Two years ago this month, Burma’s current government took office amid broad international condemnation for the rigged election — replete with fraud and intimidation — that put it there. Despite this inauspicious start, Burma politics have opened in the last year and a half, and the country’s economy has liberalized more quickly than any other on earth.
In many respects, it’s as though the global economy has discovered a new planet, one that is geostrategically located, not to mention rich with natural resources, a young labor force, and a population of roughly 60 million consumers. Uncovering and developing Burma’s vast potential will be expensive and dangerous, requiring an appetite for risk, though structural advantages do set Burma apart from its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors such as Laos and Cambodia. The International Monetary Fund optimistically calls Burma Asia’s “final frontier.”
Whether East Asia’s politicians and pundits like it or not, the region’s current international relations are more akin to nineteenth-century European balance-of-power politics than to the stable Europe of today. Witness East Asia’s rising nationalism, territorial disputes, and lack of effective institutional mechanisms for security cooperation. While economic interdependence among China, Japan, South Korea, and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations continues to deepen, their diplomatic relations are as burdened by rivalry and mistrust as relations among European countries were in the decades prior to World War I.
The heads of nine of the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations traveled to New Delhi two weeks ago to celebrate 20 years of ties between their organization and India. At the two-day “Commemorative Summit,” ASEAN leaders toasted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and signed a free-trade pact covering services and investment with his country.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have concluded negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) in services and investments. The background work clears the way for greater economic and political integration between India and the bloc of 10 countries that accounts for a GDP of about $2 trillion in 2011. Singh, in his address at the plenary session of India-Asean commemorative summit, exuded confidence that mutual trade will exceed $100 billion by 2015, and said the aim should be $200 billion in the next ten year.
Outgoing Chinese Premier Wei Jiabao returned to Beijing this week office after disappointing ASEAN and East Asia summits that failed to live-up to years of diplomatic posturing and positioning, designed to protect his country’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
But behind closed doors the honest power-brokers will be forced to admit that at best Beijing achieved a year-long stalemate before a significant political shift within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which will not be to its liking.
Southeast Asian leaders sought to ease tensions with China over maritime disputes before a regional summit tomorrow involving U.S. President Barack Obama as concerns persist over weaker demand in the global economy.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations will confine discussions on a set of rules for operating in the South China Sea to the bloc’s meetings with China, according to Kao Kim Hourn, a Cambodian foreign ministry official. The decision comes as China and Japan spar over islands further to the north, risking damage to trade ties between Asia’s biggest economies.
For many, India is a natural balancer in this region. New Delhi struck roots here hundreds of years ago, and there are signs all around. But in the current strategic debate roiling the region, India is a peripheral presence. New Delhi’s only statement so far has been to endorse the importance of ensuring freedom of navigation and mineral resources in the troubled waters of the South China Sea. In a joint statement with the Chinese, India also emphasized its stakes in the Asia-Pacific. That lone position by the ministry of external affairs, India believes may have absolved it of all other responsibility. With $80 billion in bilateral trade, India needs a louder ASEAN policy.