South East Asian Cyberspace: Politics, Censorship and Polarisation


November 5, 2018

South East Asian Cyberspace: Politics, Censorship and Polarisation

On 12 April 2017, Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society issued what the Bangkok Post called “a strange government directive”. It prohibited anyone from following, communicating with, or disseminating information online from three outspoken critics of the government—or risk up to 15 years in prison. The statement seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and without any explanation. Does the act of “following” include reading these authors’ posts, or actually clicking the “follow” button on their profile? This was never clarified by the government.

The ambiguity of the Thai cyber laws prompted a local online newspaper, Prachatai, to publish information warning readers about how to avoid being charged with Thailand’s draconian Article 112, which prohibits defamation against the royal family. But the journalist responsible for the article was in turn interrogated by the Thai authorities for a possible computer crime herself. This deadly dose of opaque cyber regulations and an authoritarian political regime has made Thailand’s cyberspace one of the most restricted in Asia.

This combination, however, is growing more and more representative of the regional norm. In Southeast Asia, the liberating effects of the internet coexist in increasing tension with state anxiety about information control. Southeast Asian cyberspace is thus becoming more expansive, yet more restricted. On the one hand, the number of people who have come online for the first time has exploded: Myanmar, for example, went from 1% internet penetration in 2012 to 26% in 2017 thanks to an abundance of cheap mobile phones. Internet users across the region are increasingly spending time online to work, study, connect with friends, and participate in civic and political life.

On the other hand, Southeast Asian governments are growing wary of the potential for the internet to threaten political stability.

Cyberspace in Southeast Asia has evolved into a space for contestation over power and control between the state and its societal opponents, with the former exerting greater and more sophisticated control over the latter. As electoral contestation increases in some countries, feuding elites have sought to win the hearts and minds of the ever more engaged and wired citizenry through old tactics of divide and conquer, exploiting deep-seated ethnic, religious and racial cleavages. Social networking sites like Facebook have made it all too easy to spread hate speech and misinformation—further entrenching divisions in society, and inviting yet more state-led censorship.

More internet, more censorship

Viewed globally, the Southeast Asian experience is not an aberration. Freedom House’s Net Freedom Report, which ranks the degree of cyber openness around the world, has recorded the sixth consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom. More than two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where criticism of governments gets censored.

The present reality stands in stark contrast to early optimism about the positive, liberating role the internet could play in bringing about political change in authoritarian regimes—a sentiment which flourished following the “Arab Spring”. The utopian idea that social media could spell the end of despots has now been muted by users’ frustration with increasing crackdowns on the internet and the chilling effect brought on by continued persecution of politically active social media users. Indeed, in 2016 a total of 24 countries restricted access to popular social media platforms and messaging apps—an increase of 60% compared to the previous year. 27% of internet users live in countries whose authorities have made arrests based on social media posts.

So where does Southeast Asia fit in this global picture? Despite varying degrees of internet penetration—ranging from 19% in Cambodia to 82% in Singapore—national internet environments in Southeast Asia share three key similarities.

First, there is an overall consecutive decline in internet freedom, which measures the degree to which access is unrestricted. The Philippines stands as the only country in the region that receives a score of “free” according to Freedom House (Figure 1). The rest of Southeast Asian internet users enjoy partial to little freedom in surfing the net.

Figure 1: Net Freedom Scores, 2016

In all the “partly free” and “not free” states, ordinary internet users have been arrested for their online activities and user rights have been repeatedly violated. Measures to censor critical opinions about authorities can include blocking of websites, content removal, and in some cases arrests and persecution—the latter of which has been taking place more recently, as authorities across the region pay closer attention to social media and chat app content.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoch Nhu or “Mother Mushroom” was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017 for “conducting propaganda against the state”, after she wrote on issues relating to policy brutality, land rights, and freedom of speech. A Thai man has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for Facebook posts the authorities deemed critical of the royal family. This follows the 2016 arrest of eight internet users who ran a satirical Facebook page mocking Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. In Singapore, whose leaders prefer slapping lawsuits upon critics over arresting them, blogger Roy Ngerng was sued for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in posts on his blog. Even a democratic government in Indonesia has sought to censor same-sex emojis from messaging apps and has banned several gay dating apps.

