The Manila ASEAN Meetings and India

G.V.C Naidu, Research Fellow, IDSA



From both Indian and Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) perspectives, the annual meetings of the ASEAN Annual Ministerial Meeting (AMM), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting, and the dialogue between ASEAN and its Dialogue Partners, called the Post-Ministerial Conferences (PMC), that were held toward the end of July 1998 were crucial, albeit for entirely different reasons. These meetings were held under the shadow of a number of significant developments which directly impinge on ASEAN and its future evolution, and India, its Look East policy, especially its relations with ASEAN and its member countries individually. The most important, of course, is the worst economic crisis that Asia in general and the ASEAN nations in particular ever faced starting from an innocuous currency turbulence in Thailand which soon snowballed into major economic turmoil affecting a vast number of countries.

From a political and security view-point, more important are the long-term strategic implications of the present crisis for the entire South-East Asian region and the impact it would have on peace and stability which had been the bedrock on which the much hailed economic development could take place, for continued economic prosperity has been the biggest security guarantor for the countries of ASEAN. Second, the lynchpin of regional security in South-East Asia since the founding of ASEAN is unambiguously Indonesia and the imbroglio that it is caught in on all major fronts—political, economic and social—has begun to cast a big shadow over ASEAN and the regional security.1 Third, on a larger plane, the Asia-Pacific balance of power appears to be undergoing major changes. Since the bursting of the speculative "bubble" in the early 1990s, the Japanese economy has been tottering and it is now officially admitted that the recession is on. The Americans appear to be frustrated by the lack of will of the Japanese leadership to undertake concrete measures to prop up the sagging economy that invariably would further delay the South-East Asian recovery. This in part has brought a new bonhomie between the US and China, and the latter's behaviour on economic and foreign policy fronts is touted in Washington as exemplary. Added to this are the nuclear tests by India, which have broken the Chinese monopoly over atomic weapons in Asia.

Evidently, Indian and ASEAN priorities were not the same despite common concerns of regional peace and stability: India wanted ASEAN to understand its security concerns which prompted it to go nuclear and not to be condemned for its tests in the ARF meeting, which was the first major international forum India faced. It was feared in New Delhi that a hardline position by ASEAN might strain the burgeoning relationship between India and ASEAN. Contrary to India's fears, ASEAN, at least majority of them, did not want its 31st annual meetings to be dominated by the issue of subcontinental nuclear tests because these did not pose any direct threat to the South-East Asian security, but to concentrate on making efforts to ensure that the process that has been set in motion by the ARF was not derailed. In order to understand the dynamics of ASEAN's long-term interests and the ambitions of the nascent ARF, one should appreciate the way the regional organisation has evolved since 1967 leading to the so-called "ASEAN Way" of doing things.

Framework of ASEAN Cooperation: ASEAN Way

Over the years, ASEAN has evolved a code of conduct and a set of principles, both stated and unstated, to govern both inter-state relations among ASEAN members and ASEAN's relations with external powers (especially with Dialogue Partners). These tenets are so ingrained in ASEAN that any digression or attempt to fundamentally alter them would tantamount to disturbing the applecart seriously. These cardinal principles have been viewed as the foundation and driving force behind ASEAN, contributing enormously to its emergence as the most successful attempt at regional cooperation in the developing world. Some of these singular characteristics of ASEAN—a number of informal understandings that have evolved, traditions built and conventions established in the oganisation's functioning—are mentioned below. Unless New Delhi has a clear understanding of this and takes cognisance of this fact, it becomes not only difficult to appreciate the "ASEAN Way", but also might complicate its relations with ASEAN.

