News / Asia

ASEAN Summit Highlights Economic Gains, Political Growing Pains

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono delivers his speech during the opening ceremony of the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, May 7, 2011
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono delivers his speech during the opening ceremony of the 18th ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, May 7, 2011

Leaders of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations began a two day summit in Jakarta Saturday. The organization has made progress in creating an economic trading block, but still faces great challenges in finding common ground on political and security matters.

All the ASEAN heads of state, with the exception of Singapore, are participating in the Jakarta summit. Singapore's prime minister stayed at home to await the results of the election there.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono opened the summit and endorsed ASEAN's recent efforts to mediate peace between two member states, Thailand and Cambodia, that have been fighting since February.

The two countries moved closer to ending an ongoing border conflict Friday, when both sides agreed in principle to accept 15 Indonesian observers in the conflict zone. Thai and Cambodia troops have been exchanging gun and artillery fire in a dispute over an area surrounding an ancient Hindu Khmer Temple that both countries claim.

President Yudhoyono also cited the challenges the region faces, such as soaring food and energy prices, the threat of terrorism and natural disasters that frequently strike in southeast Asia. He said ASEAN needs to become a more coherent and effective force to respond to these threats and maintain peace and stability in the region

The goal of the summit is to continue progress in making ASEAN an effective regional community with binding rules governing economic trade and political and security cooperation.

There has been strong support by all the leaders to create a unified economic trading block. Since 2010, ASEAN members have adhered to a free trade agreement with China, even though there have been some calls to modify the agreement to protect local industries from cheap Chinese imports.

But ASEAN members have been reluctant to enforce its own charter on issues of democracy development, protecting human rights and maintaining regional peace and security.

Carl Thayer is a southeast Asia political analyst with the University of New South Wales in Australia. While he credits Indonesia for its mediation efforts in the Thai-Cambodia conflict, he says ASEAN's inability to impose sanctions on member states that violate the organization's charter continues to limit its effectiveness.

And he says when it comes to mutual security issues, it is hard to see progress other than talk about humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and improving border protection.

"At the moment we have meetings and meeting of officials and have firmed up the defense side by moving it from informal to formal, but there has been no [not] anything done jointly by ASEAN in the defense and security spheres. It is all bilateral, trilateral," said Thayer.

He says while ASEAN's plan for economic integration is on track, when it comes to political and defense issues, the organization is still in the talking stage.

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