Second, many Southeast Asian states have in recent years sought to institutionalise online information controls through new laws and regulations, typically citing concerns for national security. Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Law openly permits criminalisation of internet activism or communication that are considered “dishonest” and “untruthful” by the regime. Cambodia has had several drafts of the cybercrime law, with each one eliciting grave concerns from rights groups. Article 35 from the 2012 draft, for instance, would criminalise civil society organisations deemed to endanger the security, morality and values of the nation. A 2017 amendment to Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act worsened an already repressive internet law by giving authorities wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone who might be spreading information that would be against the (vaguely-defined) national interest. Indonesia’s newly amended Electronic Information Transactions Law (UU ITE) was criticised by internet rights groups for creating chilling effects online and curbing of freedom of expression. Indeed, the majority of cyber laws in the region are written in vague terms on purpose: they give power to authorities to interpret what is critical to the nation’s security and public safety.

Third, the varying degree of filtering on issues of social, political, and national security importance gives some indication of the country’s priorities on internet control. Censorship is most severe when it comes to criticism against the state (Figure 2). While the growth of internet usage across Southeast Asia caused concern about information control among all of the region’s governments, reasons for such concern vary. Indonesia and Thailand focus their internet censorship efforts on social issues—particularly online pornography—whereas Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar (and to some extent Thailand too) have gone to some lengths to crack down on cyber dissidents deemed a threat to regime stability.

Figure 2: Key internet censorship issues, 2016

Highly developed Singapore, with its hegemonic party rule, has one of the world’s highest internet penetration rates. Instead of practicing cyber surveillance and filtering, its leaders prefer to rely on non-technological means to curb online commentary perceived to be a threat to social values and religious and ethnic harmony. These “second generation” control mechanisms—such as lawsuits, steep fines, and criminal prosecution—act to deter “inappropriate” online behaviour.

Divide the people, conquer the discourse

But political elites, even if they could, would not want to control the flow of all information. They need the web to be sufficiently open to allow a perceived sense of online freedom of expression, and the proliferation of engaged online discussion. This provides ruling and competing elites alike with opportunities to divide electorates and mobilise their support base against their adversaries. The Oxford Internet Institute’s research on computation propaganda has highlighted how state-sponsored “cyber troops” and trolls are commonplace around the world as means of manipulating public opinion, particularly in support of ruling elites.

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The Philippines—the only country whose internet environment is regarded as free—has witnessed a high density of “cyber troops” since populist maverick Rodrigo Duterte came to power. Duterte’s online army is reportedly paid to flood Facebook with pro-Duterte propaganda, sometimes masking as grassroots activists. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who has a huge social media following, found himself denying buying influence on Facebook after reports that only 20% of his 3 million likes originated from Cambodia (the rest largely being from India and the Philippines). That a septuagenarian , who has been in power since the 1980s, felt the need to pay for Facebook likes is telling of the extent political leaders go to in order to construct digital legitimacy, even if it means spreading online propaganda.

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But the most prominent example of the potential power of the abovementioned “divide and conquer” strategy was the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. After ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or “Ahok” made controversial comments about the Quran, anti-Ahok rallies, mobilising over 500,000 protesters at their peak, were led by a coalition of Islamic groups. These religious groups were long unhappy with Ahok in power but did not surge in popularity until Ahok’s blasphemy case came to the fore (Figure 3).

Figure 3: FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)

 

The hard line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) more than tripled their support base on Facebook following Ahok’s comments, and figured prominently in the months-long campaign against him. Witnessing the rise of the FPI and other Islamist groups gaining prominence as anti-Ahok movement garnered force, Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan, long seen as a secular Islamic politician, shifted gear to appeal to those sympathetic to the FPI campaign. The online sphere became deeply polarised: a network analysis of those who commented on Ahok’s and Anies’ Facebook posts in the month of December in 2016 (Figure 6) shows that only 16 people cross-commented on both pages out of a total of 9,000 comments.