ASEAN was formed at a time when South-East Asia was in unprecedented political and economic turmoil. Without exception, every nation was embroiled in a conflict of one nature or another. While the Indochina countries were waging wars of national liberation under the Communist leadership against American intervention, the other countries were facing either Communist or ethnic-inspired armed insurgency or secessionist movements. Thus, when the original five non-Communist countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore) came together to form a regional organisation, their priority was domestic political stability, to be followed by economic development leading to, what Indonesia propounded, the building up of "national resilience" which, in turn, would contribute to the establishment of "regional resilience." The founding members also did not want to repeat the mistakes that were committed during the similar attempts earlier: the creation of the Association of South-East Asia (ASA) or the stillborn Maphilindo (Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia). That is the reason why in the first decade of ASEAN's existence, nothing much was heard about it, but that does not mean that nothing much was done during this time. In fact, a solid foundation was laid by undertaking concrete measures which enabled ASEAN to rise to the occasion in the mid-Seventies when it had to face its first major political test after the Indochina Communist victories. The most important of these moves was, first, the establishment of close personal rapport among the ruling political leaders of the member states, which was clearly missing earlier.2

Second, an intense kind of official networking was undertaken so that the broad understanding that was reached at the political level percolated down to the concerned officials at various levels. This is crucial for any cooperative effort because actual implementation and realisation of decisions that are taken at the political level is in the hands of civil servants. What started off as Annual Meetings of Foreign Ministers has since spread to a number of other departments spanning economic, commerce, environment, urban affairs, private sector, etc.

Third, a concerted move was initiated to raise the awareness about the regional organisation, its objectives and its utility to the people of individual member states. Although initially ASEAN was accused of being an organisation that was confined to the ruling elite with shared political convictions and an attempt to legitimise the regimes that were in power, the number and variety of activities that ASEAN gradually started engaging in, demonstrated that it has become a truly multifaceted organisation and correspondingly the expectations of the people all across the region have gone up dramatically. A sense of unity and solidarity (a kind of Aseanness) across a broad spectrum of people in South-East Asia is visible today. Perhaps ASEAN's biggest contribution has been its ability to raise considerably the level of consciousness about the Association among the common people of the region who otherwise do not share any single common characteristic that runs through the region: religion, language, culture, or ethnicity.

Fourth, in the early years, ASEAN's profile was deliberately kept low so that it would follow a natural and realistic pace of progression rather than create an exaggerated image with unachievable goals. ASEAN has been typically characterised by the modest agenda it has set for itself. Given the long history of large-scale external involvement in South-East Asia and the volatile atmosphere that existed when ASEAN was conceived, the low-key approach ensured that it did not attract undue external attention which could have complicated the whole effort. ASEAN did not even have a Secretariat and the First Summit Meeting of ASEAN Heads of State/Government was not held till 1976.

Fifth, a conscious decision to put all pending bilateral disputes and problems on the backburner so that they would not hamper the growth of ASEAN and embark on mutual cooperation to the extent possible, further bolstered ASEAN's chances. The most notable among these were the konfrontasi between Malaysia and Indonesia (during Sukarno's Guided Democracy period between 1963 and 1965), the issue of Sabah between Malaysia and the Philippines, and tensions between Malaysia and Singapore because of the earlier merger and later expulsion of Singapore from the Malaysia Federation. Whilst Indonesia officially put an end to konfrontasi, neither the Sabah problem nor the differences between Malaysia and Singapore were allowed to flare up, thanks in part to the newfound solidarity of ASEAN. There were also a number of other bilateral issues: the disputed border and Muslim rebel movement along the border of Thailand and Malaysia, alleged support to the Muslim insurgents by Malaysia in the southern Sulu and Mindanao provinces of the Philippines, and a number of border/territorial and maritime disputes involving most of the member states. This was a significant step because the issues of border and territorial disputes tend to be very emotive, difficult to resolve, and come in handy to whip up strong nationalist feelings.

Sixth, a clear understanding that each member, whether small or big, was equal and no one member would try to dominate ASEAN in any way was an important understanding that was reached. When ASEAN was formed, on one side of the spectrum there was Singapore a tiny city-state with less than two million people and, on the other, there was the world's fifth largest nation, Indonesia, with a population of nearly 150 million. In between there were three middle level powers with varying sizes and levels of developments. The exemplary behaviour by Indonesia which was ready to impose voluntary restraints so that it would not dominate, or even appear to be dominating ASEAN, was an important factor that contributed a great deal to the successful emergence of ASEAN.3

Seventh, there was also a broad consensus that economic development as the sole and best way to ensure security at the domestic as well as regional level was the most realistic and pragmatic approach in the context of the then South-East Asia which was economically under-developed, socially had an extremely complex ethnic composition and politically was very volatile. An innovative concept by Indonesia to build resilience at national and regional levels was widely acclaimed and actively pursued.

