ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy underpins regional stability

June 19, 2017

ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy underpins regional stability

by Kishore Mahbubani, Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS

Image result for Hun Sen and Duterte

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) stands next to Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) during the opening of World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Phnom Penh on May 11, 2017.

Try imagining a world where the Middle East is at peace. The thought seems almost inconceivable. Imagine a world where Israel and Palestine, two nations splintered from one piece of territory, live harmoniously. Impossible? This is what Malaysia and Singapore accomplished. After an acrimonious divorce in 1965, they live together in peace.

Imagine a world where Egypt, the most populous Islamic country in the Middle East, emerges as a stable and prosperous democracy. Impossible? Then ask yourself how it is that Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country in Southeast Asia—with more than four times as many people as Egypt—has emerged as a beacon of democracy. Egypt and Indonesia both suffered from corruption. And both experienced decades of military rule, under Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Suharto in Indonesia.

Yet Egypt remains under military rule while Indonesia has emerged as the leading democracy in the Islamic world. What explains the difference? The one-word answer is ASEAN. ASEAN’s success in practising strategic diplomacy over the past 50 years has been one of the most undersold stories of our time.

If one were looking around the world to find the most promising region for international cooperation, Southeast Asia would have been at the bottom of the list. Home to 240 million Muslims, 130 million Christians, 140 million Buddhists and 7 million Hindus, it is the most diverse region in the world. In the 1960s, when ASEAN was formed, the region had garnered a reputation as ‘the Balkans of Asia’, due to its geopolitical rivalries and pervasive disputes.

Today, ASEAN is more important than ever. It has become more than an important neutral zone for great-power engagement. Its success in forging unity in diversity is a beacon of hope for our troubled world.

As the ASEAN dynamic gained momentum and the organisation moved towards creating hundreds of multilateral meetings a year, the Southeast Asian region became more closely connected. Webs of networks developed in different areas of cooperation, from trade to defence.

ASEAN camaraderie has defused many potential crises in the region. One shining example of the success of ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy occurred in 2007. In August that year, the world was shocked when monks in Yangon were shot during street protests after the unexpected removal of fuel subsidies led to a drastic overnight rise in commodity prices. Since ASEAN had admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997, there was pressure on ASEAN countries to make a statement criticising these shootings.

As an ASEAN member state, Myanmar had two options. It could have vetoed an ASEAN joint statement or disassociated itself from such a statement. Then there would have been a statement among the remaining nine countries criticising Myanmar. Many, including the nine other ASEAN foreign ministers, expected this to be the outcome.

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ASEAN–Building Strategic Partnerships for Peace, Stability and Development

To their surprise, Myanmar’s foreign minister, Nyan Win, agreed that all 10 countries, including Myanmar, should endorse the statement. This was a truly remarkable decision—the statement said that the ASEAN foreign ministers ‘were appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used and demanded that the Myanmar government immediately desist from the use of violence against demonstrators’.

In short, even when there were sharp disagreements between Myanmar and its fellow ASEAN countries, Myanmar decided that sticking with ASEAN was preferable to opting out. Clearly the ASEAN policy of engaging the military regime in Myanmar with strategic diplomacy had succeeded. This story of engagement almost reads as a foil to the EU’s disastrous policy of isolating Syria.

ASEAN’s ability to foster peace extends outside its member states. In an era of growing geopolitical pessimism, when many leading geopolitical thinkers predict rising competition and tension between great powers—especially between the United States and China—ASEAN has created an indispensable diplomatic platform that regularly brings all the great powers together. Within ASEAN, a culture of peace has evolved as a result of imbibing the Indonesian custom of musyawarah and muafakat (consultation and consensus).

Now ASEAN has begun to share this culture of peace with the larger Asia Pacific region. When tensions rise between China and Japan and their leaders find it difficult to speak to each other, ASEAN provides a face-saving platform and the right setting to restart the conversation. In particular, ASEAN has facilitated China’s peaceful rise by generating a framework that moderates aggressive impulses. In short, ASEAN’s strategic culture has infected the larger Asia Pacific region.

One of the miracles of the Asia Pacific is that significant great-power conflict prevented, even though there have been enormous shifts of power among the great nations in the region. Of course, the reasons for this lack of conflict are complex. ASEAN’s neutrality, which helps the organisation retain its centrality in the region, is one factor in keeping the region stable and peaceful.

