A Strong ASEAN Is a Necessary Condition for Enduring Regional Architecture

Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets - 17 May 2010

Nothing less than models of economics and governance are at stake as nations bordering the Pacific think through Asian regionalism.  It is time for ASEAN to decide what it wants to be.  If it wants to be the glue for enduring architecture in Asia, it must be strong and integrated.  Like the foundation of a building, if ASEAN is weak, regional structures built on the principle of ASEAN centrality will be weak.   If it is strong, a solid structure for the future can be built.

For U.S. policymakers, this is a good time to go to the ground with our friends in the region and work through the issues.  Taking time to get it right before committing to new structures is well advised. To be more specific, before casting our lot and joining one of the proposed groupings such as ASEAN + 8 or the East Asian Summit (EAS), we should receive and believe—with our eyes and our collective gut—ASEAN commitment to work in unison and attain meaningful progress on the goals for economic, political/security, and cultural integration it set for itself in the ASEAN Charter.   There are important opportunities for these consultations in the near term including the ASEAN Regional Forum and Post Ministerial Conference (ARF-PMC) in Vietnam in July and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit later in the year.

Deliberative is good, slow is bad.  Don’t mistake this call for consultation before pulling the trigger as a recommendation to slow down.  The United States cannot afford not to be at the table.  Losing a first-mover advantage on the security side, as we have practically done with trade (ASEAN + 3 is not moving far beyond tariffs into China-driven models for harmonizing standards, defining competition policy and other key areas hard to redefine later) is not an option. 

None of this is going to be easy, as we found out last week.  Tragically, the streets of Bangkok erupted into another bloody face-off as a laser beam traced the brow of a former major general being interviewed by the international media.  A heartbeat later his head exploded as did hope for near-term reconciliation in Thailand.  The path back to peace and prosperity will now almost certainly pass through some sort of military solution—and with that a risk of rolling back hard-won democratic progress over the last two decades (see below). 

There was better news in the Philippines, where democracy won the day in the May 10 national elections.  A clear winner was chosen in the person of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III.  But the truth is that the Aquino camp, along with all of those monitoring the election, was holding its breath and praying that the first-time use of automated voting machines would be successful.  Had machines failed and the election not been clear, there would likely be hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the streets of Manila and other Philippine cities today.

As democracy struggles for its life in the region, there is also real pressure on economic models.  The financial crisis that wracked the U.S. and global markets has started to take names —the first being Greece—in Europe.  As Asian economies power ahead with aggregate growth numbers north of 8 percent, there are sounds of triumphalism in Beijing.  Open market models, when they cycle down as of late, are described as “western,” and more centrally controlled platforms are being espoused.  Case in point: Prime Minister Hun Sen has proudly asserted that he will use a strong hand to guide Cambodia’s economic development using a top-down command and control approach.  China has explicitly encouraged his thinking with dollops of aid in the billions.  If ASEAN’s larger economies such as Thailand become enticed to look at such models as a way back from the abyss, the region will have real challenges on its hands.

There are other reasons for concern.  Look at the question of the South China Sea.  China has taken a very strong position on the issue, pressing ASEAN not to consult as a group and coordinate its position on related issues, not to put the South China Sea on the agenda for regional consultations.  Such pressure could cause serious problems.  Any historian worth his or her salt will tell you that lack of clear understanding of the views of interested actors has always been a precursor to conflict.  In modern regional governance, such sensitive issues are exactly the ones that need to be discussed and equities and concerns clearly understood.  That is not the case at this time, providing a good example of an area where a strong ASEAN is necessary as an effective foundation for regional structures and enduring peace and prosperity in Asia.

A deliberative process is needed ahead of the U.S. decision to align with the EAS, ASEAN + 8, or another regional structure.  This should include agreement on delineation of distinctive roles for a regional security structure as it relates to APEC and other groupings as well as a practical and honest assessment of the plan for strengthening ASEAN.


Since May 13 to the time of this update, at least 37 deaths and 266 injuries have been reported. In total, 66 deaths and 1,700 injuries have been reported since the start of this political crisis in March. On Sunday, May 16, the authorities requested the Red Cross to go in and help women, children, and the elderly evacuate.  No numbers are available on how many actually left. The 3:00 p.m. deadline (on May 17) for Red Shirt protesters to leave the area has come and gone; 5,000 people still remain. As of 9:20 a.m. (Bangkok time) this morning, renegade Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol succumbed to his injuries.

