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21 November 2009

Asean chief: Grouping needs to maintain "centrality"

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) must remain at the core of regional affairs despite competing visions for a new Asia-Pacific diplomatic framework, the bloc's chief was quoted by AFP as saying Friday.

Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said the "plethora of regional architectures that has been proposed in recent times" suggested that the 10-nation bloc no longer had a central role in the "evolving regional make-up".

But in a statement defending Asean's relevance, the former Thai foreign minister said US President Barack Obama's decision to re-engage with the 42-year-old grouping had "debunked that theory".

"The pace and manner that the US, under the Obama administration, is re-engaging the region is certainly re-affirming that centrality," his office said in a statement.

"Asean centrality has received a crucial boost at a time when recent developments seemed to question it."

Leaders at a summit of 16 Asia-Pacific nations in Thailand in October heard the prime ministers of Australia and Japan map out different paths for a new regional bloc that would boost Asia's global clout.

There is a general recognition that the changing face of the region, particularly the growing economic and military clout of China, requires more robust diplomatic structures than existing groupings like Asean.

But Surin said it was the "responsibility of the region to ensure Asean centrality, as it is the cornerstone of the region's architecture".

Asean is hobbled by its sensitivity about members' sovereignty, which limits the extent to which it can implement region-wide reforms to promote economic growth and stability.

Its recently adopted charter setting benchmarks for human rights has no power to enforce change in countries like military-ruled Myanmar. Asean also has no mechanisms for conflict resolution.


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