Eighth, to undertake security-related confidence building measures at both bilateral well as trilateral/multilateral level, but certainly not at the ASEAN level to ensure that the Association would not emerge as a defence or military arrangement purely for security purposes. Unlike a number of earlier attempts at the regional level—the Manila Pact, the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO), the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA)—which were exclusively for defence cooperation with active external sponsorship, the founding fathers did not want ASEAN to be constrained by the narrow confines of the military. It was a deliberate attempt and there is no evidence of ASEAN involving itself in any security cooperation effort since then. In fact, given the circumstances in which it was born and because of a number of compelling reasons, nothing would have stopped ASEAN from embarking on such a move.

Ninth, the then political leadership also ensured that there would be no external involvement in the functioning of ASEAN which otherwise would have jeopardised its credibility. However, it was duly recognised that major power involvement in the regional affairs would remain an important factor. Hence, even as the organisation began consolidating itself, a dialogue process was initiated in the mid-1970s to engage the extra-regional powers to the benefit of ASEAN.

Tenth, there was no attempt to create an ASEAN view, even if arrived at by majority of the members, on any issue and impose it on other member states unless there was complete unanimity, called the consensual politics of ASEAN. Thus, on the security front, ASEAN left the strategic affairs to the individual countries to pursue, either the bilateral military arrangements or membership in military pacts, so long as these did not affect other members' security concerns. Thailand and the Philippines had bilateral military treaties with the US. and offered base facilities (they even participated in the American war effort in Indochina) although Indonesia in principle was opposed to the presence of foreign bases and troops in the region.

Eleventh, to forge common understanding and a line of action on external political/security issues, especially related to South-East Asia. This aspect took concrete shape during the Cambodian crisis after the Vietnamese intervention in December 1978.

Last but not the least, was the principle of non-interference in each other's internal affairs.

These were some of the broad basic unwritten rules or understanding that governed the functioning of ASEAN since its founding. Thus, ASEAN has progressed from strength to strength because the member states, while accepting the comprehensive approach to regional security, were ready to cooperate politically to address the regional security issues. At the same time, it should be remembered that there was no attempt to formalise the security cooperation: "There is no joint commitment to come to each other's aid in the event of an external attack; there is no consensual view of threat; and there is no agreement to align against one member should it attack another, although the TAC (Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-East Asia) should preclude the last as a possibility."4 Thus, a hallmark of ASEAN is that individual member states continue to have differences on threat perceptions and pursue their independent policies best suited for their national interests, but at the same time do not undertake any action that undermines ASEAN or its members' interests.

ASEAN's Reactive and Proactive Policy

It may appear from the above description that ASEAN's whole endeavour was to ensure, first, its survival and, second, primarily remain as a static body with incremental upgradation of cooperation at various levels when needed, but which would react only when forced to while individual countries strove to follow their own policies. What is remarkable about ASEAN is that, despite the lack of agreement on many regional problems or in dealing with external great powers, surprising as it may sound, the Association pursued a mixture of reactive and proactive policies if one took cognisance of various ASEAN initiatives with the aim of addressing regional security issues. But for the outstanding role ASEAN played in the promotion of peace and stability, the spectacular economic progress this region has achieved so far would not have been possible. ASEAN since the beginning had to tread a cautious path because of extreme diversity and, at the same time, undertake bold experimentation for regional cooperation. In view of the earlier rancorous history and deep animosity of states toward each other, most of the initial steps were tentative so that ASEAN would survive and the member states would not feel alienated or their interests compromised. It was a dual strategy of consolidation process and carving a political niche for the Association and concurrently evolving some consensus on certain common minimum agendas. These moves were premised on some broadly accepted convictions: one, any initiative to address South-East Asian security should emanate from within the region rather than from without; two, the external involvement should be kept to the minimum in the political affairs and security management of the region; and three, foreign military presence in South-East Asia, however stabilising an effect it might have, should be temporary. At the same time, however, it needs to be mentioned that in the narrative of ASEAN, developments in and around South-East Asia and changing strategies of major external powers played a significant role in nudging (at times forcing) the Association to undertake certain measures.

