Including India

Print edition : November 24, 2001

Finding itself isolated, Malaysia gives up its opposition to an ASEAN-India summit meeting.

THE meeting in Brunei in November of leaders of countries that are part of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) held some cheer for India. After a year of discussion and considerable opposition from Malaysia, ASEAN leaders consented to hold a separate summit meeting with India.

At the seventh ASEAN summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, on November 5.-ROMEO RANOCO/REUTERS

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had first raised the issue during a visit to New Delhi last year. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh then broached it with Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong during a visit in June 2000. True to his promise, Goh Chok Tong raised the issue at the annual summit of the ASEAN in Singapore, but there was no consensus on it.

The Singapore meeting also rejected another proposal, to convert the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea) forum into an ASEAN+4 arrangement, saying that it was more of an East Asian arrangement. And they took the view that it was a "bit too early" to consider a separate ASEAN-India summit.

The idea of an ASEAN-India summit once again came up for discussion at the annual meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Hanoi, Vietnam, in July. The indication at the meeting was that a "clearer statement" might emerge at the leaders' meeting in Brunei in November. And that is exactly what has happened.

In Hanoi, Malaysia seemed to soften its opposition to the idea in the face of considerable support from other countries, and its representative promised to refer the issue to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for an opinion. Subsequently, at a press conference, Mahathir Mohamad announced that ASEAN had "resolved" the issue. "Whenever you found a grouping, there may be a need to accept new members. But if you keep on adding new members, soon the grouping itself will lose meaning," he said. "Our fear, of course, is that once we admit India there may be others in the South Asian region who will insist that they should also be a partner. But we have resolved that. We now support an ASEAN-India arrangement in which we have ASEAN+1. But separate from ASEAN+3," Mahathir said. The reference to 'others' possibly related to Pakistan.

Possibly Malaysia reconsidered its position after finding itself isolated. In addition to the support extended by Singapore, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Thailand also spoke up in favour of the idea during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' meeting in Hanoi.

While Mahathir made a direct statement on the decision to hold an ASEAN-India summit, ASEAN Secretary-General Rudolfo C. Severino was not so categorical. He would only say that "some kind" of a decision had been taken but it could not be announced until consultations were held with India. For his part the ASEAN's Chairman, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, said in his statement: "We also considered the idea of convening 10+1 summits with our dialogue partners, in particular India." ASEAN sources told this correspondent that they would have to consult India before announcing any decision. Obviously, the modalities for the meeting would have to be worked out between ASEAN and Indian officials.

The ASEAN decision comes at a time when the regional grouping is facing serious challenges of its own. "In the current climate of uncertainty, South-East Asia faces its biggest, if not the biggest, challenge since ASEAN was founded in 1967. The twofold challenge of addressing a severe world economic slowdown while contributing to political efforts to combat terrorism is without precedent...." Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said.

There appears to be little doubt that ASEAN is beset with grave challenges. Major ASEAN economies are likely to record negative rates of growth this year. The only new step taken by ASEAN was to agree to set up a free trade area with China within the next 10 years. With a combined market of 1.7 billion, the proposed free trade area will have a gross domestic product of $2 trillion and a two-way trade of $1.23 trillion. Of course, this grand plan remains a "goal" and is likely to see some tough negotiations. Malaysia has some reservations about the proposal - Mahathir Mohamad stated that a free trade area should benefit both sides, not just one side.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah candidly spoke about the concerns around the 10-member regional organisation: "ASEAN must improve its credibility as a regional organisation and respond decisively to challenges. Among recent worrying developments are a decline in foreign investment in ASEAN countries and the erosion of our competitiveness resulting from the emergence of new markets."

He added: "These concerns have been compounded by the global economic downturn and further uncertainty arising from the terrorist attacks in the United States in September."

On the crucial issue of terrorism, the leaders ensured that the statement would be issued just by the 10 nations and not the larger ASEAN+3 forum. Some countries reportedly wanted the declaration to be confined to ASEAN nations. The '2001 ASEAN Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism' appropriately contained a strong condemnation of the September 11 attacks, but what the Chairman's statement said on the issue was perhaps of more interest.

It read: "In reiterating their condemnation of the terrorist acts, leaders expressed their concern for the welfare of innocent people as a result of the military action on Afghanistan and considered extending humanitarian assistance." There was no reference to Afghanistan in the main statement against terrorism, but what was new was that ASEAN heads of state/government rejected "any attempt to link terrorism with any religion or race".

They also viewed "acts of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed wherever, whenever and by whomsoever, as a profound threat to international peace and security, which require concerted action to protect and defend all peoples and the peace and security of the world".

ASEAN probably faces the biggest challenge since its formation in 1967. Slowing economies coupled with differing perceptions on the response to the U.S. military attacks (especially from Indonesia and Malaysia) could create more problems. An early economic recovery for major ASEAN economies could be one of the first answers to the growing challenges.

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