ASEAN Committed to Playing Broader Role
By Jung Sung-ki
ASEAN will evolve into a broader community addressing political, economic, security and cultural affairs in the region over the next six years, the top official of the organization of 10 Southeast Asian nations said.
Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said that under a six-year roadmap his organization will become a more effective, multifunctional community through the integration of its ``three pillars'' _ the ASEAN Political Security Community, the ASEAN Economic Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.
``In creating the ASEAN Community, we are guided by the roadmap for an ASEAN Community, which contains the blueprints for the three pillars of ASEAN _ along with the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) which is now in its second work plan,'' Pitsuwan said in a written interview with The Korea Times ahead of the ASEAN-Korea Commemorative Summit on Jeju Island.
IAI is a mechanism to promote, through concerted efforts, effective cooperation and mutual assistance to narrow the development gap among ASEAN member states and between ASEAN and the rest of the world, said Pitsuwan, a former minister of foreign affairs in Thailand.
``Thus, in a decade from now, we envisage the completion of the roadmap and the establishment of the ASEAN Community. ASEAN will not only be a prosperous and caring community for its people, but it will also be a peaceful and stable region that engages the rest of the world and that the world can benefit from,'' the secretary-general said.
``ASEAN's role in promoting regional peace and security will continue to be prominent. It will also continue to provide a platform for key players in the region, along with ASEAN's dialogue partners, to regularly come together to enhance dialogue and promote cooperation in both political and security issues within the Asia-Pacific region'' he said.
In addition, by 2019, the development gap between and within the member states will also be more substantially narrowed, he said.
Pitsuwan said, in the economic field specifically, ASEAN will be transformed into a single-market and production base, where goods, services, investment, capital and skilled labor move freely.
But ASEAN's economic integration may not be a customs union like other regional trading arrangements, such as MERCOSUR in South America and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
``While ASEAN's economic community-building is modeled after that of the European Union, we do not see, at this juncture, ASEAN taking its economic integration to the level of that of the EU,'' he said, citing the diversity of the 10-member organization.
An Asian community may be a feasible and practical approach to address the proliferation of bilateral and sub-regional trading arrangements in the Asian region, he said, but whether this would take the form of the economic integration in Europe that formed the European Union remains doubtful, considering the existing diversity of the member states.
``The situation and the circumstances prevailing then when the European Union was formed and now are just too different,'' he said.
In terms of the ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea), ``much progress'' has been made in all areas of cooperation since its inception in 1997, Pitsuwan said.
There are also quite a number of proposals to integrate the economies in the Asian region, he said. They include the East Asia Free Trade Area (ASEAN plus China, Japan and Korea), the Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia comprising ASEAN plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India, and the Free Trade Area in Asia and the Pacific comprising the APEC economies.
South Korea's Role
The secretary-general described Korea a ``stabilizer'' in the ASEAN+3 framework, along with China and Japan.
``If Korea's economy falters, then it will be a big letdown to the region given the increasing contribution of Korea in regional production networks and value chains,'' he said. ``With increasing economic inter-dependence, East Asian countries need each other more than before.''
Thus, the challenge for Korea, like every country in East Asia, is to stabilize the financial systems and lay the foundation for long-term sustainable economic growth, he said.
In terms of political security, Seoul became a participant in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) after its establishment in 1994 and has been a vital partner in its evolution ever since, he said, referring to South Korea's active disaster relief efforts in recent years.
With the recent establishment of a body on non-proliferation and disarmament within the ARF framework, Korea would now be able to support and participate in the ongoing disarmament and non-proliferation efforts within the ARF. It would undoubtedly benefit from Korea's experience and expertise in this area, he continued.
``With the establishment of the ASEAN-Korea Free Trade Area by 2010 and the implementation of the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Partnership, we envisage that the economic partnership between ASEAN and Korea will continue to expand to cover more areas of common interest,'' he said.
``Against this backdrop, Korea will remain a major dialogue and development partner to ASEAN,'' he said. ``Given regional developments and concerns, we anticipate ASEAN and Korea pursuing broader and deeper cooperation in the context of the ASEAN-Korea Free Trade Area and the East Asia Free Trade Area on the economic front.
``I strongly believe that people-to-people contact and cultural exchange programs should be vigorously promoted as ASEAN and South Korea take their relations to a higher plane,'' he continued, calling for further exchanges and cooperation.
He cited the need for promoting exchange programs involving youth and academia, cultural experts, media practitioners and youth.
Overcoming Global Crisis
Pitsuwan said ASEAN's response to tackling the global financial crisis has been appropriate so far.
Since the crisis intensified in September 2008, ASEAN member countries have implemented a number of measures to mitigate the impact of the crisis, ranging from economic policy actions, including monetary and exchange rate policies, to regulatory and administrative measures like banking and financial action and stock market intervention.
``Given the global nature of the crisis, there is no doubt in my mind that overcoming the crisis is a joint responsibility of countries around the world, including the ASEAN Plus Three countries,'' he said, calling the ongoing crisis a clear reminder to the international community of the need for greater cooperation at regional and global levels.
He said the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM) is undoubtedly a clear manifestation of the region's resolve to come together to overcome the crisis.
``For me, the CMIM signifies East Asia's commitment to re-establishing financial stability and restoring economic growth in the region,'' said the secretary-general. ``It gets more momentum with the involvement of Japan, China and Korea, given the increasing importance of these economies in the global economy today.''
Thus the primary role of Japan, China and Korea is to provide stability to the CMIM since around 80 percent of the funds within the CMIM come from these three countries, he said.