Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 03:13 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 03:13 | SYDNEY

The East Asia nadir


Malcolm Cook

15 April 2009 10:02

The last minute (literally) cancellation of the long-delayed 2008 East Asia Summit and ASEAN-3 leaders’ meeting last weekend due to Thailand’s domestic political chaos vividly exposes one of the central weaknesses of East Asian and Asia-Pacific regionalism: ASEAN’s insistence that it  should be  the ‘driving force’ in these larger regional processes.

As we have discussed here already, Kevin Rudd’s Asia Pacific Community idea has already faced this music for appearing to overlook ASEAN’s centrality. And the Australian government is careful to note the central role that ASEAN has played in Asia-Pacific regionalism.

This driving force role is central to assuaging ASEAN’s existential fears of 'irrelevance' (globally and to its own member states). Ironically, ASEAN’s recent difficulties in actually fulfilling this role is doing much to question, in practice, ASEAN’s continued centrality to the larger projects of East Asian and Asia Pacific regionalism.

In the last three years, only Singapore, in 2007, has been able to organise and host the East Asia Summit and ASEAN-3 leaders’ meeting as scheduled. In 2006 Myanmar, not the Philippines, should have hosted the second meeting of the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN-3 leaders’ meeting. Yet, after some 'ASEAN way' pressure, Myanmar agreed to forego this privilege and save the voice of ASEAN, as an institution and set of countries, the embarrassment that would have flowed from having Myanmar as the official host/spokesperson.

Next the Philippines had to postpone the 2006 meetings (in the last week if I remember correctly) to early 2007 due to domestic political problems and a conveniently timed typhoon around Cebu. Then last year, Thailand took over as host of ASEAN and the larger regional groupings it 'drives' and... 

The failure to hold the 2008 East Asia Summit and ASEAN-3 leaders’ meeting is definitely a setback for ASEAN and for East Asian and Asia-Pacific regionalism. If this latest and largest in a series of ASEAN-based setbacks strengthens the grouping's determination to insist on remaining the driving force, then the future is not promising. If, however, the Pattaya debacle helps major countries within ASEAN moderate their insistence on ASEAN centrality and for non-ASEAN countries to push more for a greater non-ASEAN voice in the organisation of the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN-3 process then a long-term good could result.

Maybe Australia, as ASEAN’s long-standing dialogue partner, a country able to effectively organise major global and regional events quickly and one with a deep interest in the future of regionalism, should offer to fill in for Thailand in its time of turmoil and host the 2008 East Asia Summit before it runs into the 2009 one to be held in Vietnam.      

Photo by Flickr user The Edge Malaysia, used under a Creative Commons licence.