This is why it is important that in the growing Sino–US geopolitical competition, both sides should treat ASEAN as a delicate Ming vase that could easily break. US and Chinese interests will both suffer if ASEAN is damaged or destroyed—delicacy in dealing with ASEAN is critical for both sides.

ASEAN is far from perfect—its many flaws have been well documented, especially in the Anglo-Saxon media. It never progresses in a linear fashion, often moving like a crab, taking two steps forward, one step backwards and one step sideways. Viewed over a short period, progress is hard to see. But despite its many imperfections, in a longer view, ASEAN’s forward progress has been tangible. In these interesting times, ASEAN’s policies and practices of strategic diplomacy deserve appreciation and study by the global community.

Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and co-author of The ASEAN Miracle

An extended version of this article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’.

10 thoughts on “ASEAN’s strategic diplomacy underpins regional stability

  1. Excellent piece by the writer…and to the point…ASEAN has another opportunity to bring about peace in the region by following up recent overtures by South Korea to involve itself with this part of South East Asia…

    ASEAN ought to take the initiative to work towards a final goal of bringing both Koreas together…or to put it in Prof. Mahbubani’s language…imagine a world where there is one peaceful Korea…

    • ASEAN focuses on getting on with the big powers to keep them out of our internal affairs while it promotes cooperation among its members. Priority is peace for economic development. 50 years is no mean achievement for ASEAN. Collectively, ASEAN can ensure that there is strength in unity in diversity. It is not ideal, but it is working. to keep our region stable.

      Yes, ASEAN does not “rock the boat”. There is nothing wrong with that since it does not pretend to be a global power. It engages with strategic partners. Collectively it exercises soft power.–Din Merican

  2. I agree with Prof Niall Ferguson, Harvard, that in order for any ‘Civilization’ or regional power to become great or influential there must be 6 key ‘apps’:
    1. Competition – whether in politics, business or whatever fields of human endeavor; enlightened capitalism.
    2. Science and reasoning power not mere traditional or cultural beliefs;
    3. Health and medicine for promoting a highly viable and productive population;
    4. Democracy in all spheres – even if it’s messy and sometimes miserable;
    5. Consumerism, within bounds – in accord with the environment;
    6. Work ethic and thrift.

    With all of these Western Civilization ‘conquered’ the world – not without it’s share of genocide and other horrendous human suffering sacrifices, mind you. But with a ‘civilizing influence’.

    Does ASEAN, indeed any nation within it, have them all without reservation? Nope. So will Western Civilization continue to dominate? Forget PRC as it is, but what it can be.

  3. The other day, an aspiring PhD candidate who was researching her thesis on Neo-Confucianism asked my opinion for PRC, East Asia and ASEAN to go back to the it’s Roots, i.e Eastern Values/Philosophy of Paternalism and a Structured society.

    I asked her why she was wearing a pair of Jeans, a Bra, panties and a T-Shirt. And yearned for Western labels and brands. And the fact that she dared to ask me..

    End of conversation.

    • I found a note about my maternal great grandfather who has embraced socialism and western rule of law and democracy. There was a motion to remove communism when the RoC was newly formed. My maternal great grandfather was recorded for opposing the motion. Today some Muslims wanted reject all that is Western. From that I understood why the interest of Neo-Confucianism in the days of Xi-Core.
      Nonetheless, as I age, I get to appreciate better some of the liberal ideal of Confucianism in the context of evolution of a complex and broken China.

    • I respect my elders – up to a limit. A doddering old Fool is still a Fool. Venerating ancestors is as vacuous as catching syphilis. So whatever form of Confucianism is bad for Liberty. Now, Liberation is different from liberty and i prefer the latter. I pray not to be an old Fool playing with my excretions, more than anything else, you understand?

      Remembering roots and family history is important only in so far as getting you to ‘own up’ to who you are. We have blokes all over the world who think that they were descended from Saints, Aristocrats, Royalty and so on. Most of them are just feudal minded morons who never grew out of their adolescent urges. No need to impress, when the genomes and epigenetics say otherwise, okay?

      My paternal grandpa was a desperate Fuzhou Hakka peasant, who unfortunately or fortunately, was a first generation Christian during the Boxer rebellion. I wouldn’t be here if he didn’t have the guts, temerity or perhaps cowardice, to run to the torpid shores of Sandakan where my father was born and subsequently moseyed over to the Peninsula.

