New Asian regional forum to launch amid scepticism of usefulness

Thirteen Asian foreign ministers are to gather Tuesday evening to launch the inaugural Asian Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), a brainchild of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that sceptics fear will prove to be just another regional talking shop.

The Thai premier has invited foreign ministers from 17 other Asian countries to attend the dinner at his holiday residence in Cha-Am, a seaside resort town 150 kilometres (93 miles) south of the capital.

Some 13 foreign ministers have confirmed their attendance at the historic talks — including Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore — while four will be sending other ministers.

Myanmar, with whom Thailand’s relations are currently strained due to tension along their common border, reportedly declined its invitation.

The real substance of the ACD is scheduled for Wednesday, with a half-day of free-form talks aimed, the government says, at strengthening cooperation among Asian countries.

"We want to strengthen cooperation among Asian people. Secondly, (we want to) eradicate poverty, and (examine) how to increase or enhance the potential of Asia," government spokesman Yongyut Tiyapairat said over the weekend.

"We have much more than half the population of the world and much more than half the world’s reserve funds. How should we manage our high potential?"

The ACD will be unlike other regional groupings as it exclusively involves all Asian countries, Yongyuth said.

"This is the first time the whole of Asia will talk," he said.

"It’s not about politics. It’s only about social and economic (issues), much more than security or politics."

The only concrete outcome from the ACD is expected to be a statement issued by Thailand following the talks, reports said.

Academics and the local press are unsure that such a casual session of chatting, which pointedly excludes issues of controversy, will be worth the effort at all.

Political scientist Khien Theeravit told the Nation newspaper that Thailand doesn’t need to spend millions of taxpayers’ baht on a dialogue that has no clear objective and overlaps existing regional mechanisms.

"Fine, we can take it for granted that everybody likes to have cooperation, but what kind of cooperation, and how to make it benefit all?"

A Bangkok Post editorial Tuesday also questioned how a forum with no agenda could succeed.

"The premier hopes it will establish his first foreign policy triumph. But many wonder how a high-level talkfest with no agenda can succeed," the paper said.

"If the dialogue issues a general, meaningless statement, this week’s first meeting of the group is likely to be the last," it concluded.

Thaksin’s diplomatic experience is also being called into question.

"It is ironic that Mr Thaksin is promoting — or launching — his foreign policy reputation on the basis of an international meeting," the Post editorial said, pointing to Thaksin’s complaints about United Nations "interference" in Myanmar’s problems and Thailand’s lack of participation in groupings such as the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, the Asia-Europe meeting APEC.

The 17 countries invited by Thailand include the 10 grouped under ASEAN, which are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, along with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Qatar and Bahrain.

All countries who have responded are sending foreign ministers, except Brunei, India, Indonesia and Pakistan.

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