The Pencil Guy: Hourann's illogical blog

ARF 2007: who will go to Darfur?

Tuesday 7 August 2007 at 11:05 pm

Last week’s series of ASEAN meetings, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (at which North Korean nuclear weapons were the hot topic, though the Western media hardly noticed), were a continuation of the process started some years ago of taking definite-but-not-hasty steps towards further integration and formalisation in the region, this being typical ASEAN style. As examples, the meetings produced a tentative human rights agreement and a new ARF adjunct group.

But most interesting has been that one of the key topics for discussion (on the sidelines of the meetings, at least) was Security Council resolution 1769, which authorises a peacekeeping force in Darfur. It seems that a few participants — particularly John Negroponte, who attended for the US in Condi Rice’s absence — were asking around to see who’d be willing to send some troops. So this year is notable as an occasion where ASEAN meetings have had an impact beyond the immediate region.

On our behalf, Alexander Downer announced that the Australian military is too busy to pitch in for Darfur (and although he was criticised, if you believe that we absolutely need to be in Iraq, I suppose that’s kinda reasonable). He also signed a new partnership agreement that will hopefully strengthen Southeast Asian ties, in a gradual and very ASEAN kind of way.

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EAS, round 2: energy deals grab broader attention

Saturday 20 January 2007 at 10:47 am

(Admittedly, this post is several days late; I blame family.)

Leaders at the second East Asia Summit, Cebu, Philippines. Creative Commons licence does not apply to this image.

So the East Asia Summit for 2006 (er, 2007? 06-07? or something?) has drawn to a close, and although the institution is still new and finding its feet, this year has presented a few good signs that the Summit will have a successful future in encouraging regional cooperation.

Aside from several measures to promote regional trade, the big announcement was a declaration that promises cooperation on “energy security”, which is to say there’ll be a big push for investment in transmission and generation infrastructure. Assuming the declaration is followed through, there’ll also be a few token measures towards bio-fuels and renewable energy (though admittedly that’s better than nothing).

I think it’s illustrative that our local daily gave a big chunk of space on the business pages to an AP story about the energy pact, which seems to mirror several other news services I’ve checked. In other words, talk of energy deals makes business leaders (or at least business press editors) stand up and take notice — which, if nothing else, has the benefit of giving the Summit some more widespread attention than it’d otherwise earn. On that front, the EAS has already done better than APEC meetings of recent years, none of which have produced anything quite as noteworthy.

Within that context, the Japanese government has already stepped forward with a donation of US$2b for energy research, yet another component in its long-term programme of being the region’s aid financier. Similarly, the AusAID announcement earlier in the week of $5m to combat bird flu was soundly trounced by a Japanese pledge of an additional US$67m. These donations are important in the sense that they’re giving substance to the decisions being made at the EAS — which suggests that to some extent, the EAS is already getting things done. (On the other hand, though, Japan was donating money for disease prevention long before 2005.)

Speaking of Japan, simmering resentment between it and China earned barely a mention in most media coverage of the second Summit — unlike last time — and this is pretty much entirely due to Shinzo Abe taking over from Junichiro Koizumi as PM. Abe has made little in the way of significant changes to Japan’s dealings with China, but simply by not visiting the Yasukuni Shrine (as PM) he has defused tensions enough that an entire section of my thesis is rendered obsolete. But that’s a good thing, because I argued that a rift between the region’s largest economies was the single biggest issue in the way of a successful EAS.

Interestingly, Russia wasn’t at the table this time around, even though its presence would have actually been relevant on the question of oil supply (so I suppose that ends the speculation from 2005 about whether it’d become a fully-fledged member!).

The broader ASEAN Summit (of which the EAS was one part) earned headlines for a declaration about terrorism and progress towards an ASEAN Charter, but otherwise there was little reaction to the events of the last 12 months. It is the ASEAN Way to not criticise any country’s domestic affairs in public, so there was nary a whimper about the fact that Thailand was represented by a military general. North Korea and Myanmar were both told off, the former about the 6-party talks and the latter for lacking democracy, but these announcements have become yearly stalwarts. Beyond that, the only announcement that struck me as interesting was the plan for new university courses as part of the cultural component of the forthcoming ASEAN Community.

As a final note, the most prominent mention that the Summit got in Australia was John Howard’s stopover in Broome on the way back. Frankly, were I in his shoes, I’d probably do the same — although I’d have covered my back for the inevitable “who paid for this?” squabbles ;-)

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Airliners, crackpots, bird flu and phones

