No. 30 — August 4, 2000


Weekly Review

--- by Marc Castellano

Foreign Minister Yohei Kono announced July 26 that Japan would help the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bridge the "digital divide," the gap between nations that have benefited from the proliferation of information technology and those that have not. Efforts will be aimed at aiding the organization's newer, poorer members — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Vietnam — to catch up with the more developed ones — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Mr. Kono made the announcement in Bangkok, where he was attending an "Asean+3" meeting — a forum that brings together the foreign ministers of Asean member countries, the People's Republic of China, Japan and South Korea.

The plan, dubbed the Japan-East Asia Partnership Initiative, will be implemented over five years. It is part of the $15 billion IT aid package previewed ahead of the late July summit of the leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia (see JEI Report No. 28B, July 21, 2000). In broad terms, Japan will cooperate closely with Asean countries to strengthen human-resource development efforts, especially by less-affluent Southeast Asian economies. Specific projects have not been decided, but they are expected to be outlined this November at an informal summit of Asean leaders in Singapore.

Mr. Kono announced another aid initiative at the Asean Regional Forum meeting held July 27. The Japan-Asean General Exchange Fund, which will have access to $2.5 million in its first year, will help less-developed Asean members become more fully involved in the regional group. The JAGEF will finance projects aimed at narrowing economic disparities between the four countries that joined the association in the 1990s and the six older members. The fund also will be tapped to support the Jakarta-based Asean Secretariat and to promote further economic assistance, technology transfers, trade and personnel exchanges between Japan and Asean countries.

The Foreign minister indicated that Tokyo is considering such projects as the establishment of a communications network to link Asean members, the Asean Secretariat and Japan. Another possible undertaking involves training foreign affairs specialists from the new Asean members. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam also may receive computers so that officials can communicate via electronic mail with the capitals of fellow Asean members and with the secretariat.

The JAGEF will be managed by a team consisting of Asean's secretary general, a Japanese representative and the country designated to coordinate the group's relations with Japan — currently Vietnam but soon to be Myanmar. The establishment of the fund follows the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's pledge, made at last November's Asean summit, to help new members and the Asean Secretariat (see JEI Report No. 45B, December 3, 1999).

Asean has suffered a number of setbacks recently, largely due to fallout from the 1997-99 East Asian financial and economic crisis. Moreover, the organization lost its informal leader, former Indonesian President Suharto, in 1998, and no substitute has emerged since. Internal problems hamper the two obvious candidates, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, leaving a power vacuum. Asean also has been criticized for its inability to deal effectively with the economic upheaval of the late 1990s and to advance long-planned regional trade and investment liberalization programs. Indeed, Singaporean Foreign Minister S. Jayakumar warned of the group's risk of being marginalized at the Asean foreign ministers' meeting.

Nevertheless, 37 countries, including members of the European Union, Canada, Russia and the United States, were represented at the Asean Regional Forum session. For the first time ever, North Korea participated in the annual event. Tokyo welcomed the involvement of the reclusive regime, saying that its inclusion in ARF may lead to enhanced regional cooperation and security. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer praised the move as an important step in opening a dialogue. The North Korean delegation, led by Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun, held discussions with various Asean ministers on the sidelines of the ARF meeting, indicating a new willingness on the part of Pyongyang to talk with its adversaries. Moreover, Pyongyang has announced a moratorium on ballistic missile tests, a major cause of instability in Northeast Asia. Problems remain, however, headed by the uncertain prospects for peace on the Korean peninsula.

The regional forum addressed a range of other issues, including the controversial American plan to develop a national missile defense system. Delegates from Canada, China and Russia, among other countries, voiced strong opposition to the NMD, warning that it could spark an arms race and upset the international strategic balance. Tokyo, which may pursue a localized missile defense system if Washington's program advances, did not step in to offer support for the United States, taking instead a neutral stance on the NMD issue. According to Japanese officials, not only are Tokyo's plans preliminary but any missile defense system put in place would be purely defensive in nature (see JEI Report No. 33B, August 27, 1999).

On internal matters, Asean members reaffirmed the group's pledge to support the territorial integrity of Indonesia, including the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya, two areas where separatist pressures continue to mount. Notably, a delegation from East Timor attended the ARF meeting and said that the territory was interested in joining Asean — but not until it had achieved full independence. East Timor now is being run by a transitional United Nations administration.

One of the most significant results of the ARF session was Asean's agreement to establish a three-person committee to deal with internal problems. The wide range of challenges facing Southeast Asia includes territorial conflicts over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, sectarian violence in Indonesia's Moluccan Islands and the Philippines' shaky economy and problems with infectious diseases, especially AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). The troika arrangement is modeled on a EU system that employs present, past and future presidents to tackle important and complex issues.

The idea, championed by Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, is to streamline decisionmaking by tasking a core group of eminent individuals to implement solutions. Critics have pointed out that the effectiveness of the troika may be limited since a group consensus still will be required for action — a condition added to ensure that the body does not undermine Asean's principle of noninterference in the affairs of its members. Nevertheless, the establishment of a dispute-resolution body represents progress toward greater regional integration and solidarity.

The outcome of the ARF meeting and the talks held on its sidelines and beforehand suggest that Asean can play a useful role in addressing, if not resolving, the host of issues troubling Southeast Asia. Moreover, the financial and administrative support that Japan has offered will give Asean a much-needed boost as it moves forward.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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