Objectively speaking, ASEAN's initiatives have been, by and large, reactive, but there are also clearly proactive elements in them. Most prominent of these was, of course, the formation of ASEAN itself against the background of Communist and other armed insurgencies and the looming shadow of the "domino theory". The proactive aspect of ASEAN founding was that the member states would not allow bilateral disputes to flare up into open conflicts and would attempt some measure of cooperation wherever possible. The second was the attempt at neutralisation of South-East Asia through the declaration of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in late 1971 in response to growing military involvement of the Great Powers, especially in Indochina. The extension of the Vietnam War into the rest of Indochina threatened to spill over into all of South-East Asia. However, it could be argued that the idea of ZOPFAN was mooted in reaction to the late 1960s Nixon Doctrine which propounded that America might pull out of the Vietnam quagmire and adopt other means to secure its interests. That would have meant greater Chinese involvement in South-East Asian affairs. ASEAN's concern was not confined just to the raging war in Indochina, but to make the whole of South-East Asia immune from external intervention.

The third initiative was the TAC in South-East Asia which was adopted at the first ASEAN Summit meeting in Bali in 1976. TAC was the first attempt to evolve a code of conduct for inter-state relations for members as well as non-member states of South-East Asia. It states:

"In their relations with one another, the High Contracting Parties shall be guided by the following fundamental principles:

"a. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations;

"b. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;

"c. Non-interference in internal affairs of one another;

"d. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means;

"e. Renunciation of the threat or use of force;

"f. Effective cooperation among themselves."5

This summit meeting of ASEAN was held under the shadow of Communist victories in Indochina and growing tensions between Vietnam and Thailand. However, ASEAN was ready to take into its fold the Indochina countries, despite fundamental political divergences, if they were ready to abide by certain norms and the above stated principles, which were certainly not ideological.

The fourth significant initiative was the PMCs with the Dialogue Partners6—a select group of powers outside South-East Asia which could significantly contribute to regional political stability and/or economic development. In a way, the PMC was conceived in the mid-1970s as part of the political consultation process facilitating a regular dialogue between ASEAN and its chosen partners. The PMC process was consolidated and strengthened in the early 1980s. Till the formation of the ARF, the PMC also served as a forum for discussions on political and security issues, albeit informally, in addition to issues of economic cooperation. Once again, initiation of the PMC mechanism was in response to radical developments in the region, for example the beginning of the so-called Second Cold War, the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia in late 1978 and an open conflict between Vietnam and China in February 1979. Though the initial Dialogue Partners of ASEAN belonged to the same class of political thought, ASEAN was not prepared for a formal arrangement exclusively for security purposes. Moreover, ASEAN's willingness to extend the Dialogue Partnership to India in the early 1980s was an indication that ASEAN was ready to include other powers too so long as they would contribute to peace and stability in South-East Asia.7

Finally, by far the most significant move was the creation of the ARF in 1993. The ARF was a product of uncertainties that gripped South-East Asia as a result of the dramatic end of the Cold War and superpower military disengagement and a strongly felt need to create a framework to deal exclusively with security issues. The idea of a region-wide consultative forum has its origins in Tokyo, but it was Australia which put across the idea of a CSCA (Conference on Security Cooperation in Asia)—modelled on the European CSCE (Conference on Security Cooperation in Europe) process—for the Asia-Pacific. ASEAN either had to embrace the European replica in Asia or come up with a new idea of its own. Thus, ASEAN was forced to take the initiative and create a new forum for security purposes. ASEAN's contribution to the new forum lies in the fact that it is the first-ever truly inclusive pan-Pacific platform but with distinct ASEAN characteristics: ASEAN would the driving force behind the ARF and hence by default it would set the agenda of the forum. Although the ARF is qualitatively a different organisation, to an extent the "ASEAN Way" is the guiding principle. Among the initiatives, the ARF is the most ambitious in terms of both scope and terms of reference.

