You have got to give it to the Economist. Once it propounds theories on regional integration, people are bound to listen. It hasn't been in this business of writing and influencing for almost two centuries for nothing. But that has got to change.
On issues of regional integration, people are getting smart, and being more discerning. Old attitudes that seek to see the EU as the precursor of regional integration everywhere, or those that seek to perpetuate the idea that it is because of countries against each other that cause the fragmentation of regional block are not quite fading into insignificance, but fading...somewhere!
Whilst there is some truth to these ideas, it's always important to look beneath the surface.
The Economist sadly, in its latest article looking at ASEAN, fails to do so. In my view, any generalist on regional integration could have come up with the view.
It starts off by saying all that we know: "The European Union has plenty of critics".
By gum, surely a secondary school leaver could have come up with that!
Then it goes on:
"For Asian leaders who seek greater regional integration across the continent, however, the EU surely provides at least a distant goal, if not a model. But time spent in Brussels talking to officials at the European Commission about the EU’s relations with Asia highlights the gap between the EU and its nearest Asian equivalents"
Let me not begin to presume that I am cognisant of the discussions that transpired between EU officials, but I can say authoritatively that this post goes to fly in the face of the Economist magazine's claim. In that article, EU officials from the 28th session of the Inter-Parliamentary ASEAN Assembly were claiming that ASEAN's model was a commendable one. They went on:
"We have good relations and strong economic links. The EU is a large investor and we create a lot of trade in Asean and vice-versa."
2. "Apart from having a common economic interest, our regional cooperation is the most advanced and successful in the world,"
3. "Until last year AIPA was still called the Parliamentary Organisation. It stresses parliamentary influence in Asean just like the European parliament"
Clearly, saying that there is work to be done does not discount the commendable nature of the organisation that is ASEAN, but in my view, the Economist should not go away making readers feel that ASEAN is clamoring to be like the EU--otherwise the ASEAN Charter would not have been passed!
Still, it is interesting to note that the article talks about war having been fought among the current 27-member-strong EU several decades ago, so why does it feel that if there are issues between India and Pakistan in SAARC over Kashmir, the two countries cannot sort it out? It writes:
In comparison, the two big Asian integrative ventures—the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC)—are puny striplings.
ASEAN has at least achieved the first aim. Formed in 1967, just after a period of “confrontation”, just short of war, between Indonesia and Malaysia, it has made armed conflict between its members (now ten of them) seem very unlikely.
SAARC is not even there yet. It is riven by bloody internal conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and a dormant but unresolved dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan that has sparked three wars in the past. A regional conflagration, sadly, cannot be ruled out.
In Brussels, SAARC hardly gets a mention. This is not just because its contribution to regional integration is so inchoate. It is also because, within South Asia, India physically, politically and economically dwarfs its neighbours.
This reference to India/Pakistan is a development that needs must be talked about in discussions over any SAARC integration, but I would have assumed the esteemed magazine to have elaborated a bit more than the sentiment that things can turn into a "regional conflagration."
It is fair to say that integration in SAARC is slow and, well, very slow, but it is important to put things into perspective. SAARC and the EU are far from comparable. EU and ASEAN, yes, but SAARC and EU, no!
I like the fact that the Economist has woven a news story of the EU wanting an FTA with India and ASEAN around this piece, but it has done some selective interpretation of the story, in my view, to underscore how formidably efficient the EU is--and, frankly, that's not on.
Sure, the EU had problems with Burma, but let's face it, ASEAN has not kicked that country out. The ASEAN Charter is a reality and Burma does not look to be going anywhere!
It is true that the Charter might have issues on voting; and the beefing up of the Secretariat, inter alia (note that ECOWAS without a charter transformed into a Commission so as to become more "efficient"), but it is not as if ASEAN will do it today is it?
Even the much-maligned African Union has moved away from the doctrine of non-interference, albeit slowly. ASEAN will go that way some day.
In my view, it's all about shades of gray.
It is important to talk about SAARC and how it can be helped, but the EU, I suspect, knows that it because it has preferential relations with the India (a rather dominant figure within SAARC), the organisation can probably go fish.
I suspect further that any greater proactiveness by India within SAARC might go to ruffle the EU's growing feathers.