Foreign Policy: ASEAN and The Trumpian New World Disorder

January 22, 2017

Foreign Policy: ASEAN and The Trumpian New World Disorder

by Dr. Munir

Image result for Munir Majid

THE buzzword among think tanks on global strategy in the West is “World Disorder”. This follows, particularly, Donald Trump’s victory last November in the United States Presidential election – he will be inaugurated on January 20 – but also the British Brexit vote in June and anxiety over the possible triumph of populist right-wing parties, in France especially, this year.There is a common opposition in these developments to the global and local liberal order, to free trade and movement of peoples, and to the political value system that has characterised the West and, tangentially, the rest of the world.

However the reality for emerging and developing countries is likely to be different, and the stack of concerns over disturbance to the world order is not the same.

For the longest time those not in the West had been buzzing, if we remember, about a new world, particularly economic, order. There has been some little progress, notably establishment of the G-20 in 1999 whose leaders’ summit did not convene until 2008 following the Western financial crisis, but by and large the institutions of the international order set up at the end of the Second World War remained intact.

Developing countries nevertheless benefited immensely from the open system of trade of that international order – China, particularly, since its opening up in 1978 – as they were able to take advantage of their low cost of production to penetrate Western markets.

ASEAN countries have also been beneficiaries of this open trading system. Now ASEAN is on the path of greater economic integration to attract investment and to encourage trade, not just among member states, but also from and with the world. A number of them have moved or are moving up the economic ladder, aiming for greater productivity and higher value-added products and services – all predicated on the existing open global trading and economic system.

Now this system may be changed, or may not be as open. It would however be a mistake for ASEAN – and rising Asia more generally – to succumb to the doom and gloom that seem to have settled on the West. Now is the time for Asia and ASEAN to show their mettle.

Efforts at ASEAN economic integration should be redoubled to extract growth from regional economic activity. Intra-regional trade should be enhanced beyond the present 25% of total trade.

In its first year, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) did not show any spectacular rise in intra-regional economic activity, or any great push to address barriers to trade and investment.

Thailand, for instance, reported only a 1.8% increase in exports to ASEAN in baht terms for 11 months up to November in 2016. Yet the increase to CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) was 2.8%, with an expected 3% increase in 2017.

Related imageFocus  of Future Growth in  ASEAN–Cambodia, Laos,  Myanmar and Vietnam

This shows that where there is greater intensity of economic activity and integration – CLMV+T (Thailand) – there will be potential gains. Many barriers have come down and connectivity is improving. The CLMV+T sub-region is becoming the powerhouse of ASEAN growth, with the inclusion also of China’s Yunnan and Guangxi provinces. CLMV economic growth is actually 6-8% while the ASEAN average is closer to four.

The removal of non-tariff measures and barriers (NTBs) will help generate greater trade, investment and economic activity across ASEAN. Alas, there was no significant NTB action in 2016, despite agreement by ASEAN economic ministers that focused working groups start addressing the problem in four prioritised sectors.

The officials and private sector must step up the pace this year as ASEAN is increasingly challenged by the global post trade liberalisation environment promised by the Trump administration.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is rightly seen as a further extension of the AEC and, with the impending demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as its successor leading right up to the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

The question is who will lead the charge as America shies away from free trade? The obvious – and ironic – answer is: China. Indeed, Xi Jinping was up to the challenge, going by his statements at the APEC summit in Peru last November.

Image result for China in Asia

However, China itself has many adjustments to make such as opening its markets further and liberalising foreign investment in protected sectors. So there is plenty of negotiation to come. But it cannot take as long as the ten years it took to arrive at the TPP agreement.

The point is, alternative regional growth areas have to be founded. Asia’s rise, especially economic, that has been so much talked about, used to come easy in terms of the ready framework of free trade. Now it gets harder. Asia, including ASEAN countries of course, have to take the lead to fashion for themselves the rules and details of the order upon which they will plot their further progress.

There are some among the 11 TPP Remainers who argue for its resuscitation, even if it is without the US. It is, however, going to be a complex exercise. Dropping the entry into force provisions is easy enough, but would it make economic sense without the US? Would China be invited to join? Would the provisions in the TPP form the basis of the FTAAP or should they be introduced in the RCEP which was supposed to have been concluded at the end of last year but is now going full speed ahead for completion this year? Certainly, increased complexity would push it back.