Manila Meetings

An assessment of the 1998 ASEAN meetings in Manila should bear in mind the above background, the framework and the way ASEAN does its business. The Manila meetings (31st AMM and the Fifth ARF) on the surface seemed to be just yet another annual event for exchange of views and nothing appeared to be earth-shattering. However, these meetings were a significant milestone in the history of ASEAN. First, these meetings were held at a time ASEAN had weakened considerably because of the financial crisis. The crisis brought forth the rickety ground on which ASEAN as an institution has been based because of its complete helplessness either in tackling the currency meltdown that started in mid-1997 or in arresting the spread of this contagion into the rest of South-East Asia, especially to countries such as Singapore (and to a lesser extent Malaysia) whose economic fundamentals have been regarded as sound and financial sector as transparent.8 The economic price these countries had to pay was probably because of their political cooperation at the ASEAN level. That way ASEAN has emerged not just as a political entity but has come to be viewed as an economic unit too to a certain extent although low levels of economic cooperation, or interdependence, of the member states did not warrant this. A major decision was to create a monitoring mechanism under the aegis of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which would act as an early-warning centre.

On the political front, however, ASEAN heard the first rumblings about its "way". The Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan was strongly supported by his counterpart in the Philippines, Domingo L. Siazon Jr., who came up with the idea of "flexible engagement"—a euphemism to comment on, and discuss, domestic issues or developments in the member countries if in any way they impinged on the interests of any other member or the rest of South-East Asia. The other countries prevailed upon resisting the idea and opted to continue with the time-tested practice of non-interference in each other's internal affairs, but accepted a watered down version called "enhanced interaction."9 To be sure, the whole debate over this should not be viewed as a contest between conservative and tradition-bound versus modern and democratic as it has been made out to be in a section of the media. In fact, the "constructive intervention" idea has been making the rounds since last July with regard to Cambodia after Hun Sen staged a coup to depose the Co-Premier, Prince Ranariddh. Cambodia is a specific case in which ASEAN has been involved right from the day the problem began, i.e., since the Vietnamese troops marched into that country. ASEAN took considerable trouble to bring about some semblance of peace and stability and hence it was felt that ASEAN has some moral right if needed to intervene in order to restore order and establish a democratically elected government. Surin may have had Myanmar in mind, especially because of the stand-off between the military junta and Aung San Suu Sukyi and the problems it created for EU-ASEAN cooperation, but to get a sanction from ASEAN for intervention in others' domestic issues would have a far-reaching impact not only on the Association, but also on bilateral relations among the members. As Indonesia's Foreign Minister rightly pointed out, "We will return to the situation before ASEAN was born, with a lot of suspicion, a lot of tension."10 As anticipated, the second issue that was in the limelight was the State Peace and Development Council, the ruling military junta in Myanmar. It came under sharp criticism by the West for its authoritarian rule and human rights record.

ARF and Indian Nuclear Tests

As far as the ARF deliberations were concerned, perhaps the most important, from an Indian view-point, were the May nuclear tests in the subcontinent. The initial reaction from some individual member countries (Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines) to the tests was one of condemnation, except Vietnam which took a slightly different position. Without endorsing the Indian tests, Hanoi strongly urged the nuclear weapon countries to urgently take measures for complete nuclear disarmament.11 However, ASEAN as an organisation was non-committal. Senior officials at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta said that ASEAN was carefully studying the full import of India's move and that its commitment to a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) in South-East Asia continued to be firm. They are reported to have said, "India has explained its position. ASEAN has had occasion to discuss with successive governments in New Delhi over the past two years on the nuclear issue."12

The Permanent Foreign Secretaries of ASEAN who met in Manila in connection with the forthcoming annual meetings of the Association discussed the tests but refused to issue any statement claiming that never in the past had statements been issued in these meetings and left the matter to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers. It appears that there was a clear division of opinion among the Secretaries on the question of openly commenting on an issue of national security concerning one of the ARF members, especially when it did not directly relate to South-East Asian security. Nonetheless, what is noteworthy is the unusually great interest the government in Manila, especially its Foreign Minister Siazon, took in the Indian nuclear tests. He circulated a document to the UN Secretary General condemning India without specifying whether it was issued in his personal capacity as Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines or on behalf of ASEAN as its current Chairman. Predictably, India took strong objection and criticised the move claiming that Siazon was trying to push his personal views as an ASEAN proposal where there was no consensus on the issue among the member states of the Association.13 Even as New Delhi feared that India might come under severe criticism and perhaps condemnation in the July ASEAN meetings, which might jeopardise carefully nurtured India-ASEAN relations since 1992, an intense diplomatic offensive was pursued to allay whatever misgivings may have cropped up about either an impeding nuclear arms race in South Asia or between India and China and its implication for South-East Asia as a result, and explain the Indian compulsions for testing. The Indian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs undertook two rounds of trips to most of the ASEAN capitals (Jakarta, Manila, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Hanoi) in early July 1998 with the above purpose in mind.14