Figure 6: Network Visualisation of Commenters on Ahok’s (Blue) and Anies Baswedan’s (Red) Facebook Page

Here, Facebook played an important role in catapulting the hard line FPI into mainstream politics. This then contributed to a more polarising political environment in which more Indonesians were politically active online than ever before, but not necessarily engaging with opposing views.

Confronting the challenge to a free internet

Digital rights and digital literacy are the biggest challenges to Internet users in Southeast Asia now and going forward. While global trends suggest that the increasing tide of state surveillance, monitoring and censorship online will not dissipate, Internet users must build greater resilience to protect and defend basic human rights in the digital world, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and privacy.

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Civil society groups, bloggers, human rights advocates, students, journalists, and academics should band together to build the technical and legal capacity needed to defend internet rights within the region against the growth of government surveillance, as well as corporations seeking to capitalise on the plethora of personal information online. Public awareness about digital rights and their importance to a vibrant democratic society is crucial to building digital resilience.

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This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation.

Mahathir’s UN speech proposed as basis of Foreign Policy


October 16, 2018

Mahathir’s UN Speech proposed as basis of Foreign Policy

 

PARLIAMENT | The Foreign Ministry today tabled a motion in the Dewan Rakyat for the speech of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept 28 to be set as the basis of Malaysia’s foreign policy.Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah also proposed that the Dewan Rakyat agree with the direction of the country’s foreign policy as stated in the Address of the Prime Minister.

Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Salahuddin Ayub seconded the motion.

In tabling the motion, Saifuddin said the prime minister’s speech outlined, among others, the position and foreign policy of the country based on principles such as not favouring any power, neutrality and practising the “prosper thy neighbour” philosophy.

“The Prime Minister also emphasised Malaysia’s relations with the world’s major powers, as well as other issues such as the situation in Palestine, the plight of the Muslims in Rakhine (Myanmar) and the trade war between the economic powers,” he said.

Saifuddin said Mahathir also noted the importance of the UN as a key platform to resolve universal issues and expressed the hope that the UN will continue to play an important role in maintaining international peace and security.

“The Prime Minister’s speech also outlined the objectives and plans of the foreign policy of the New Malaysia to support the sustainability of economic, political and social developments within our own country,” he said.

Saifuddin said the motion was tabled to enable the government to obtain inputs, views and feedback from the members of the Dewan Rakyat because the government needed to have a foreign policy framework as a select committee on foreign policy has yet to be formed and the new Parliament has yet to have a caucus of MPs on foreign relations.

“We propose that Malaysia’s foreign policy framework comprises four key components, the major strands of foreign policy which have been largely disclosed in the Prime Minister’s speech at the UN; empowering the foreign ministry; strengthening inter-agency cooperation; and increasing the people’s participation,” he said.

Bernama

Small states must play smart


October 5, 2018

Small states must play smart

by Chheang Vannarith

Cambodia Flag
“Cambodia is pursuing a light hedging strategy and striving to strengthen multi-lateralism through an omi-enmeshment strategy – a diversification strategy to create an interlocking network of partners with common economic and security interests.”– Chheang Vannarith

The foreign policy of small states is constrained by the size and location of the country and its natural resources and population. Small states are more vulnerable to external changes and shocks, the level of dependency on external sources for security and development, and the perception of their national roles.

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Size does matter for small states. They find it difficult to have favourable foreign policy outcomes than larger nations. To make up for this, small states tend to focus on their immediate geographic area and economic diplomacy, with an emphasis on international rules and norms, while promoting multilateralism and international cooperation.

The primary objective of small states is to ensure their survival and strengthen their position and relevance in a fluid or even anarchic international system. The fast-evolving international system together with global power shifts is posing more challenges for small states to adjust and realise their foreign policy objective. Hence they must play smart and be innovative in order to achieve their foreign policy goals.

Cambodia is thriving to stay relevant in the international system through the implementation of a dual-track diplomacy: bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Recently, Cambodia has taken a relatively proactive approach in strengthening multilateralism and a rules-based international order as these two norms are under stress and threat caused by unilateralism and protectionism. The US retreat from multilateral institutions has caused severe disruptions and turbulence in the international liberal order.