Understanding how Thailand got to this point and possible scenarios will be vital for policymakers. The escalating violence this week underlines the fact that this is not a crisis likely to be resolved in the near term.

The fact is that Thailand will never be the same again. The key actors know this, and they are positioning for future power. In lieu of well-established institutions they reaching for the blunt instruments they need to attain their objective—guns and money.   Read more in our Critical Questions: “Thailand Steps into the Unknown” http://csis.org/publication/thailand-steps-unknown.

  • Near-term hopes for reconciliation in Thailand exploded as a sniper's bullet tore through the forehead of a former major general in the Thai army while he gave an interview to the International Herald Tribune on May 13. That gut-wrenching moment is an analogy for the political crisis that is sending Thailand into the political equivalent of the unknown. Thais are witnessing frustration and intrigue among layers of competing parties, culminating in deadly violence without regard for the nation's standing in the world. The Thais are deadlocked. They are playing for keeps. And they don't care who is watching.
  • Liberal Party: Noynoy from flickrthepocnews' photostream The Philippines witnessed a great victory for democracy this week and elected its 15th President— Benigno Simeon "Noynoy" Cojuangco Aquino III.  Aquino had 13,098,633 votes while his nearest rival, Joseph Estrada, had 8,385,557 based on results from about 85 percent of the polling precincts, according to the Commission on Elections (COMELEC).  Outgoing president Gloria Arroyo won a seat in Congress.  The race for vice president is still to be called, as former Makati mayor Jejomar Binay (with 13,389,462 votes) holds a narrow lead over Senator Mar Roxas (12,602,812). Read about the details and implications of the elections in our Critical Questions on the Philippines Elections http://csis.org/publication/philippine-elections-aquino-become-15th-president-republic-philippines.  CSIS Senior Adviser & Director Ernie Bower interviewed new U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines the Hon. Harry Thomas for the CSIS website.  View the video on http://csis.org/multimedia/video-interview-us-ambassador-philippines-harry-thomas-jr.

The ASEAN ministers agreed to strengthen defense cooperation for regional stability and development, including jointly patrolling the seas and mainland, setting up a hot line among naval and border-guard forces, exchanging information, cooperating to combat terrorism and transnational crime, and conducting cooperative search-and-rescue operations.

  • ASEAN took important steps forward in the area of security integration and cooperation during the Fourth ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting (ADMM-4) held May 10–11 in Hanoi.  The ministers agreed on a basic regional security structure called ADMM Plus, made up of the ten ASEAN countries plus their eight partners —the United States, China, India, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia.  These are the same eight countries that would be included in the expanded East Asian Summit (EAS) or ASEAN + 8 regional architecture proposals being discussed among countries now.  An ADMM Plus meeting is being scheduled for Vietnam this October and would likely include the participation of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
  • On May 16, Malaysia held its 11th by-election—in Sibu, in Sarawak—since its general election in March 2008.  Sibu has been a stronghold for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition over the last five elections.  BN is represented in Sarawak by the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP).  The surprising win by Democratic Action Party (DAP) upset that trend and indicates that BN still has more work to do to solidify its efforts to convince Malaysians that it is committed to reform and will implement the plans tabled by Prime Minister Najib Razak.   The Sibu election was narrowly won by DAP's Wong Ho Leng  with 18,845 votes against BN’s Robert Lau Hui Yew, who received 18,447 votes, and Independent candidate Narawi Haron, who managed only 232 votes.  Voters in Sibu are predominantly Chinese (67 percent of the electorate), followed by Sarawak bumiputras (22 percent) and Malay / Melanau (11 percent).  Analysts believe that the Sibu upset signals continued concern among Chinese voters.  
  • U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited Manila, Thailand, Burma. and Beijing last week.   In Manila, he held preparatory talks for the ASEAN Regional Forum and Post Ministerial Conference (ARF-PMC), which will be attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July in Vietnam. 

