Regional leaders gathered in Thailand today for the first day of the 14th Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. Whereas human rights issues and security disputes have dominated previous summits, this year's focus is on forging a common response to the global economic slowdown.
ASEAN was slow to respond to the 1997-98 regional financial upheaval, with some countries unwilling to embrace a consensus approach to stabilizing currencies and bolstering liquidity. However, there are signs that a more cooperative approach will emerge this time around. Financial support. Finance ministers from the ASEAN+3 grouping, which includes China, Japan and South Korea, last week agreed to expand a currency swap agreement to help support currencies destabilized by the financial crisis: • The Chiang Mai Initiative, a currency swap arrangement within the grouping, is to be expanded from 86 billion dollars to 120 billion dollars and made open to any country experiencing balance of payments problems.
• Crucially, the arrangement is to be transformed from a forum offering bilateral credit lines to a fully-fledged multilateral fund dominated by the three non-ASEAN participants: Japan, China and South Korea will contribute 80% of the financing from their international reserves.
• ASEAN leaders have reaffirmed their support for the plan in recent days, although there is some doubt over whether it will become permanent.
Regional integration. Concern is growing over protectionist trends, as governments make increasing use of subsidies, quotas and higher duties to restrict access to domestic markets, particularly in the agricultural sector. Nonetheless, hopes that momentum towards integration can withstand the current economic climate gained some reinforcement today with the signing of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) between ASEAN and both Australia and New Zealand. These add to the bloc's existing FTAs with China and Japan. An agreement with India is at advanced stages of preparation, although its conclusion has been delayed by the economic turmoil. Over the weekend, ASEAN leaders are due to sign a declaration setting out a road map to transform the bloc into an ASEAN Community of 500 million people in 2015, modeled on the European Union. The core of the road map is plans for a deeper single market, envisaged to extend to Australia, New Zealand and the three East Asian nations. There is determination to press ahead with this ambitious agenda, although it may in part be stymied by current political pressures, which militate against rapid tariff cuts. Outlook. As leaders of the bloc's secretariat and member countries look to the future, the core ASEAN principle of consensus-building continues to undermine the grouping's ability to project a unified image. A lack of binding rules in the planned ASEAN Community hampers its credibility as a zone that can produce substantially deeper economic integration. Moreover, the bloc's variety of regime types -- including two communist states and a military dictatorship -- continues to elicit skepticism over the commitment to "promote democracy" now enshrined in the Charter.
Nevertheless, prospects are strong for a unified financial response from ASEAN to the economic crisis, in conjunction with Japan, China and Korea. This could offer a blueprint for closer integration with East Asia. Expect less progress on human rights and social issues due to the bloc's reliance on consensus policies.