Asean trumpets, but North counts

In all the self-congratulation on strides to unity put out in Manila this weekend by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations one key question was little asked. Is there any real significance to this group of tiny countries? The table shows the combined standing of Asean's five biggest members - Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore - relative to all of Asia on several measures of size. The smaller and more recent members do not publish enough reliable statistics to make comparisons.

As you can see, Asean comes out as mighty tiny indeed. Although having 20.2 per cent of the region's population, it accounts for only 7.3 per cent of combined gross domestic product, 4.7 per cent of money supply, 7.5 per cent of stock market capitalisation and 7 per cent of stock market trading.

The only measures on which it achieves any significance are foreign trade (24.4 per cent), because inevitably smaller countries trade proportionately more than bigger countries, and tourism (48.9 per cent) because Asean is where you go for sun, sand and other vacation activities.

So it was no surprise that the emphasis of this Asean summit was Asean's relations with its bigger northern neighbours, nor that it was these neighbours who effectively set the agenda.

The deal is that Japan wants one of its people to be International Monetary Fund managing-director now that Michel Camdessus is stepping down, and it got the backing of Asean with a promise of US$500 million in grants to replace loans to Asean, much of which could never be repaid anyway.

Everyone also agreed Thai Deputy Prime Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi must get his promised turn as head of the World Trade Organisation in 2002. With the IMF job, this should make a good show of Asian standing in world councils.

Other than that, there were the usual pledges to promote investment and technology plus the now fashionable talk of an Asian common market and currency.

'One East Asian community - a family from the happy union of north and south,' said that paragon of family values, Philippine President Joseph Estrada.

The fact is, governments may talk big about investment and technology but private sectors must deliver these things and the two don't always agree.

The talk on a common currency was also properly hedged with warnings that it may take decades, which it undoubtedly will.

Even then, this sort of arrangement is something for the mainland and Japan to negotiate.

Asean has nothing to do with it other than fall in line if the deal is made.

The only substantial thing Asean did was to move forward by five years to 2010 a date for its older members to scrap 'virtually all' import tariffs on fellow members.

Even if this holds, only 20 per cent of Asean's trade is with itself and possibly no more than 10 to 15 per cent if you take out goods shipped for onwards processing.

It's not a big thing. But then neither is Asean. It's the North that counts these days.