ASEAN: If it's broke, time to fix it

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - ROGER MITTON roger­mit­ton@gmail.com

AF­TER Brexit, the United King­dom’s de­ci­sion to leave the Euro­pean Union, it was re­ported that some mem­bers of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Southeast Asian Na­tions were con­sid­er­ing a sim­i­lar move.

There were ref­er­ences to a pos­si­ble Sexit, namely that the first to quit might be rich lit­tle Sin­ga­pore, which de­rives about as much ben­e­fit from ASEAN as Monaco does from the EU.

It is not go­ing to hap­pen, at least not just yet. But many of­fi­cials, some in se­nior gov­ern­ment posts, are in­creas­ingly – and an­grily – de­mand­ing that ASEAN must change if it is to sur­vive.

They be­moan how it has be­come a neb­u­lous group of 10 na­tions, still search­ing, and still fail­ing, to find com­mon­al­ity – a shared con­cept of gov­er­nance, of eco­nomic pol­icy, or just an agreed phi­los­o­phy of sur­vival.

It eludes them. They are stuck. Un­less they change, they are fin­ished and their savvier mem­bers know it, as do their key friends and al­lies.

On Septem­ber 6, Robert Man­ning, a re­gional ex­pert at the Wash­ing­ton­based At­lantic Coun­cil, wrote, “The ASEAN way is a dead end.”

It is not just that glaciers move kilo­me­tres while the mem­bers mull an is­sue; it’s that after­wards they so rarely come to a united de­ci­sion.

To­day, how­ever, a con­flu­ence of por­ten­tous is­sues means that it is no longer fea­si­ble to kick root-and­branch re­form of ASEAN down the road any longer.

For starters, as the group ap­proaches its 50th birthday in 2017, there are ma­jor con­flicts not only be­tween mem­bers, but also with China and the United States.

Con­sider the US first. Its sig­na­ture agree­ment with Pa­cific Rim coun­tries, in­clud­ing four mem­bers of ASEAN, is the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP) – and it is about to be con­signed to the ash­can of history.

If, as ap­pears al­most cer­tain, the TPP is not rat­i­fied by the com­ing ses­sion of the US Congress, it will be left to the next pres­i­dent – and both Hil­lary Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump have said they strongly op­pose it.

So it will bite the dust. And when it does, it will di­vide ASEAN fur­ther and in­fu­ri­ate mem­bers like Sin­ga­pore and Viet­nam, who will have noth­ing to show for years of ne­go­ti­a­tion to meet Wash­ing­ton’s high stan­dards.

It is so bad that on Septem­ber 9, vet­eran US Se­na­tor John McCain anx­iously asked Sin­ga­pore’s prime min­is­ter what will hap­pen if Wash­ing­ton does not rat­ify the TPP.

The re­ply from PM Lee Hsien Loong, said McCain, was, “You’re fin­ished in Asia. Let me repeat. You’re fin­ished in Asia.”

Re­mem­ber, Sin­ga­pore is ASEAN’s clos­est friend and strong­est sup­porter of the US. But perhaps no longer.

Bear in mind also that on Septem­ber 12, af­ter vow­ing to kick US troops out of his coun­try, Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte of the Philip­pines, said, “I do not like the Amer­i­cans. It’s sim­ply a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple for me.”

That’s the view of two of ASEAN’s found­ing mem­bers. Now, let’s turn to China, which has glee­fully filled the vac­uum both by boost­ing trade and in­vest­ments and act­ing as a none-toosub­tle re­gional ring­mas­ter.

To­day, when China cracks the whip, ASEAN jumps. That has been clear at the group’s min­is­te­rial meet­ings and lead­er­ship sum­mits when Bei­jing has con­trolled the agenda and ve­toed com­mu­niqués.

The rea­son all this has hap­pened is quite sim­ple. It is not only be­cause China is huge and pow­er­ful but also be­cause ASEAN’S fos­silised struc­ture of rule by con­sen­sus plays right into Bei­jing’s hands.

It means that noth­ing can move for­ward in ASEAN un­less all 10 mem­bers agree, which may sound nice as an ide­al­is­tic goal, but in prac­tice it has proved a dis­as­ter.

So disas­trous that when Bei­jing be­gan sys­tem­at­i­cally oc­cu­py­ing dis­puted is­lands in the South China Sea, ASEAN’s claimant states could only protest in­di­vid­u­ally – the group could do noth­ing col­lec­tively.

When­ever there was a pro­posal for ASEAN as a whole to protest, Bei­jing would tell one of its client states like Cam­bo­dia or Laos to ob­ject and thus the con­sen­sus would be bro­ken and noth­ing would hap­pen.

Tooth­less ASEAN, now in­creas­ingly es­tranged from the US, can huff and puff to no ef­fect what­so­ever.

But some mem­bers be­lieve this has gone on for too long and af­ter this year’s brazen heavy-hand­ed­ness by Bei­jing, cou­pled with the shame­ful syco­phancy of Cam­bo­dia and Laos, they have started to push back.

First, they man­aged to get mildly crit­i­cal com­ments about China’s be­hav­iour in­cluded in the fi­nal com­mu­niqué is­sued af­ter the sum­mits in Vi­en­tiane ear­lier this month. Although it did not men­tion that a United Na­tions tri­bunal had in­val­i­dated Bei­jing’s claims, the com­mu­niqué did note, “Sev­eral lead­ers re­mained se­ri­ously con­cerned over recent de­vel­op­ments in the South China Sea.”

Of course, the use of the term “sev­eral lead­ers” rather than say­ing the group as a whole re­flected the deep di­vi­sions in ASEAN and the fact that some mem­bers want to chas­tise China and others do not.

That is why fur­ther changes are afoot, in­clud­ing a stronger form of the “ASEAN Mi­nus X” for­mula, which cur­rently of­fers an es­cape clause to mem­bers un­ready to sign up for new ini­tia­tives.

Un­for­tu­nately, the for­mula is not presently in­voked for se­ri­ous is­sues and hence even if only one mem­ber ob­jects to something, then noth­ing gets done.

At last, how­ever, that is likely to change be­cause lead­ing group mem­bers like In­done­sia, Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore are just fed up with the “dead end” sit­u­a­tion.

There are now moves within ASEAN to scrap the need for a con­sen­sus and move to a sys­tem where de­ci­sions are made by a qual­i­fied ma­jor­ity.

The new pro­ce­dure will be brought in ini­tially for the group’s se­nior level of­fi­cials and then later ex­tended to the lead­ers’ sum­mit meet­ings.

When it does hap­pen, it will be a mo­men­tous change that will bring the group­ing into the mod­ern world and perhaps en­able it to move marginally faster than glaciers when mak­ing de­ci­sions.

Tooth­less ASEAN, now in­creas­ingly es­tranged from the US, can huff and puff to no ef­fect what­so­ever.

Photo: AFP

Del­e­gates at­tend the East Asian Sum­mit, part of the ASEAN Sum­mits in Laos on Septem­ber 8.

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