    In Bangkok, Campbell met the government and Red Shirt opposition leaders, including a breakfast with Jaturon Chaisaeng and Noppadon Pattama. The government had been invited but pulled out of the discussion at the last minute. It was later reported on Monday that U.S. Ambassador Eric John was rebuked by Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya over Washington's “perceived intervention in Thai domestic politics.”  Campbell’s trip underlined dedicated efforts by the United States and some other international partners to try to bring parties together to find areas of agreement and avoid further confrontation.  His visit also sent a message to Thai citizens that the United States is concerned, forward-deployed, and a friend in need.

    From Bangkok, Campbell traveled to Naypyidaw the capital of Myanmar, where he met with Foreign Minister Nyan Win; Information Minister Kyaw San; and U Thaung, a former ambassador to the United States who now directs Burma’s nuclear energy program as minister of science and technology. The following day in Rangoon, Campbell was allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, detained Burmese democracy leader of the now-defunct opposition National League for Democracy.  He said in a statement following his talks that the United States was disappointed in Myanmar's preparations for upcoming elections, and asked for "immediate steps to address fears that they would lack legitimacy”.  He also said he was "profoundly disappointed" with the response of Burmese authorities to his appeals to open up the country's electoral process. In addition, in a strongly worded statement, Campbell voiced concern about ties between Burma and North Korea, stating that the United States wanted Burma to live up to its obligations under last year's UN Security Council resolution tightening an arms embargo against North Korea. The signs seem very clear that while the United States is sticking with its stated goal of engaging the Burmese, the junta is giving up nothing.   Most analysts believe that the next U.S. steps will be new and enhanced financial sanctions targeting junta leaders, their families, and companies and assets they are involved in.  Such sanctions are tailored and require enormous effort and resources by an array of U.S. agencies. 

    Campbell stopped in Beijing on his way back from Southeast Asia and met Chinese officials to discuss the situation on the Korean peninsula after the Cheonan incident ahead of the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue on May 24.  The Korean government should release findings of its investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan on May 19.