Cambodia’s foreign policy is at a critical juncture as the country remains at the frontline of geopolitical rivalry in the Mekong region – a new growth center and strategic frontier of Asia. Geopolitical risks are heightening as major powers are vying to create their own sphere of influence in the region. The Kingdom is very much vulnerable to becoming a pawn of major power politics if foreign policy is not managed carefully. The evolving geopolitical dynamics thus demands that Cambodian leaders be more adaptive, flexible, resilient, and pragmatic.

As geopolitical risks and vulnerabilities rise further, Cambodia’s foreign policy options could be more constrained. The strategic space for Cambodia to manoeuver is getting narrower. Once geopolitical power rivalry becomes clear-cut and all-out, Cambodia could lose its balance and would be structurally forced to hop on the bandwagon of a major power for its survival.

At the moment, Cambodia is pursuing a light hedging strategy and striving to strengthen multi-lateralism through an omi-enmeshment strategy – a diversification strategy to create an interlocking network of partners with common economic and security interests.

Hedging is the best strategic option for Cambodia, especially in dealing with uncertainty. However, implementing this strategy is a huge challenge. It requires strategic articulation on certain issues and strategic ambiguity on others. Even sometimes it requires to have contradictory views on certain issues but it must be implemented smartly in order not to lose trust with any major power.

The key challenge now for Cambodia is how it could gain trust from all major powers. At the moment, Cambodia’s relations with the US faces a serious trust deficit. It is urgent that Cambodia and the US find common grounds and explore innovative pathways to restore trust and normalize their bilateral relationship.

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Economic pragmatism, strategic diversification, a denial to a regional hegemonic power, and regime legitimization are the key components of a hedging strategy. ASEAN as a regional grouping is an important shield for Cambodia and the group’s other members to neutralize and cushion the adverse effects created by rivalry between the major powers.

Yet ASEAN faces the risk of being marginalized by two competing institutional frameworks – China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US-initiated Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Unless ASEAN member states are able to stay united and forge a common foreign policy position, they risk becoming the proxy states of major powers. Consequently, the region will be divided into two diametric poles: the pro-China camp versus the pro-US camp.

To avert these risks, ASEAN must be more innovative and adopt a bolder approach to protect common regional interests. Just playing it safe and keeping a low profile is not a solution. ASEAN must be bold enough to stand up against any major power that intends to build its hegemonic dominence in the region at the expense of the core interests of its member countries.

Cambodia is of the view that ASEAN driven multilateral institutions and mechanisms play a critical role in constructing an open and inclusive regional order that can accommodate all major powers. ASEAN is widely regarded as the main vehicle for its members to engage and integrate major powers, and hopefully shape the behaviour of major powers.

Engaging major powers is a viable strategic option for small states. Engagement is a means to integration. Small states like Cambodia can partially contribute to constructing an international order by engaging and integrating major powers into a rules-based international system and getting them to assume responsible leadership role in multilateral institutions.

Dr. Chheang Vannarith is a board member and Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP).

In defence of Mat Sabu’s ‘18-wheeler’ diplomacy


October 1, 2018

In defence of Mat Sabu’s ‘18-wheeler’ diplomacy

Opinion
by Phar Kim Beng

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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COMMENT |

Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu has reached a small milestone. He was in New York City between September 23-29, one of the longest trips ever by a Malaysian Defense Minister, and among the few to attend the United Nations General Assembly so soon after his appointment to cabinet.

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The length and the early trip to the United States are key, even if it is his 10th visit in the last four months, from the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore – during which he emphasised the centrality of ASEAN and the importance of the ‘Mahathir doctrine’ – to his visit to Lebanon in June.

To those not in the know, southern Lebanon is one of those delicate areas where conflicts could erupt at any given time. Malaysian peacekeepers are there to help maintain some semblance of order as part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).

Malaysians blue helmets have always been deeply respected. Be it in Congo in 1962 or Somalia in 1989, Malaysian soldiers have always been at the forefront of peacekeeping efforts.

