ASEAN cen­tral­ity los­ing ground

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - MATHEW DAVIES news­room@mm­ Mathew Davies is head of the Depart­ment of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions, Co­ral Bell School of Asia Pa­cific Af­fairs at Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

VIENTIANE will host the 28th and 29th ASEAN sum­mits this week, with the meet­ings’ doc­u­ments ro­tat­ing around the same themes that ASEAN has been pro­mot­ing for decades: unity and cen­tral­ity. The worry, both at the sum­mits and be­yond, is that there is lit­tle ef­fort to put sub­stance into these goals.

ASEAN faces three chal­lenges that im­peril its quest to re­main uni­fied and cen­tral: ex­ter­nal pres­sure placed on ASEAN unity by ri­val Chi­nese and US am­bi­tions, in­ter­nal ten­sions as key states ques­tion the role of ASEAN and its ver­sion of com­mu­nity-build­ing, and the broad ques­tion of its le­git­i­macy in the eyes of the peo­ple who live within its mem­ber coun­tries. On each, ASEAN needs to make sub­stan­tive progress, rather than pro­duce doc­u­ments full of ad­mirable goals and min­i­mal com­mit­ment to real­is­ing them.

Too of­ten dis­cus­sions of the ex­ter­nal threats to ASEAN unity fo­cus on the South China Sea. The ri­val claims be­tween China and ASEAN mem­bers – and, although less of­ten men­tioned, be­tween ASEAN mem­bers them­selves – are of great im­por­tance, but they are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the chal­lenges ASEAN faces when deal­ing with great pow­ers, not de­fin­i­tive of them.

Di­vi­sions be­tween ASEAN mem­bers – some align­ing with Wash­ing­ton, others with Bei­jing and more hedg­ing be­tween both – sug­gest that great power com­pe­ti­tion in the re­gion can­not do any­thing but im­pede ASEAN unity. This be­comes even more threat­en­ing con­sid­er­ing that nei­ther the United States nor China seem willing to make ASEAN unity a strate­gic goal in and of it­self, pre­fer­ring in­stead to har­ness ASEAN, uni­fied or not, to their own am­bi­tions.

The United States has made clear, as ex­pressed at the Fe­bru­ary 2016 Sun­ny­lands Sum­mit be­tween US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and ASEAN lead­ers, that it hopes to bring ASEAN on board as a strate­gic part­ner in de­fence of the rules and norms of in­ter­na­tional law. China sees this as an act of en­cir­clement that threat­ens Chi­nese free­doms. China has close re­la­tion­ships with many ASEAN mem­bers, es­pe­cially Cam­bo­dia, which is widely un­der­stood to work as a proxy for Chi­nese in­ter­ests within ASEAN.

The eco­nomic di­men­sion to this great power ri­valry needs re­mem­ber­ing. On the US side the trou­bled TransPa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP) deal in­cludes only four ASEAN mem­bers: Brunei, Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore and Viet­nam. The TPP – the eco­nomic com­po­nent of the US re­bal­ance to Asia – cuts across the still-evolv­ing ASEAN Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity (AEC) and, of course, ex­cludes China.

ASEAN it­self has, on the other hand, led ne­go­ti­a­tions on the Re­gional Com­pre­hen­sive Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship (RCEP), which in­cludes all ASEAN mem­bers as well as In­dia, China, South Korea, Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and New Zealand. No­tably, the RCEP does not in­clude the United States.

What, in this con­text of great power ri­valry, does ASEAN want to be? What does ASEAN unity mean in a world where ASEAN and its mem­bers may have to choose sides? On this there is noth­ing, not even plat­i­tudes.

In­ter­nally the chal­lenges are no less se­vere. ASEAN as a re­gional en­ter­prise flour­ishes when it demon­strates its value to po­lit­i­cal elites. That value lies chiefly in pro­tect­ing and pro­mot­ing wealth and sovereignty. Re­cently it has been adrift of these aims, un­der­cut­ting the im­por­tance of ASEAN to its mem­bers. On the South China Sea is­sue, ASEAN has been un­able to back the Philip­pines in the rul­ing of the in­ter­na­tional ar­bi­tra­tion tri­bunal be­cause of its in­ter­nal di­vi­sions, re­sult­ing in ASEAN not be­ing willing to pro­tect the sov­er­eign claims of one of its mem­bers.

In the eco­nomic realm, the AEC project is dogged by de­lays as mem­ber states count the costs of meet­ing all of its obli­ga­tions. This is es­pe­cially the case in In­done­sia, where Pres­i­dent Joko Wi­dodo has based much of his do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal agenda on a more pow­er­ful as­ser­tion of In­done­sia’s in­ter­ests, which are, as he sees them, con­trary to the needs of ASEAN.

The call for a “post-ASEAN In­done­sian for­eign pol­icy” made most clearly by In­done­sian am­bas­sador to the United King­dom Rizal Sukma, has seen In­done­sia, the largest mem­ber of ASEAN, drift away from mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism to­ward a more bi­lat­eral and global heavy­weight role. Post-ASEAN for­eign poli­cies are hardly em­blem­atic of ASEAN unity or its cen­tral­ity to the am­bi­tions of its mem­bers.

Be­yond great power machi­na­tions and ASEAN’s fail­ure to meet the in­ter­ests of its lead­ers is the third chal­lenge – mass dis­en­chant­ment. ASEAN’s re­gional re­forms have, since the 1997 Asian fi­nan­cial cri­sis, fo­cused in part on be­com­ing “car­ing”; that is, tak­ing an ac­tive in­ter­est in im­prov­ing the lives of the hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple who live within its bor­ders. From this con­cern have sprung com­mit­ments to hu­man rights, democ­racy, women’s rights, the en­vi­ron­ment, migrant labour reg­u­la­tions and dis­as­ter man­age­ment.

This ed­i­fice is built on shaky foun­da­tions – ASEAN re­tains its over­rid­ing com­mit­ment to non-in­ter­ven­tion and do­mes­tic free­doms of its mem­bers, re­sult­ing in com­mis­sions that can­not en­force the stan­dards that they are charged with pro­tect­ing. This risks pro­vok­ing the ire of those very peo­ple ASEAN claims to want to help. What fu­ture is there for ASEAN when it can­not bring it­self to en­force its own stan­dards and yet wants to be seen as help­ing its cit­i­zens?

ASEAN has al­ways faced chal­lenges, but the scale, na­ture and in­ter­pen­e­tra­tion of these three is­sues are un­prece­dented. What is needed is po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship willing to make hard de­ci­sions that may put some ASEAN mem­bers off-side in ser­vice of the goals that ASEAN en­shrines. If ASEAN fails to act, it is un­likely to fall apart. Without such lead­er­ship, ASEAN in­stead risks be­ing “hol­lowed out” as a re­gional or­gan­i­sa­tion and be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant – a form without a func­tion – as its mem­bers look else­where to achieve their aims and de­fend their in­ter­ests.

– East Asia Fo­rum

Photo: EPA

ASEAN lead­ers pose for a photo at the open­ing cer­e­mony of the 28th and 29th ASEAN sum­mits at the Na­tional Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Vientiane, Laos, yes­ter­day.

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