  • In Burma, lawyers for Aung San Suu Kyi filed a special appeal on her house arrest in Burma’s High Court in a last-ditch attempt at securing her release on May 10. Members of her now-defunct opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have split to form a new party called National Democratic Force (NDF) in order to contest in the elections. Nyan Win, the NLD's spokesman, expressed regret at their decision. Than Nyein, a spokesman for the NDF said its leaders recognize the elections will not be free and fair. However, boycotting the elections, as the NLD has chosen to do, would mean the people of Burma could not vote for any democratic party. In additional, security observers noted that since the April 28 deadline set by the junta for the armed groups to either disarm or merge under the Tatamdaw (Border Guard Force), tensions between the junta government and the ethnic groups and ethnic armies are rising. The latest cease-fire deadline was the fifth deadline set by the government.
  • During Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s first official visit to Cambodia, he witnessed the signing of six business deals between Malaysia and Cambodia. The deals, which are related to education, ICT security, halal business, healthcare, training, and the retail sector, are worth US$1 billion (RM3.27bil). During bilateral talks Prime Minister Najib underscored the deep economic ties between Malaysia and Cambodia, noting that Malaysia has been the biggest investor in Cambodia for 14 consecutive years, with investments totaling US$ 2.19 billion. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen had asked Malaysia to inject more investments in agriculture so as to boost rice exports from Cambodia.
  • Indonesia’s police counterterrorism squad captured 17 terrorist suspects and shot dead 5 others in a series of raids last week.  All suspects were linked to a terror network in Aceh. Preliminary investigation also suggested that the group had planned an imminent strike. Police say one of those killed was involved in the Australian embassy bombings in 2004.   Indonesia terrorism expert Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group (ICG) will come to CSIS on Monday, May 24, to discuss Indonesia’s counterterrorism efforts and trends.  Parties interested in participating in the discussion should contact SoutheastAsiaProgram@csis.org
  • On May 12, Indonesia’s Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati installed 24 new second-echelon officials in the last inauguration ceremony she presided over before her new appointment at the World Bank. In a separate note, during a Cabinet meeting, President Yudhuyono vowed to continue bureaucratic reform despite the departure of the renowned technocrat and reform leader Sri Mulyani.
  • Chinese President Hu Jintao appointed new ambassadors to six countries, including Brunei and Singapore. Min Yongnian was appointed ambassador to Brunei, replacing Tong Xiaoling. Wei Wei was appointed ambassador to Singapore, replacing Zhang Xiaokang.   Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, speaking at the CSIS Global Security Forum in Washington on May 13, said that Chinese diplomats in Asia had “taken a page from the U.S. book” and had raised their game significantly over the past decade as China expanded its soft power in ASEAN and Asia.  To view and hear Secretary Armitage, CSIS Japan Chair Mike Green, and CSIS Southeast Asia Senior Adviser Ernie Bower on this panel, click here http://csis.org/multimedia/audio-global-security-forum-how-should-we-address-perception-waning-us-power-asia.
  • According to a quarterly monetary policy report released May 10, the People's Bank of China (PBC) has indicated that it might set the yuan's managed float to market supply and demand, while managing the exchange rate "with reference to a basket of currencies." Many economists speculate that the change signals a possibility that the yuan would un-peg from the U.S. dollar and circulate more freely in the basket. It was also reported that Beijing is set to unveil new rules on the trial program for using the Chinese yuan to settle cross-border bilateral trades in the near future.
  • Following the recent monitoring of a Chinese navy fleet by Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force in the sea off the Japanese coast, Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua expressed strong displeasure during a lecture hosted by Kyodo News in Tokyo on May 11. He said, "While there are various neighboring countries around China, only the Japanese Self-Defense Force vessels hounded [the Chinese ships] from the beginning.” Security analysts believe that China's recent assertiveness in the seas is a trend toward projecting its power regionally. For instance, in response to Japanese protests over Chinese ships chasing out a Japanese survey vessel in a disputed area, Xu Guangyu, a retired Chinese general, said, “We kept silent and tolerant over territorial disputes with our neighbors in the past because our navy was incapable of defending our economic zones, but now the navy is able to carry out its task.”
  • China and Cambodia pledged to strengthen military ties when senior military officials from the two countries met in Beijing on May 11. In Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd met General Guo Boxiong, vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission, in Canberra on May 13. They discussed the Australia-China relationship and agreed that stronger defense ties between the nations would be welcomed. General Guo, said to be one of China's most senior military figures, met up with Defense Minister John Faulkner, Australian Defense Force Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, and other senior military officers. In Timor Leste, a Chinese peacekeeping police squad left here early Tuesday for East Timor to join United Nations missions there. It is the 15th peacekeeping police squad China has sent to Timor Leste since 2000.
  • The U.S. military was also active in the region last week.  Over nearly four-months, the USS Patriot made five Theatre Security Cooperation (TSC) port visits and concluded its spring patrol on May 12. Not only did the USS Patriot train with the navies of Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Malaysia, and Thailand; it participated in five community service projects during its deployment.
  • The second iteration of Pacific Angel 2010 took place in Can Tho, Vietnam, May 10–17.  More than 50 U.S. military members from bases throughout the Pacific and continental United States participated in the joint and combined humanitarian assistance operation in support of U.S. Pacific Command capacity-building efforts. The first iteration was held in the Philippines from February 5 to February 22. Two more iterations of Pacific Angel 2010 operations are planned, including missions to Bangladesh in June and Sri Lanka in August.
  • Former Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee, who has long been regarded as the architect of Singapore's economic and financial policies, died early Friday morning after a long illness. The late Dr. Goh will be given a state funeral.


  • Lincoln Memorial from flickr John H Gray's photostream Indonesian terrorism expert Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group will come to CSIS on May 24 to discuss recent developments in Indonesia and Singapore.  Interested parties please contact SoutheastAsiaProgram@csis.org.




  • The second round of an annual U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue will be held in Beijing May 24–25. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead the U.S. side in meetings cochaired by Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Vice Premier Wang Qishan.
  • Trade ministers from the Republic of Korea, China, and Japan will meet on May 23 in Seoul to discuss a three-way free trade agreement (FTA) and other tripartite cooperation. The three ministers will focus on issues related to the formation of a free trade area among the three nations and measures to push forward economic and trade cooperation.
  • Chinese President Hu Jintao will visit Indonesia on May 17.
  • The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) will be held in Vietnam May 18–20.

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Ernest Z. Bower