Infamously, the book and movie Black Hawk Down got its details wrong. It wasn’t just the Pakistani blue helmets who retrieved the American rangers trapped in the fire fights in the centre of Mogadishu, Malaysians also saved the day.

Tariq Chaudhry, a UN diplomat, has always tipped his hat to the bravery of the Malaysian soldiers.

His doctorate thesis on the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation at Cambridge went as far as accrediting the Malaysian armed forces in maintaining the peace in Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement in 1995.

Mat Sabu is aware of this glowing legacy. He celebrates them, and is able to hit it off with Dr Mahathir Mohamed precisely because both agree peace is something which Malaysia can do and has done the world over.

Mohamad also believes that wars are a blight on humanity. One should avoid such aggressive behaviors. This is again a position not unlike the view of Mahathir, who also hates wars.

 

Just yesterday, Mahathir hinted that Malaysia is looking into following Japan’s constitution which prevents the country from entering armed conflicts.

Thus Malaysia has pulled out of the conflict in Yemen – which has now degenerated into a complex humanitarian emergency, where tens of thousands of people have died from dysentery, lack of clean water and medical services. The numbers are greater than the combatants who actually perished armed conflict between the Houthi rebels and Saudi-led coalition.

Preventive diplomacy

Since Malaysia has always had a policy of “active” neutrality starting from the 1960s – a concept enshrined by Malaysia’s participation in Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), further reinforced by the late Tun Ghazali Shafie’s concept of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (Zopfan) – our foreign policy has always focused on maintaining peace.

In the same month that Mohamad participated in the Shangri-La Dialogue, he hosted the Malaysia-Australia High Level Committee on Defence Cooperation in Butterworth. Australia is one of the members of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) which Malaysian navy and armed forces still treasure deeply.

The next month(in July), Mohamad visited the Farnborough Airshow in the UK, an event which typically hosts the amazing acrobatic Red Arrows. The UK is also a member of the FPDA.

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https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/uk-south-china-sea-royal-navy-warship-beijing-hms-sutherland-gavin-williamson-trump-us-australia-a8208016.html

Given the insistence of the UK of remaining a vital and active player in maintaining freedom of navigation in South China Sea, Mohamad’s trip reassured them that their role in FPDA is deeply cherished.

In July 2018, the minister also made it a point to visit Bangladesh in light of the country’s growing tensions with Myanmar over the influx and mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims, which neither side seems to acknowledge is facing one of the worst humanitarian disasters.

With his trip to Cox’s Bazar, Mohamad is engaging in preventive diplomacy. He is trying to prevent the issue from further enlarging into an explosive issue that can drag ASEAN and South Asia into a structural conflict over the millions of Rohingya facing near-certain death.

Indeed, having strengthened all the necessary pillars in FPDA – by visiting Singapore, hosting the Australia and later the New Zealand delegation, in addition his UK trip – it seems Mohamad is emphasising the backbone of Malaysian defence diplomacy through FDPA.

 

This is why the trip to Bangladesh happened in August. In that month, Mohamad strengthened the confidence of the Malaysian peacekeepers in Lebanon, and sent a powerful signal to Myanmar that peace and freedom to all must be of paramount importance.

The following month, Mohamad went one step further: he visited the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus with Japan. Japan is critical precisely because the country in 1994, under then Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama, created the ASEAN Regional Forum from the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference.

In this particular trip to Nagoya, Mohamad signed an MOU with Japan to enhance mutual humanitarian assistance, civil military cooperation, in addition to strengthening the Malaysian peacekeeping operations in Port Dickson, which has been ongoing since 2005.

It should be added Japan immediately pledged a donation of USD1 million to reinforce peacekeeping facilities. These are all major achievements, as they reflect a strategic continuation of the dialogue and method of cooperation with Japan. How? It was Nakayama who suggested a multilateral forum where all countries in Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia could hold annual defence dialogues.

By 2005, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus took place in Kuala Lumpur, with a goal of consolidating the defence diplomacy of ASEAN member states and expanding the ambit of ASEAN’s defence collaboration with external dialogue partners, including China, Japan, South Korea, the United States.