A second instance which irked India was when Siazon readily endorsed a Japanese proposal to invite Pakistan to the Manila ARF meeting so that a "balance" would be maintained between India and Pakistan.15 India explained that its tests had nothing to do with any regional balance of power in South Asia; they were to protect its long-term security interests and, at the same time, demonstrate to the world that discriminatory arms control regimes are not viable. Once again, other ASEAN nations prevailed upon Manila and the move was not allowed to materialise.

When it became clearer that India was being condemned by name in the draft statement prepared by the Chairman at the end of the ARF meeting, India submitted a note verbale which said that the paragraph on nuclear weapons should not condemn India, which, on the one hand, would be contrary to the established norms of the ARF and, on the other, it questions what a member state perceived to be its legitimate and legal exercise to protect its national security interests. India's contention was that if ASEAN by name did not condemn the nuclear tests by France and China in 1995, it should not do so in the case of India and Pakistan. Instead, the ARF should concentrate its efforts on genuine nuclear disarmament with the objective of complete elimination of weapons of mass destruction. India proposed that the Chairman's statement should express concern over "transfer of nuclear weapons related equipment and technology in Asia."16 It was turned down by Siazon claiming that it was "too far " from the original proposal. By the time the ASEAN Foreign Ministers were ready to meet, senior officials were locked in disagreement on the proposal to censure India for the nuclear tests. According to an AFP dispatch, "The majority of the nine-member grouping was against Manila putting out a Chairman's statement after the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting next week to censure New Delhi for its nuclear tests in May. The Philippines Foreign Under Secretary, Mr. Lauro Baja, told reporters that he drew reaction from his counterparts from Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam on the proposed Chairman's Statement to be issued after the meet. They find the wording of the paragraph concerning India in the latest revision of the draft as 'too strong."17

Thus, unlike the earlier proposed version, which said "the Ministers ...condemned the recent tests conducted by India and Pakistan", the revised version of the Statement was much more watered down and stated that the "Ministers expressed grave concern over and strongly deplored the recent nuclear tests in South Asia, which exacerbated tension in the region and raised the spectre of a nuclear arms race."18 It appears an overwhelming majority of the ASEAN nations were not happy at the way the Filipino Foreign Minister handled the issue of the Indian tests starting from circulation of a report to the UN Secretary General to the wording of the Chairman's Statement. His more-than-necessary enthusiasm to condemn India (and Pakistan) appeared as though the tests had become the biggest security challenge for South-East Asia. Siazon also gave the impression that either he was acting at the behest of some external powers, or was trying to please them, who found the ARF a convenient stick to beat New Delhi with. What probably annoyed especially Jakarta was Siazon's attempt to act as the unofficial leader of ASEAN, replacing Indonesia, taking advantage of the latter's worst domestic turmoil. In fact, the Indonesian Foreign Minister went to the extent of endorsing the South Asian nuclear tests claiming in his closing remarks in Manila that "India and Pakistan are Non-Aligned nuclear powers."19 India had reason to be happy to have come out unscathed in the first major international gathering it faced after the tests. India was particularly appreciative of the strong support extended by countries such as Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. In order to dispel any misgivings about the impact of the Indian tests on the newly declared NWFZ in South-East Asia, New Delhi, despite its past reservations about these nuclear-free zones, was ready to sign the protocol of the Treaty on NWFZ in South-East Asia.20