      USofA had an interesting colonial history underpinned by John Locke’s vision for colonies that was transcribed into Virginia, Carolina, Bermuda and Barbados Charter. Heard of it?

  4. What underpins the strategic diplomacy that provide ASEAN stability, relatively , despite huge diversity in ethnicity, culture,socio-economic geopolitical ideology, is the leaders’ ability to try to be honestly strive, free of foriegn interference/subversion, for sustained peace and prosperity with shared values, benefits and responsibility in providing job opportunities for the people to generate food on the table, roofs over the heads and education.

    The best ingredients (political ideology, capitalism democracy as proclaimed by the West or otherwise) would Not gaurantee the best food Without the best integrity and competency of the cook.

  5. katasayang:

    Mao’s Red Guards once dubbed Confucius “The Number One Hooligan Old Kong.” But today Confucius is being ardently embraced by the Chinese Communist Party again. The CCP has overseen an incredible surge of wealth in China in the past 35 years through old-fashioned capitalism. But the old Marxist rhetoric of the Mao years doesn’t fit anymore. So they went scouring about for a new ideology to justify their government. The CCP has realized Confucius might be useful for them again. But the version of Confucius they use isn’t the same as the one in The Analects, his most famous collection of ideas and sayings. Beijing focuses on the imperial Confucius who was all about obedience to the emperor, hierarchy, and loyalty.

    The CCP has come back to Confucius for many of the same reasons the old emperors did. Here is a political tradition that is uniquely Chinese and can support their type of authoritarian rule. At the same time, it can be used to fend off all those awful ideas they don’t want from the West, like democracy and human rights. By reviving Confucius, they are making the case that China has its own political culture based on its own political and philosophical history. China therefore does not have to head toward democracy in the way that Western advocates would like to see happen. It can have a political future based on what it sees as its philosophical past.

    The CCP likes using the word “harmony” and harmonious society a lot, concepts the Confucians also like to use. But what the Communists mean by harmony is a society where there’s no dissent of party rule. In Confucian thinking, it means something very different. It’s about a society where everyone fulfills their responsibilities and creates a harmonious situation where the whole country prospers. What the CCP is doing is taking a very narrowly defined, carefully selected version of Confucianism to push ideas they think can help convince the public that the system they’re running is an extension of a political system that China has always had.

    At the same time, ordinary people in China look around and say, “OK, we’ve gotten rich, but look at everything we’ve lost.” They’re returning to Confucian ideas in search of the virtues, values and spiritual nourishment they feel are missing in their lives – like Xiao (孝, filial piety, respect for your parents) which is one of the most basic Confucian virtues. Other Confucian virtues include Ren (仁, benevolence, humaneness), Yi (義, righteousness or justice), Li (禮, proper rite, correct behavior, or propriety, good manners, politeness), Zhì (智, knowledge) and Xin (信, integrity). Yi can be broken down into Zhong (忠, doing one’s best, conscientiousness, loyalty) and Shu (恕 altruism, consideration for others).

    Is Confucianism compatible with Western democratic values? If you listen to the Chinese government, they would say it’s not compatible. However, there’s a counter-argument where pro-democracy advocates in Asia have looked back at the same texts and seen in them the seeds of democracy in Asia. The most famous was the former president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung, who spent decades as a democracy advocate in Korea and believed that Confucius gave people the right to choose their leadership and also overthrow a leader who was immoral or tyrannical. There’re several societies that are highly influenced by Confucianism but are also democratic, like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and, to a certain extend, Singapore. So I think history is telling us that you can be both Confucian and democratic.

    The continuing power of Confucian ideas still has a dramatic effect on the lives of a quarter of humanity. That’s why it’s important for us to know about Confucius. A lot of his ideas are universal and timeless. He believed that people should do the right thing because it was the right thing to do. And that trying to do the right thing would have a ripple effect through society. When you read this positive message, you realize that Confucius has value for us today, even though he uttered these ideas 2,500 years ago. There’re things in the Bible and the Koran that we don’t agree with today, like owning slaves. But that doesn’t mean we throw them in the garbage. We interpret them for our needs today and continue to find value in it. That’s what we should be doing with Confucius and Confucian ideas.

    You know what? The irony is that the professor at Stanford who taught me to understand and appreciate Confucius was an Anglo American. He sure didn’t think Confucius was an old fool. He spent his whole life studying Confucianism.

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