Talking Asia

Print edition : July 06, 2002

Thailand paves the way for the Asia Cooperation Dialogue forum. Will it form the missing link in regional cooperation?

IS Asia ready for a dialogue involving its constituent nations? What should be the nature and scope of such a dialogue? Is it necessary given the fact that the common forums run the risk of turning into talk-shops?

These and many more questions were being asked before, during and after the Thai government hosted the inaugural Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) meeting at the Dusit resort in Cha-am from June 18 to 19. As many as 17 Ministers, a majority of them dealing with Foreign Affairs, were present at the meeting, which was formally opened by Thailand's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Ministers from 17 Asian countries at the launch of the ACD. Apart from the ASEAN-10, the group includes Ministers from India, China, Japan, South Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bahrain and Qatar.-STEPHEN SHAVER/AFP

Thailand has been talking about the ACD for nearly a year and it took the initiative to talk to several countries as well as within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum before the Cha-am session was convened. Apart from the ASEAN-10, Ministers from China, Japan, India, South Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bahrain and Qatar were present. Myanmar chose not to respond to the Thai invitation, possibly on account of continuing tensions along the border between the two countries. The meeting, which began with an "informal working dinner" at the billionaire Thai Prime Minister's residence close to the resort can, at best, be described as a preliminary meeting.

Given the poor state of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the lacklustre showing of ASEAN in recent years, what future does the ACD have? In the Thai context, there is little doubt that the ACD is the outcome of an initiative by Prime Minister Thaksin who believes that it will allow him his imprint on the foreign affairs front.

At the end of the meeting, the Thai Foreign Minister, Surakiart Sathirathai, issued a statement which identified a number of areas for cooperative endeavours. Working groups are to be set up to study in detail the areas identified for cooperation. The ACD, Surakiart said, would serve to complement existing cooperative mechanisms and arrangements in Asia. "The Ministers identified key areas that may lend themselves to such cooperation, including poverty alleviation, human resource development, bridging the digital divide, science and technology, promotion of Asian culture and tourism, development of SMEs (small and medium enterprises), resource management, energy security, transportation and communication linkages, non-traditional security issues, enhancing the role of the business and academic sectors, and infrastructure development." Thailand, the Ministers agreed, would act as the ACD coordinator for the next meeting in Chiang Rai, Thailand, in June 2003.

Interestingly, the focus of the forum has been shifting. Addressing a press conference on June 19, Surakiart declared, when asked about India-Pakistan questions, that the main focus of the ACD will be "economic cooperation" and not conflict resolution. Given the fact that the invitation was extended to Foreign Ministers, this change in focus will require considerable work. The relative lack of success (outside ASEAN) in matters of economic cooperation in Asia should serve as a warning to the Ministers not to be too ambitious.

In his opening statement, the Prime Minister reeled off statistics about Asia's crucial role in the world economy. Statements at the conference included ritual references to poverty alleviation but there was nothing concrete to show that these countries would come together to tackle the causes of lingering poverty across Asia. "A new chapter of history begins today here in this room... the first meeting of the Asia Cooperation Dialogue... will become the foundation stone for a new framework of cooperation for more than half of the world's population," Thaksin said. The launch of the ACD, he said, would serve as a "confidence-building process for Asian countries, a confidence that is to be built upon the spirit of Bandung initiated by former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and a confidence that is based upon Prime Minister Koizumi's goal to create a community that acts together and advances together. This new cooperation will also serve well to complement President Jiang Zemin's highly commended initiative of the Boao Forum. In time, we are confident that the ACD will become a catalyst to further support both individual Asian countries and the existing regional groupings with strength from within".

"At the present time, Asia has not been able to forge the basic understanding and the will to use our dynamism, our talents, our own markets and skills in order to create mutual benefit from our combined potential, either as individual nations or as a region on the world scene. Asia therefore needs to forge a common strategy to build from the vast resources of manpower, wealth of skills, and dynamism in order to overcome the challenges of the new century. We must learn to trust, confide and work together for our mutual benefits, not viewing one another as competitors, but rather as partners and allies," the Prime Minister said.

As for the forum, Thaksin said it would be a "non-institutionalised" arrangement for the exchange of ideas and experiences. However, given the number of issues set out for cooperation, this "non-institutionalised" arrangement may not prove to be sustainable. "As a region-wide dialogue, the ACD will complement existing cooperative frameworks, and will create synergy among bilateral, multilateral, sub-regional and regional strategic partnerships in the areas of common interests. Definitely, there is a missing link, which is now being filled," Thaksin claimed. "Thailand is but a small country, but the reason we are bold enough to initiate this important undertaking is simply because the initiative comes straight from the heart. It is an initiative borne of my awareness of Asia's once prosperous past and the fact that Asia today has started to lag behind other regions despite our enormous potential. I am fully convinced that it is within our power to return to our former days of prosperity by combining our diverse strengths for one another's benefit. We may succeed or we may fail, but at least we shall have tried," the Thai leader added.

The presence of Foreign Ministers from China, Japan and Korea as well as the Indian Finance Minister, Yashwant Sinha, must have pleased the Thais. Press reports suggested that the Thai Foreign Minister had been working the phones to ensure that there was "proper representation" from the nations concerned.

Arriving in Cha-am, the Finance Minister, who was standing in for External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, said that the ACD idea needed to be fleshed out.

It remains to be seen whether the meeting helped concretise the ACD idea. The fact remains that other Ministers came at the urging of the Thais - whether they now see the ACD as a "common project" or not remains to be seen.

On the sidelines of the meet, diplomats from Russia and Iran wanted to know why they had been excluded from the inaugural meeting as they were "Asian" countries too. These diplomats could be heard questioning the Thai Prime Minister on the issue. For his part, Thaksin promised that the ACD was an "inclusive" process and that more countries would be invited to attend next year. According to a Thai Foreign Ministry official, even Australia has shown interest in associating itself with the process.

As far as the issue of Asia-wide dialogue is concerned, one could assume that all Asian countries must be present if the dialogue is to be representative and continent-wide. Will the next round see invitations being extended to all Asian countries?

It is a point of some interest that the Western media pointedly ignored the ACD even though the Thai government said that the United States and the European Union were in the loop as far as the dialogue was concerned. If a genuine Asian forum is to come into being, it cannot jt just be a Thai baby. Other countries will have to participate in it with a sense of belonging or the forum may not go as far as to form the "missing link" in Asian cooperation.

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