It might be better, therefore, to work on what is there in RCEP and add to it later. Who knows, America may, after Trump, want to join the regional grouping.

So Asian and ASEAN countries must now take the lead in free trade arrangements, regionally to begin with, but with others as well. This is the main challenge they face from the “world disorder” being widely discussed in the West.

Asia – and ASEAN – are less troubled by the two other components of global liberal order threatened by right-wing populism in the West. First, between individual rights and state control, they are far closer to the latter. Thus the threatened values such as equal justice and tolerance are of less concern to them as they found their legitimacy on economic satisfaction – at least for now.

Second, apart from Japan and Korea, they range from agnostic to hostile on security arrangements and alliances. As the wheels come off Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia-Pacific, they will just wait to see what takes its place. The loose screws were to be tightened by the TPP.

With the TPP as good as gone, what has been lost is meaningful US strategic commitment to the region. But it would be wrong to assume America has gone isolationist.

With the rise of China, belief in the region in manifest American destiny – if ever it existed to any degree – has receded. Some ASEAN countries may have wanted greater US commitment in the region as a balancer – but at no time as Roman Consul.

Think tanks in the West, with their affinity to American leadership and commitment, are greatly concerned with the uncertainty that will be caused by Trump’s transactional approach to security. In Asia, even Japan and Korea have come to learn that their security can be exposed to transactional risk. There is no certainty about their security. It is constantly being tested. They see variable results, in the Middle East, with Russia in the Ukraine and Crimea. With this realism they see less movement towards “world disorder”.

Of course, Trump will be more nakedly transactional. In Asia and ASEAN the gravest danger, as they see it, is to their trade. They see that Trump feels the cost of the series of transactions has been too high for America.

But it should not be concluded Trump will abandon American leadership. In fact he is making it more muscular, in his way, whether short-sighted or not. For ASEAN – and Asia generally – the main concern is its ramifications in trade and economy. Less so grand and emphatic recoiling from the threat of “world disorder.”

Tan Sri Munir Majid, Chairman of Bank Muamalat and Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

15 thoughts on “Foreign Policy: ASEAN and The Trumpian New World Disorder

  1. Munir Majid’s concern is understandable. For the first time in seven decades, the world lacks leadership. In the United States, mounting federal debt, a feeble recovery from the Great Recession, and Washington’s political paralysis have stoked fears that America can no longer afford its postwar leadership role. Yet the world’s most promising emerging state, China, is not ready to fill this vacuum. China’s leaders are focused as never before on foreign-policy plans with important implications for the next stage of their country’s domestic development.

    The last APEC meeting showing signs that Asia Pacific and Latin American countries are leaning towards China for leadership. The most recent Davos World Economic Forum showing the European countries have the same tendency. However, China is far too preoccupied with complex challenges at home to accept the risks and burdens that come with assuming a much larger share of international leadership.

    What comes next, and who will lead this new world? Will the problems generated by the leadership vacuum force the United States and China to act as partners, or will those problems push them toward confrontation? No political and commercial relationship is more important for 21st-century peace and prosperity than relations between Washington and Beijing.

    Will Donald Trump keep true to his campaign promises to confront China, or will he come to his senses to cooperate with China? Everything he had said and done as president-elect showed that he intended not only a trade war with China but militarily over Taiwan if necessary. The next 100 days will give us the answer.

  2. Translate Trump’s campaign speeches and after his inauguration into German and he would sound just like Adolf Hitler, minus the Nazi salute.

    • You have been unfair to the man who is now the 45th POTUS to compare him to Adolf Hitler. To think of it, it is his second day in office. –Din Merican

    • Din:
      Wayne is not the only one who thinks such. Vice Chancellor of Germany Sigmar Gabriel complained that Trump’s inauguration speech came close to using Hitleresque language.

  3. Trump is an unconventional politician and a classic Washington outsider. He may yet surprise his critics. I can’t believe that a business man like him with investments in many countries will want to blow up the world.

    His inaugural address to Americans is simple,populist and non-ideological. He wants to give government back to them. His Administration will serve them, not lord over them. He did not ape Ronald Reagan who is said government is the problem. In stead, he said in serving Americans he will make his country great again. What is wrong with that. So Wayne, Trump is no Nazi.–Din Merican

    • For better or for worse, the Americans deserve who they voted for and have to endure Trump for another 4 years, if he manages to survive that long..
      Thanks to the DNC, he had hijacked the populist train to reach Capitol Hill whilst Bernie Sanders, a genuine populist crusader was snubbed.

