Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
On October 10, at the conference hall in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, Myanmar's President U Thein Sein waved to all participants, with the wooden gavel that symbolizes the presidency of ASEAN in his hand and a smile on his face.
Next year will be a critical one for Thein Sein. Myanmar will take up the leadership of ASEAN, which can raise the credibility of Thein Sein as well as his government on both the international and domestic stages.
Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997. It hoped to break through the Western sanctions, embrace regional integration, and raise its international status. At the same time, the reason for ASEAN's acceptance of Myanmar is clear; to better coordinate regional powers.
However, ASEAN at that time was not in a powerful position and was facing an unprecedented financial crisis. Under such circumstances, ASEAN could only do as the West directed. In 2006, due to the objections of the West, ASEAN failed to pass the gavel to Myanmar.
This time, Myanmar finally gets the chance. Myanmar needs this opportunity to display its capabilities. Thein Sein also needs the chance to show his ambition of promoting reforms. This will also help him gain votes for his 2015 presidential election.
Meanwhile, ASEAN needs Myanmar as a full member, to show its cohesion. ASEAN aims to build up an economic community by 2015, accompanied by the other two pillars - security and the sociocultural community.
Whether Myanmar will become a real member of ASEAN is crucial for the organization to realize its aim of the three pillars. In particular, Myanmar's reforms carry big weight in promoting ASEAN's political influence.
Jullapong Nonsrichai, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand, once said that ASEAN helps Myanmar not only because of economic interests in Myanmar's rich resources, but also from political concerns for ASEAN's future development. Even during the era when Western countries imposed high sanctions on Myanmar, ASEAN maintained constructive contacts with Myanmar. It did not abandon or isolate Myanmar, but helped promote the country's incremental reforms.
In the past few years, 90 percent of Myanmar's foreign trade has been with Asian countries and regions, and half of it goes to ASEAN countries. Thailand and Singapore have become Myanmar's second and third biggest trade partners, right after China.
During a time when the West has not yet fully lifted its sanctions on Myanmar, ASEAN decided to hand over the presidency to Myanmar, which shows ASEAN's urgent desire for integration.
Surin Pitsuwan, former ASEAN secretary-general, once told me that ASEAN would continue to help Myanmar gain more support and confidence as it gets closer to the international community and make sure Myanmar's reforms are sustainable.
Next year is also a critical one for ASEAN as it aims to build an economic community. In the eyes of some Westerners, it looks like a political gamble to let Myanmar take the leadership during this uncertain phase. The recent bombings in Yangon reinforced such worries.
But in the eyes of ASEAN, it is worth doing so, despite the risks. ASEAN has shown its efforts in promoting its right to participate and its discourse power in international and regional affairs. And Myanmar is the "model project" behind ASEAN's efforts.
Today's ASEAN is no longer what it used to be in 1997. In fact, Myanmar's reforms these days and ASEAN's efforts are inseparable. Some Western countries' changes in their Myanmar policies can also be attributed to ASEAN's efforts.
China is Myanmar's close neighbor. The integration of Myanmar and ASEAN will be good for the economic cooperation between China and ASEAN based on free trade zones. Meanwhile, China needs to learn to communicate with a more united ASEAN.
This will be especially the case when Myanmar takes the presidency next year. In dealing with thorny issues such as the South China Sea issue, Myanmar will give more consideration to ASEAN's unity and coordination. Myanmar's reforms enable us to see the changes in ASEAN's power. Acknowledging this power helps China better handle the political and economic integration of East Asia and head in the right direction for regional pattern reconstruction.The author is a senior editor with People's Daily. He is now stationed in Brazil. email@example.com