, though seemingly endless meetings and a shortage of obvious achievements often give it the appearance of a talking shop.

The Asean area - predominantly Malay, but heavily Indian-influenced - has a common history and culture that transcend differences of religion and language. But weaving these into a coherent organisation with well-defined goals is tough; as is persuading individual countries to surrender a mite of independence for the greater good.

Philip Bowring is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review

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