Plenty in Asean mix, but little concrete action

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2007, 12:00am

If the value of talks between nations is really an end in itself, then East Asian diplomacy is in rude good health.

Five days of meetings surrounding Asean's new East Asia Summit ended in classic fashion - plenty of hearty pledges and vows of action, and relatively few tangibles, whether on trade, the environment or tensions in Myanmar.

There was no shortage of gatherings. Just take the leaders of China, South Korea and Japan. They met individually and together as well as meeting - again both together and apart - with the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

And then there was the summit itself, the Asean 10 plus China, Japan, India, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. Don't be too hasty for action, warn veteran envoys of the 40-year-old Asean grouping; just getting such a wildly diverse group of nations together in one room is an achievement in itself.

For all that, there were some intriguing trends. Premier Wen Jiabao continued to highlight China's prominence as well as its increasing nuance and sophistication in dealing with the region. His profile was also helped by using the occasion to stage a formal bilateral trip to the summit host Singapore, becoming the first Chinese leader to visit the city state in eight years.

Japan's new premier, too, appeared keen to make up for lost diplomatic ground as he breathed life into his policy of getting closer to the region, including China. Mr Wen captured the mood as the pair sat down for the first time in what insiders on both sides described as a warm 90-minute meeting.

On a range of other issues, the Chinese delegation played a key role, highlighting its growing diplomatic prominence. As Myanmar objected to a planned briefing by UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari on the situation in the country, China also quietly raised concerns. A full briefing never happened.

And in a less high-profile move, China's model of an eventual free trade zone linking Asean nations plus itself, Japan and South Korea is on the ascendancy, rather than a wider bloc including India, Australia and New Zealand. Japan, keen to include like-minded democracies in its regional dealings as a counter to Beijing, had quietly been pushing for the latter.

Trade, of course, looms as one of the biggest tests for Southeast Asia as leaders try to prove Asean's relevance after 40 years of glacial decision-making. The meetings confirmed Asean's charter to stiffen its legal framework as well as its ambitious economic blueprint by 2015.

The blueprint demands not just free trade in goods, but a free flow of capital, labour, services and investment across the 10 Asean nations. The goal is not just a single market, but also a single production base - allowing Southeast Asia to better compete with East and South Asia.

It is a big test given the grouping's cultural and political diversity. The daunting economic challenges are growing ever more apparent.

Asean's economies may be continuing to enjoy high growth but several recent regional surveys warn of structural shifts as China's rise makes its impact. Trade among Southeast Asian nations is actually shrinking even as their economies expand, given the flow of trade with China.

Some countries, such as Malaysia, risk degenerating into plantation economies and suppliers of raw materials and partly-finished goods.