Saturday 13 January 2007 at 11:48 pm
  • The best news I’ve heard so far this year: Tiger Airways, a Singaporean discount carrier modelled after Air Asia, is starting flights to Perth in March. And just like Air Asia, they have ridiculous discounts: $20 one way to Singapore, plus (obscene) taxes, on selected dates until October. This more than plugs the hole left when Valuair stopped its Perth flights after a merger with Qantas (mutter grumble), and makes it wonderfully cheap to travel around Asia. I’m already planning a trip to relatives in Penang for about $400, less than half the current cost. Hopefully this will also be a good thing for West Australian tourism — the State government had better take advantage of it!
  • Who decided that this guy was so important anyway? (Just like Christianity, Islam is divided into different factions and schools of thought, and he’s only one mufti …) I don’t think we should ban him from returning or revoke his citizenship (now that’s a horrid idea: how do you decide who’s a bad citizen?), and he’s entitled to freely travel and express his views. But if I flew overseas and told some people that all Australians are idiots, somehow I doubt there’d be such a swarm of coverage. The media need only stop paying attention in order to transform him into Yet Another Harmless Crackpot.
  • The ASEAN summit in Cebu, postponed from last December, has just started. Impressively, our government has used this as a chance to pitch in a $5m donation to combat bird flu, which gives some meat to the rather hollow Declaration from the last East Asia Summit, and fits in nicely with the argument made on page 29 of my thesis ;-)
  • Finally, after more considered analysis, I’m not sure the iPhone is as awesome as it first seemed. It’s far and away the best phone interface ever, that much is certain, but it won’t be able to run 3rd-party software (perhaps not even Web 2.0 apps), we know little about the camera, and there’s a case to be made that hardware keyboards are better (they’re good for blind people — such as me, when SMSing while half-asleep). Speaking of which, this is an awesome response to everyone’s reactions.

ASEAN hands Timor-Leste an invite

Tuesday 25 July 2006 at 11:29 am

As part of this week’s ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, and in the leadup to Friday’s ASEAN Regional Forum, it was reported today that Timor-Leste intends to join ASEAN.

Considering how little I can find in (the shiny and new!) Technorati, I suspect few people are interested by this. So I’ll comment about it, particularly because I’m fascinated :-)
(hey, it brings together something I’ve been blogging about with something I’m studying!)

First up, it should be noted that this isn’t really a sign of improved stability in Timor-Leste; the old government had been in negotiations to get down with the ASEAN kids for months before the current unrest. Mr Ramos-Horta was at last year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, and there was even talk of him attending the next East Asia Summit.

The announcement does, however, cast some doubt over the old hopes of ASEAN leaders for a nicely rounded clique of ten (which they finally got in 1999). When Timor-Leste first won its independence, some folk in the region said it was more Melanesian than Southeast Asian, and thus didn’t belong in ASEAN. That sentiment has since been overridden by the more widespread belief (particularly strong among the Singaporeans) that ASEAN and its spawn should be inclusive and welcoming to anyone who’s entitled to join.

I doubt that joining ASEAN (if and when it happens, since this announcement is just a statement of intent) will have much impact on the Timorese themselves, except perhaps to help legitimate their government overseas. Whether that’s a good thing is unclear — the last person to have been in the region whom I’ve spoken to was convinced the new leadership is far from clean.

I am vaguely concerned about the effect of continued expansion on ASEAN. Then again, the late-90s naysayers were wrong to claim that picking up Burma and Cambodia would ruin the group, so maybe there’s nothing to be worried about. Actually, it’s quite likely ASEAN will just keep plodding along like it always has, talking lots while making steady (but glacially slow!) progress towards integration.

Timor-Leste, meanwhile, will plod along in poverty, still short of stability or much-needed economic growth …

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‘Deputy sheriff’, all over again

Friday 30 June 2006 at 3:45 pm

Today I shall rant about an article I read in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Peter Hartcher reckons poor old Australia, strong, brave, dependable Australia, has inherited a new empire of failed states who need our paternalism.

I acknowledge the concerns of some about an ‘arc of instability’ to our north; although this isn’t the best term, and it’s a bit condescending to say to our neighbours “we expect you to fail”, it is true that there are lots of governments in trouble on the islands around us. But that’s a far cry from going all nationalist and painting Australia as the shining knight, coming to the rescue of the poor, uncivilised Pacific island barbarians who need to be saved from themselves. (And yet, Hartcher reckons he’s describing a “contrast to … traditional colonialism”!)

Better yet, he claims:

No one else is interested. Not the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations, which has spent 30 years perfecting the art of talk while cultivating abject uselessness in the science of action.

Having spent the last week reading and writing about ASEAN, I can see this for the ridiculous falsehood that it is. First up, repeating the decades-old claim that ASEAN is a useless talk-fest doesn’t help it to become true (as my thesis will argue … but that’s forthcoming). ASEAN has been glacially slow, sure, but it has also mitigated conflicts, promoted free trade, and is showing real signs of developing strong regional institutions. Second, ASEAN nations have a hard enough time dealing with poverty and political stability problems in their own region, so they tend to overlook countries close to them but outside their grasp — places like Bhutan and Nepal as well as the Solomons and PNG.

(That said, I do agree that ASEAN should be more outward-looking than it is; they’ve failed even to officially acknowledge the problems of Pacific island states.)

Hartcher’s article even implies that Australia can claim credit for leading the bail-out of Asian economies during the 1997 financial crisis (newsflash, mate: that belongs to the IMF, stubborn local ministries, and later the Chiang Mai Initiative).

The only redeeming grace is that towards the end, his article hits the nail on the head: it is indeed “a viable economy and effective governance” that are sorely lacking in Timor and the Solomons. Long-term planning is exactly what is needed. But pointing to Australia as a militaristic saviour (or scaremongering about Northeast Asia, as the end of his article does) is not the answer at all.

Also in today’s news: the US Supreme Court finally sees the obvious but our PM continues to show indifference to looking after the interests of Aussie citizens overseas, and Mari Alkatiri wangles his way out of testifying today for what seem to be selfish reasons, but by stalling I suspect he might also give Dili’s angry protestors a chance to calm down.

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