Views from the World
Asia's Alphabet Soup and Regional Leadership
Simon SC Tay, Chairman, Singapore Institute for International Affairs
(Keizai Koho, April 2008 issue)

There is a rising sense of regionalism in Asia. Yet it is not clear how the region will come closer together and who will lead its diverse states. Asia today has proliferated different groupings that overlap and even contend for attention.

For ASEAN, leaders have committed to create a Community with pillars in economics, security and socio-cultural issues. The ASEAN+3 process, now in its 10th year, brings in China, Japan and South Korea for functional cooperation in several areas.

Yet, in parallel, there bilateral economic agreements, which have mulitiplied after the pioneering Japan-Singapore economic partnership agreement, and also a wider summit for East Asia, with Australia, New Zealand and India joining the A+3 countries.

How should we think of these different frameworks for the region? Who can and should lead the region? What kind of leadership does Asia need?

Singapore is currently ASEAN chairman, and hosted the ASEAN, ASEAN+3 and East Asian Summits. The chairmanship of ASEAN is a rotating position and does not automatically authorize leadership. Yet the position is not without influence. A chairman can help shape the agenda, bring leaders to discuss and consider cooperation on new issues, and review progress on past promises.

In Singapore's chairmanship so far, four things may be noted that may have broader implications for the broader questions of Asian cooperation and of leadership.

First, the Summit featured the signing of the ASEAN Charter to mark its 40th year. The Charter required both far sighted thinking to move towards a vision for the future, as well as pragmatic compromises that accommodate current concerns among some members.

Some were disappointed ASEAN did not move towards of weighted voting or allow sanctions against members. Yet the Charter holds up principles democracy, human rights and good governance and of sustainable development in ASEAN. It also promises a more vital and effective Secretariat.

While not a union ala Europe, the Charter can help ASEAN community and foster peace and development. Now the challenge is for the Charter to be ratified and brought into effect by all ten members before the next Summit. If this is possible, the model of community in ASEAN can provide a foundational experience for the wider region.

Secondly, a blueprint for ASEAN economic integration was agreed at the Singapore Summit. This sets out targets and deadlines for the 10 economies to come together in a number of key areas. This effort requires leadership to see the overall potential and future benefit to have a single market of 500 million people, and the courage to convince a number of national monopolies to accept greater competition. The clear goals and deadlines in the blueprint also means that leaders must have the courage to measure themselves, and perhaps to be judged to fail.

Thirdly, Singapore helped put the environment, climate change and energy on the agenda for the ASEAN and East Asian Summits. Considering these issues among the region's leaders at the Summits gives them the highest priority, and promises coordination across different ministries to respond to the complex and interdependent challenges that are posed.

A fourth point is the effort for ASEAN and the East Asian Summit to respond to the controversies over human rights and violence in Myanmar. While there were domestic sensitivities, it was important for the credibility of group to address the international concerns that had arisen over the issue. With Japan, China and India present at the East Asia Summit, all the major regional powers that might help shape a solution were present.

To prepare the way, the Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo specifically visited Japan, China and India, and consulted with Indonesia and other ASEAN members on the issues in Myanmar. This effort by a chairman - with its focus and express agenda, akin to a kind of shuttle diplomacy -- is quite unprecedented for ASEAN. Sadly, in my view, this opportunity was spurned. While some progress was made, the East Asians and ASEAN did not move work together and indeed declined a joint briefing by the UN's special representative on Myanmar.

From these four efforts, we can suggest some general attributes for leadership in Asia. ASEAN and Asia needs leaders that are willing to respond to the regional and international issues of the moment and to make special effort to generate new forms of understanding and cooperation to move ahead. Such leadership can and must be willing to accept controversy and to make efforts that may be seen by some to have failed.

Leadership can and must also be inclusive of other Asians and indeed requires support from non ASEAN countries. Japan, ASEAN's oldest partner among Asians, needs to continue and indeed strengthen its engagement with the grouping.

Who can lead Asia's rising regionalism? There is no agreement at present. Asia is accustomed to American leadership. An Asian without an American presence and pre-eminence is unknown.

Some suggest that a concert of Asian powers can provide stability. Yet competition and even some tensions can be detected between Japan and China, despite improvements under PM Fukuda. Moreover, ties with the South Asian giant of India are still new and will need to mature after an initial honeymoon. There are no present guarantees, as such, that a concert of Asian powers would keep in tune.

Asian regionalism should not ride on the hegemony of power, whether by one state or a concert. Asian leadership should not depend on raw calculations of military power or even economic size. Benevolence should instead be expected from any major power that wishes to lead. Given the region's diversity, the role and sovereignty of medium and smaller countries should be respected.

New concepts of leadership are needed. Clarity and speed of response will be essential, not only for economic integration but also in the tricky areas of politics.

Copyright (C) 2008 Keizai Koho Center. All rights reserved