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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 03:45 | SYDNEY

What music from Asia\'s concert?

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27 October 2010 17:52

The convening of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Hanoi next Saturday ranks as a substantial ASEAN achievement. With the US and Russia as new members, the EAS gives Asia the venue and the membership for its concert of powers. That concert has been assembled not by the big players but by a bunch of middle powers – ASEAN.

The concert is coming into being because Pax Americana will no longer suffice. Asia needs the US as much as ever, but the emerging instruments must have a 'Made in Asia' label. ASEAN gets to play conductor (the preferred term is 'ASEAN centrality') because the distrust between China and Japan reaches towards hatred. The problem is going to be whether the concert can produce any music. 

The limits of all this ambition will be starkly on show. The mire of Myanmar sucks at ASEAN, though it is a tribute to the importance of the concert that Burma no longer stands in the way of full US engagement. The Obama Administration showed its hard-headed side by deciding that its larger interest meant it must hold its nose and sit down with Burma's regime (pick your regime descriptor: odious, despicable etc). In the same hard-headed mode, Washington signed ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in order to sign up to the concert.

ASEAN's 'constructive engagement' with Burma has produced precious little that is constructive, but for ASEAN, disengagement looks even worse. Why cut Burma loose to go its own strange way to play off India against China' ASEAN got to the hard-headed space on Burma long before Washington.
 
So in Hanoi, some of the language used at the ASEM summit in Brussels will get another run. The summit will intone the call for Burma to hold 'free, fair and inclusive elections'. Burma's generals will wave that aside as they have consistently ignored much else for years, perhaps picking from the Hanoi communiqué the bits about national reconciliation, stability and development.

Hillary Clinton will be back in Hanoi to give China another well-placed poke about the South China Sea. She will get plenty of help from ASEAN. Clinton clearly outdid China on the South China Sea when the issue was played at the foreign ministers' level at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July.

China has had a chance to reflect on how badly it did in Hanoi. Perhaps, back then, Beijing was too busy looking inward at the Party manoeuvrings over anointing China's next emperor. The merest change in tone from China at the EAS will be an achievement. Yet, as Ian Storey observed from Singapore the other day, we may be entering new times: 'China's charm offensive is over, and its given way to what you might call an adolescent foreign policy. The country's flexing its muscles, letting us know it won't be pushed around'.

Photo by Flickr user Phil Dowsing, used under a Creative Commons license.

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