If one were to take a holistic view of the Manila meetings, a few nuanced but glaring developments need a closer look. First, a majority of the members do not want to deviate from the well-established norms of ASEAN functioning. They strongly feel that there is nothing that demands disturbing the framework that has been evolved over the years. Second, the Manila meetings once again reiterated the initiative and strong control ASEAN has kept for itself in either setting the agenda for the Association and its functioning, or in the shaping of its relations with external powers, or in guiding the progression of the newly created ARF. The idea is not to subject ASEAN to external influences at any cost. Third, there appears to be a loosely-held core group comprising Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia which seems to exercise considerable influence in steering ASEAN and the ARF with great care in both setting the agenda and in the pursuit of long-term interests of these bodies. The coordinated activity, especially by these three countries, became obvious in Manila. To be fair, ASEAN owes a lot to these countries, specifically for the enormous contribution they have made since the beginning in the successful growth of ASEAN and in bringing it to the global attention. Although under the broad sweep of ASEAN, the role of these countries has not been paid much attention to, the tact and care they took in guiding the Association through a difficult path needs to be commended. To their credit, these countries were also responsible to a great extent for devising the so-called "ASEAN Way" in the conduct of its business. They probably understand the pitfalls and consequences of deviating from the time-tested way to get into the uncharted waters of "flexible engagement." Any attempt to interfere in others' domestic affairs, however good intentioned it might be, is fraught with serious problems, especially because of the complex and often sensitive nature of nation states in South-East Asia. They are also aware that there are a number of informal ways to handle those domestic issues that have obvious consequences for the neighbours. Fourth, the Indian nuclear tests have to be viewed against the backdrop of the earlier explained ASEAN framework. ASEAN's refusal to condemn India by name is well appreciated in New Delhi and it augurs well for India-ASEAN relations. As a token of appreciation, India has come out with a number of measures (counter trade, liberal trade credits, etc.,) to alleviate the current economic hardship faced by a number of ASEAN nations.



1. The question of succession may appear to have been settled, but most believe that it is only a temporary solution. Other concerns such as thorough political reforms, establishment of transparent and truly representative democracy, the question of leadership, future role of armed forces, assuaging the ethnic Chinese who had to bear the brunt of the ethnic riots in May, steps towards economic economic reconstruction, etc., are some of the pressing issues that need urgent attention if Indonesia is to remain peaceful and stable.

2. Developments within Indonesia in 1965 in which President Sukarno was deposed leading to the ascendance of Gen. Suharto who not only tempered his predecessor's radical views and actions, but his willingness to closely cooperate with the neighbours cleared probably the biggest hurdle for ASEAN. Indonesia's involvement was critical for the survival of ASEAN.

3. This aspect has valuable lessons for SAARC where preceptions of India as a dominant power continue to hamper its progress.

4. Sheldon W. Simson, "Security Aspects in Southeast Asia: Collaborative Efforts and the ASEAN Regional Forum," Pacific Review, vol. 11, no. 2, (1988), p. 197.

5. Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-East Asia, 1976.

6. Currently the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the EU, South Korea, India and China are Dialogue Partners of ASEAN.

7. India had sought the Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN in 1976, but it was only in 1980 that ASEAN warmed up to India's request. ASEAN also had other political vested interests: it wanted to dissuade India from according diplomatic recognition to the Vietnamese-supported regime in Phnom Penh. Had India not recognised Cambodia then, it would have become a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN and it still could have continued its close relationship with Vietnam and Cambodia.

8. Asian Wall Street Journal.

9. Far Eastern Economic Review, August 6, 1998, pp. 24-25.

10. Ibid. It may mentioned here that Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, of Singapore argues that ASEAN is mature enough to talk about issues that have regional implications even if they fall in the domain of internal affairs. He offers the example of forest fires in Indonesia and the haze that gripped large parts of South-East Asia in 1997, Far Eastern Economic Review, July 20, 1998.

11. Times of India, May 16, 1998.

12. The Hindu, May 14, 1998.

13. Hindustan Times, June 27, 1998.

14. The Hindu, July 7, 1998.

15. Press Trust of India report in The Hindu, July 18, 1998.

16. The Hindu, July 12, 1998.

17. Quoted in The Hindu, July 22, 1998.

18. See the draft and revised versions of Statement of the Chairman of the Fifth ASEAN Regional Forum, Manila, July 27, 1998.

19. Indian Express, July 29, 1998.

20. The Treaty on Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in South-East Asia was formally adopted on December 16, 1995 at Bangkok by the Heads of State of ASEAN. Article 3 of the Protocol to the NWFZ Treaty proposed that the treaty be endorsed by the five nuclear weapons states. See Treaty on the South-East Asia Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone and the Protocol.