Inter-regional Afro-Asian Relations: Exploring the Importance of Cooperation Between the AU and ASEAN (By Babatunde Fagbayibo)

Posted: August 16, 2011 in Uncategorized
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A defining feature of a post-1945 global order is the creation of regional organisations to handle matters that have assumed transnational dimensions. Issues such as conflict prevention and resolution, protection of the environment, poverty eradication, monetary and fiscal policies, democracy and economic development are increasingly being regulated – depending on the degree of authority conferred – by these regional organisations. From Europe to Asia, Africa to Latin America, the Caribbean to the Pacific, regional organisations continue to play significant roles in shaping the agenda on regional relevance and development. The success of the European Union (EU) is another factor that has inspired the development of regionalism. Regional organisations in Africa and Asia have not only adopted the institutional make-up of the EU, they also aspire to attain some of the hallmarks that have made the organisation successful. The establishment of free trade areas, monetary and customs unions, and the free movement of persons across national boundaries are examples.

There have been increased levels of interaction between and amongst regional organisations across the globe. Like countries, regional organisations now exchange envoys, enter into bilateral trade agreements and share information on strategies and development. A case in point is the bilateral trade agreements between the EU and regional organisations across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Inter-regional frameworks for cooperation are now seen as complementary, and in some cases superior to inter-state relations. It is within this context that this article attempts to explore the importance of cooperation between the African Union (AU) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). As both institutions operate within the developing world context, albeit influenced by different variables, and taking into account the growing relevance of Asian economies in global realpolitik, it is important to pay special attention to the possibility of cooperation between both institutions.

Comparing the AU and ASEAN

The AU was established in 2002 to replace the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which came into being in 1963. The idea of replacing the OAU stemmed from the realisation that the organisation was incapable of repositioning the continent for the realities of the 21st century. The AU is a continental body, composed of 53 African states (South Sudan is expected to become the 54th member state). With a combined population of 967,810,000 (2011 estimate), a total nominal GDP of US$ 500 billion (making it the 17th largest economy in the world, if it were a country), and a considerable amount of mineral resources, the AU has the potential of being a major global player. The strategic vision of the AU is the political and economic integration of African countries, specifically the eventual establishment of a ‘Union Government of Africa.’

The ASEAN is a sub-regional organisation of 10 south-east Asian countries (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) created in 1967. It has a combined population of 601 million people (2010 estimate).If it were a country, it would be the 9th largest economy in the world as its nominal GDP stands at US$ 1.8 trillion. The ASEAN has two broad frameworks for interacting with major regional players in Asia. The first is the East Asian Summit, composed of the 10 ASEAN member states plus countries such as Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand. The second is the ‘ASEAN Plus Three’ (APT), comprising the ASEAN member states plus Japan, South Korea and China. These interactions are important to the extent that they indicate the geo-political importance of the ASEAN. ASEAN’s strategic vision (‘ASEAN Vision 2020’) envisages the creation of an ASEAN Community based on three pillars – ASEAN Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-cultural Community.

Common problems facing both organisations include institutional deficiency as a result of the inability of member states to empower them with real authority, political instability, poverty, and human rights violations in some member states.

The importance of AU-ASEAN cooperation

The importance of AU-ASEAN cooperation is better understood within the milieu of an increasing drive to enhance connectedness amongst state actors in the global South. The growing influence of Asian economies in global realpolitik, a factor that is often described as the shift in the global balance of power, has fostered the re-evaluation of the entire global administrative and governance framework. In this respect, emerging economies have either set up transnational spheres of influence, such as Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa forum (BRICS), or have ensured their inclusion in influential global mechanisms, such as the expansion of the G8 to G20. At the core of these interactions are the need to address common challenges and the desire for increased relevance and visibility in the shaping of the global agenda.

It is thus essential to understand the geo-political importance of the AU-ASEAN relationship, both as a means of tackling common problems and having a coordinated approach towards global issues. In this respect, such a relationship will benefit from a mechanism that places special emphasis on the sharing of knowledge and experience on issues such as economic development, conflict resolution and regional institutional development. For example, the AU, especially its development programme, can gain useful lessons from ASEAN member states – such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia – that have achieved phenomenal economic growth in recent years.

In addition, ASEAN’s institutional approach to economic development will be instructive, especially the progress that has been made in terms of economic integration. Likewise, the ASEAN can benefit from understanding the process of institutional development within the AU, especially its framework on regional security and key institutions, such as the legislature and the good governance peer review mechanism. As ASEAN is an intergovernmental entity like the AU, understanding the AU institutional process, including its pitfalls, will provide useful lessons on the key elements of institution building and reforms.

Having a common approach to global issues can yield positive results for both regions. As matters such as trade, climate change and the reform of the global economic systems have a direct impact on both regions, it will be essential to formulate a coordinated framework for addressing these challenges. Teaming up on the global stage has the potential of adding the much-needed gravitas to negotiations, which consequently results in better deals.

Exploring possible areas of collaboration

The effectiveness of any cooperation arrangement between the AU and ASEAN will be dependent on the political will of member states from both organisations. In this respect, it is important to establish a high-level contact group, composed of representatives from both regions to explore the feasibility of cooperation. The exploratory meeting should be tasked with creating a framework that includes the nature, objectives and the identification of key areas of collaboration of the strategic partnership. The following are some of the essential points that should be considered:

* The establishment of inter-regional missions and the exchange of envoys;
* An inter-regional interactive forum for civil society and the private sector;
* A programme on capacity building, especially the exchange of skilled personnel;
* The feasibility of a free trade agreement; and
* A framework for the identification and regulation of inter-regional investment.

The changing dynamics of the global system makes cooperation between the AU and ASEAN imperative. With a combined market of around 1.6 billion people, abundant natural resources and growing economies, a well thought-out and implemented cooperation arrangement has the potential of occupying a significant spot in global realpolitik.

Follow this writer on twitter @BabsFagbayibo

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