The Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was established with the signing of the Declaration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Bangkok Declaration). The five original nations are Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia followed by Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. ASEAN serves as a regional cooperative organisation composed of ten Member States.
ASEAN has experienced rapid economic growth in the last ten years and is expected to play a role as a centre of growth that is open to the world, particularly because of China’s new ‘Silk Route’ and the special relationship ASEAN has with China; our relationship with China is also very special both to us and China.
It was President Premadasa, perhaps on the advice of M/s Paskeralingam and Bradman Weerakoon, who first suggested that we apply to become members of ASEAN; it would be recalled by those who were around at that time that we were invited to join ASEAN when those countries first came together but we did not accept the invitation; perhaps some of our political leaders thought that ASEAN was being established by the US during the Cold war to counter Soviet and Chinese power in Asia.
Stable regional association
In 1990 when President Premadasa sought to gain membership, they were not interested. When I was High Commissioner in Malaysia I wrote to the Ministry thrice asking that we seek membership of ASEAN but for reasons not known to me the then government did not pursue the matter. Today it would be very much in our interest if we could become members of ASEAN for our own regional grouping, SAARC is a virtual cripple and will not be able to deliver ever.
ASEAN is perhaps the most stable regional grouping in the world today, despite the new President of the Philippines stirring the pot a bit for he knows where his country’s interests lie and how they are best safeguarded. Our present government has fortunately begun to cultivate a close relationship with China once again (China it was that has helped us in a meaningful way from the time of the 1971 insurgency and through the years of the Eelam war both with arms and at the UN); we must get China to support our effort to obtain membership of ASEAN, for China has the closest of relations with ASEAN and all its member countries. We have good relations with all ten member states of ASEAN particularly with Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and now with Vietnam we must get them to support our joining ASEAN.
ASEAN is today the most stable regional association in the world. It is moving forward and is cooperating effectively and their traditional harmony is the concrete which is holding them together. ASEAN is forging close relations with both China and Japan, both countries have had long standing relations with the countries of ASEAN. Both countries have significant trade, political and economic relations with ASEAN, they also have significant investments in these countries and their development assistance has also been significant.
In the past few years the foundations for an ASEAN Economic Community have been developed around four pillars: developing a single market and production base, raising competitiveness, supporting equitable development and integrating ASEAN into the global economy. Progress has been achieved in some areas, such as reducing tariffs and streamlining customs procedures, but reforms are needed to liberalize services trade, foreign direct investment, capital markets and labour markets. Trade policy to date has emphasized the negotiation of multilateral and bilateral free-trade agreements, with much success.
Most importantly it must be recognized that leadership changes in ASEAN member states has not affected their commitment to ASEAN and regional cooperation.
A new concept is under consideration, it is the establishment of an ASEAN Political and Security Community but to my mind that seems a long shot away, as bilateralism remains important.
China of course has her own agenda, the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which will no doubt compete with the Asian Development Bank and the Silk Route project and her involvement in the development of Africa all point to a new China emerging. China is today the largest trading partner of ASEAN larger than the US or Japan; she is also the biggest Investor in ASEAN which is the only regional economy which keeps on growing and growth prospects are tremendous.
ASEAN will be a regional economic power so we must hitch our wagon to ASEAN with the assistance of both China and Japan and take our country forward on the road they have embarked upon. Yes we must apply to join ASEAN without further delay.