One recipe for SAARC and another for ASEAN

Philip Bowring’s contradictory advice

In June 2003, Philip Bowring wrote the following in the International Herald Tribune:

Shun the generals: For far too long ASEAN has made out that Burma’s troubles are a minor domestic difficulty… If ASEAN is to be more than an expression of geography and mutual admiration, it needs to show that it has some standards.

The common goals of ASEAN nations – such as trade, enshrined in the ASEAN Free Trade Area, and cooperation on fighting disease and drug trafficking – require confidence in one another’s conduct and institutions. Yet Burma rejects most behavioral norms common to Asian states, whether they have liberal or authoritarian political systems.

At the very least the other members should tell Burma, thought to be in line to take over the chair of ASEAN soon, that it is not fit to do so. If it wishes to be a hermit state run by military thugs, that may be its affair. But there is no reason for others to accord it the dignity of presiding over an international group.[IHT/]

And this, in February 2005

India the bully: Alas, India seems not to have learned from the example of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that effective regional cooperation is only possible if countries are prepared to give it priority over bilateral disputes…

Regional cooperation can only happen if India takes the lead, ignores bilateral frictions and is prepared to offer economic opportunities that entice smaller and poorer countries into seeing the benefits of freer trade. In short, India can only lead if it does not engage in the kind of bullying evident in its withdrawal from the Saarc summit meeting.[IHT]

ASEAN, which runs its shop in a very pragmatic manner, is advised to inculcate some principles; India, which declined to attend a SAARC summit on a matter of principle, the same one that Bowring recommends for ASEAN, is labelled a bully. The contradiction is obvious — and all the more so when Bowring ascribes India’s decision almost entirely due to the situation in Bangladesh, and in doing so, totally ignores the dramatic events in Nepal.

Indeed, it would have been near impossible for India to get an approval from the Bowring school of punditry anyway: attend the summit and discuss trade, and it gets hit with the ASEAN-Myanmar argument; attend the summit and make high-sounding speeches, and it likely gets called a bully, or a hypocrite, as he labelled Europe recently. This is one pundit who is extremely difficult to satisfy.