The ninth ASEAN summit was held in Indonesia on Oct. 7 and Oct. 8. Asia-Pacific countries pay attention to each summit's political and economic agenda, but the occasion also provides a venue for diplomatic wrangling. ASEAN is more than just a forum for talks, and every Asia-Pacific power tries to manipulate the organization for its own ends. The alliance may not be able to dominate the reorganization of the economic and political order in the region, but it no doubt presents an opportunity for leaders to meet.
Despite the anti-terrorism significance attached to the summit, Southeast Asian countries had high expectations for the event, hoping to build a highly-integrated ASEAN community and create a "New ASEAN."
ASEAN seems to be ready for new leadership, with Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad due to retire at the end of this month. ASEAN is unlikely to lead the region, yet it certainly plays a key role in the Asia-Pacific region. No country aiming at becoming a regional hegemony could afford to lose this ally or neglect its intentions. ASEAN at this year's summit fully exploited its position; it made itself the focal point of Asia-Pacific diplomatic maneuverings and director of the region's political and economic development.
With such influence, ASEAN does not really care about obtaining a leading role in the region.
Basically, ASEAN adopts a two-tier diplomatic strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. On the one hand, it treats strong external powers on the same friendly terms. On the other hand, it strengthens internal integration to raise its status and bargaining power in the region.
In terms of external relations, ASEAN leaders held a meeting with the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea and India. It is the first time that a summit was held between the Southeast Asian body and India. Both China and India joined ASEAN's 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, becoming the first two non-ASEAN countries to sign the deal.
Obviously, ASEAN attempted to draw India to its side in an effort to balance the burgeoning might of China, which is no longer containable by Japan and South Korea. Only with India's support can ASEAN feel secure. Not only China's long-time enemy, India also provides opportunities for Southeast Asian enterprises.
The first ASEAN Business and Investment Summit was held during the summit to dissuade investors from transferring their capital from Southeast Asia to China and India, where labor costs are relatively low. This move marks a milestone for ASEAN businesses. ASEAN members also pushed for economic integration to cope with competition from large economies like China and India. It also promoted the idea of establishing an economic community to enhance its competitiveness.
More importantly, ASEAN emphasized that it would not become a bloc creating trade barriers. It promised to maintain close contact and build business links with dialogue partners as well as other countries with a positive and open attitude.
ASEAN can be expected to smartly apply its diplomatic tactics to the formulation of its economic strategies, striking a balance between openness and protectionism under the free-trade framework. Challenges awaiting the new ASEAN leadership are not just regional changes in politics and the economy but also global development and deployment. Speeding up ASEAN's integration in economy, security and social development will be the key to its prosperity.
Taiwan could be marginalized in the face of a new ASEAN. A highly integrated Southeast Asia may not be good for Taiwan's regional development, as it may encourage Taiwanese businessmen to invest westward and southward in pursuit of markets and better margins.
However, since ASEAN attempts to deploy globally, attract foreign investment and integrate anti-terrorism and security efforts, it will put more emphasis on regional openness and its strength in global deployment. Therefore, Taiwan still stands a good chance if it can link with ASEAN and establish a reliable, reciprocal partnership during its regional and global deployment.
Soong Jenn-jaw is a professor at the Institute of Political Economy of National Cheng Kung University.
Translated by Jennie Shih
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