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Is ASEAN Secretariat Properly Resourced?
"Balance and Good Health Come from Strong Core"
By Ernest Z. Bower
CSIS Senior Advisor
ASEAN Summit

WASHINGTON, Dec.8, 2010 — The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Ernest Bower, director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program, has written a new commentary, “Balance and Good Health Come from a Strong Core: Is the ASEAN Secretariat Properly Resourced?”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the core of the new regional security and trade architecture. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls it “the fulcrum” for a twenty-first-century framework in the Asia-Pacific region. The ASEAN members themselves tout “ASEAN centrality” as fundamental to a balanced and sustainable model for regionalism. ASEAN is the core of the East Asia Summit (EAS); the host of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+); the foundation for economic integration in ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3; 7 of 10 members are part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum; 4 of 9 Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiating countries are ASEAN members; and ASEAN’s dialogue partners have begun to send ambassadors specifically dedicated to ASEAN to Jakarta, the home of the ASEAN Secretariat (ASEC).

ASEAN itself has defined ambitious goals for political, social, and economic integration in the ASEAN Charter. The vision set out by the leaders of this 10-country grouping of nearly 620 million people with a $1.5-trillion gross domestic product is nothing less than practical integration by 2015. To support this vision, the position of ASEAN secretary general was elevated to ministerial level and the charismatic former foreign minister of Thailand, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, was recruited to fill that role and bring the organization to the next level.

How, then, will ASEAN meet its international expectations and realize the vision of its leaders with a secretariat that is understaffed and underfunded? In August 2010, the ASEC had a budget of $14.3 million (about the same as a small to medium-sized trade association in the United States) and a staff of roughly 300, including 65 managers and experts, 180 local staff, and 55 staff from donor organizations. In comparison to the European Union, the ASEC budget is about 0.137 percent of EU administrative costs,(1) and its staff is approximately 7.86 percent the size of the European Union’s.(2)

ASEAN’s leaders say they are not pursuing European-style unification, but the comparison remains relevant. Basic policy analysis demonstrates the need for sophisticated, consistent, and thorough staff work at the secretariat level to support the goals ASEAN has set for itself, as well as the expectations of its partners. Partners are making contributions, but ASEC guidelines preclude allowing donors to fund operations and staff. This prevents the moral hazard question of whether a partner might wield undue influence based on contributions. Donor contributions conservatively total well over 20 times the ASEC budget and are focused on specific programs, ranging from capacity building to trade facilitation to strengthening facility infrastructure, such as information technology and library resources.

Limitations on the ASEAN budget represent an important opportunity for policy change. The issue is sovereignty, specifically whether empowering the ASEC would somehow impinge on a member country’s national rights and control. This is not surprising given that ASEAN members are relatively young countries. In the ASEAN Charter, Article 30, paragraph 2, the principle of sovereign equality is related directly to equal contributions to the ASEC. In effect, this limits ASEAN’s funding for its secretariat to a lowest common denominator. The country that can or will pay the least defines the maximum allowable contribution for all countries.

In Europe, the larger countries, specifically Germany and France, have contributed significantly more to secretariat’s budget than smaller countries do, and the practice continues. Governance models to prevent undue influence can be found in Europe and Asia (see the Asian Development Bank, for instance).

In 2011, ASEAN’s largest country, Indonesia, will hold the chair. Amending the ASEAN Charter to allow member countries to make contributions based on their ability and interest, even if unequal, with the goal of strengthening the ASEC would be a legacy policy step for the region, and there is no better advocate for this move than the country hosting the facility. Such a step should be accompanied by more cooperation among ASEAN’s partners in their efforts to build capacity and improve ASEAN’s physical and policy infrastructure.

This area is wide open for multilateral cooperation. Asian Development Bank chairman Haruhiko Kuroda this week mooted the idea of a secretariat that could oversee Asia. He said the ASEC was “too small to cover the region as a whole.” His statement was correct, but his conclusion deserves to be debated. The ASEC has a region-wide responsibility and role. Creating a new competing secretariat would undercut recent steps to build an ASEAN-focused regional architecture. Working together to properly staff and outfit the ASEC could significantly advance multilateral cooperation and regional integration.

The vision of ASEAN as a foundation for regional architecture can only be realized if the core is strong. ASEAN’s goals for integration are fundamental to the sustainability and soundness of that foundation. Therefore, it is in ASEAN’s interest, as well as in the interests of its partners, to review the limitations to properly resourcing the ASEAN Secretariat and invest in the future—not only of ASEAN, but also of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

(1) The total EU total budget for 2010 is $188 billion. Costs related to the administration of all EU institutions total $10.47 billion, representing 5.6 percent of the budget (see page 9, line 5, at budget_in_fig/syntchif_2010_en.pdf). Note that the EU budget data did not specifically list the EU Secretariat-General as a separate line item.

(2) Total EU staff number 36,798. Personnel related to the European Commission’s administration total 3,815, representing 3.75 percent of total staff (see page 16, line 26, at budget_in_fig/syntchif_2010_en.pdf).

Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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