      The only difference in the political landscape now is the new Sherrif in town and a different establishment clique, which is not necessarily bad, if theTrump administration, given the chance, gets down to the business of running the country to serve the interests of the people and not its own self interests or that of cronies and families.

  4. Just sit back and use to calculator to calculate the opposition President Trump faces. Both CNN USA and CNN International have been at him from day one of the campaign when he failed to fall into the box characterized by CNN. They have introduced outlandish hypotheticals one even bordering an attack during the Inaguration Ceremony. President Trump is not the problem but he inherits the problems created by 25 years of capitalism, liberalism and erosion of the rule of law. Consumer market in US is relatively open while that of others still have NTBs. Try exporing beef to Korea, Japan, PRC and so on. We are going round and round without addressing the issues. For all you know it may take another 25 years to fix the issues.

  5. Too simplistic and too early to draw on the effects of Trumpism.
    Trump has yet to find his own compass.
    He is still campaigning for his brand name.

    Preparation for regionalism and Self-reliance growth is the best bet.

    • Yes, The American system will not tolerate a dictator. Is there anything wrong to have a strong America First leader? A business man like Trump knows that compromises are necessary to get a deal that is mutually beneficial and sustainable. –Din Merican

  6. What kind of a president Trump is, of course, too early to tell. In fact, some people predict he will become another Hitler, based on the many similar traits between the two men. Even Pope Francis warned against rise of populist leaders ‘like Hitler’. He made the comments to Spanish newspaper El Pais as Trump was being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. The pontiff condemned the use of walls and barbed wire to keep out foreigners, but said it was too early to judge Trump, saying: “I think we must wait and see.”

    Recently at a workshop organized by the Asia Society in New York forecasting Trump’s China policy during his first 100 days in office, my friend Orville Schell, an old China hand and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the
    University of California, Berkeley, said Trump bore many similarities to Mao. “Mao Zedong was a revolutionary, he was a populist. He could take aim at anyone and turn over order,” Schell said. Mao believed that you had to destroy the old before you could build the new. Mao’s push to destroy China’s ideological system by staging the Cultural Revolution, which saw elites replaced by peasants and workers in an “absolutely upside down situation”.

    Kerry Brown, a China expert at King’s College in London, also drew parallels between the two leaders. Writing in the online magazine The Diplomat, Brown said both Mao and Trump disliked scholars, and Mao brutally retaliated against anyone who even “slightly opposed him”.
    “Brutal attacks on the media, constant direct appeals to the public to support him in taking on the vested interests of the elite, and a policy making ethos dominated by contradictions seems to be what America and the world can expect in the coming years,” Brown wrote, warning the United States could see its own version of the Cultural Revolution.

    Personally, I believe America’s complex system of governance would prevent Trump from carrying out any “significant subversive reform”. Mao and Trump are only similar in so far as both had subverted some traditions in their countries. I am not a supporter of Mao but I don’t think Trump can be compared to Mao. Trump is not in the class of Mao. Trump’s businessman nature makes him believe that everything can be negotiated, including human rights and ideology. Mao’s political sense is much more lofty than his.

    Mao was a poor grass root leader who fought against the imperialist. Trump is a rich businessman working for the imperialist. Mao said what he would do and did what he said, Trump says what he will do and will most likely not do what he says (building a US-Mexico wall and getting Mexico to pay for it?). Mao fought for his country, Trump fights for his own fortune and self esteem. Mao founded China, Trump founded his business. Mao thought before he spoke, Trump speaks before he thinks. Mao lived the lives of the people he led, Trump lives a separate lives of the people he leads. Mao believed that the rich should not exploit the poor, Trump believe the rich has the right to exploit the poor, and there are lots more differences. The differences of Mao and Trump far exceed their similarities.

    Hence, Trump is no way an American Mao. But we all know he is an egoistic, narcissistic, selfish, thin-skinned big bully. He has all the potential to become a dictator. You can use “my way or highway” to run Trump’s Inc. But running USA….?

  7. The notable difference is,
    Trump is on the leash by Senate and House Representative. He can speak, but can Never act like Hitler or Mao.

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