If one observes all of Mohamad’s frenzied activities and trips, including the current one to the US, it is clear that he knows how intricate the defence portfolio has been since the 1960s.

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This is why every single trip can be related to either ASEAN, FPDA, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, and the UN.

The ’18-wheeler’ strategy

I would term this Mohamad’s 18-wheeler defence diplomacy, the metaphorical large truck that he drives taking the previous cargo forward. The precious cargo is of course Malaysian sovereignty, regional equilibrium, and international peace.

And, this is all done in a way to further the parameters of the ‘Mahathir doctrine’, where battle ships should not linger in any parts of the South China Sea unless the goal is to jointly address the effects of piracy.

In this sense, Mohamad’s upcoming meetings with his counterparts in Manila and Malawi deserves more commendations.

Mohamad is trying to stabilise one of the world’s oldest conflicts that go all the way back to 16th century, when the Spanish conquistadors first arrived to upend the religious and racial balance of Mindanao and Manila.

One should remember that Mohamad is a humanitarian at heart. He knows that Philippines and Mindanao Autonomous Region are constantly hammered by natural disasters.

Unless Malaysia and Philippines can work together, complex humanitarian emergencies can lead to endemic poverty, and hopelessness, all of which are fuel of terrorism and kidnap for ransom groups, that can spill over into Sabah and Sarawak.

So to his critics in UMNO and PAS who said that Mohamad hasn’t been doing his homework, they must realise that it is they who have been sleeping on the job as the opposition.


PHAR KIM BENG was a multiple award-winning head teaching fellow on China and the Cultural Revolution in Harvard University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

ASEAN and the challenge of a multipolar world


September 18, 2018

ASEAN and the challenge of a multipolar world

Ja Ian Chong, NUS

 

At no time since the Cold War has there been a greater demand for an effective, functioning ASEAN. Yet today’s ASEAN seems far from able to live up to its full promise at a time when its members need it most. In a more contested world, the group is one of the few channels that can enable Southeast Asian states to stand their ground.

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During the Cold War, ASEAN’s early members were able to prosper by integrating into the US-backed economic order. The US alliance system also ensured strategic predictability in the region. With expansion in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ASEAN members did well: regional stability was buttressed by a preponderant United States and a People’s Republic of China (PRC) eager for cooperation. Under these conditions, ASEAN states did not have to worry about each other.

New uncertainties over the trajectories of the United States, the PRC, India and Europe mean that the conditions to which ASEAN members are accustomed may no longer be reasonable to expect. ASEAN needs to adapt or it will atrophy.

Southeast Asia stands at a fault line of major power interests. Be it ideas about the first island chain or visions of an Indo-Pacific, many strategic perspectives intersect in Southeast Asia. The PRC is the region’s largest external trading partner, even as private sector FDI makes the United States a larger foreign investor overall.

Crosscutting US and PRC concerns may be less of a stress point for Southeast Asian states while the United States remains able to wield a restrained but clear preeminence in the region. For some time, significant overlap in US and PRC interests permitted Southeast Asian governments to mask their pursuit of disparate individual interests under the guise of not choosing sides and some vague commitment to ASEAN. But ASEAN members can no longer presume the luxury of major power concordance: Washington is reconsidering its global commitments and Beijing is growing readier to challenge the prevailing order. In different ways, India, Russia and Europe are also more willing and able to question the status quo.

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An effective ASEAN can serve several key functions at moments of multipolar contention that enable Southeast Asia to become greater than the sum of its parts. ASEAN can be a platform for collective bargaining that can give its members — perhaps save Indonesia — more heft than they would individually enjoy when dealing with the likes of the United States, the PRC, India or Europe. An ASEAN that is more able to coordinate over common issues — such as managing maritime and aerial activity, riparian development, environmental protection and investment responsibilities — is more able to preserve the autonomy of its members.

Internally, a well-ordered ASEAN offers less opportunity for unwelcome intervention in Southeast Asia. These conditions can safeguard member freedom, allowing them more say in managing contentious issues like the disputes in the South China Sea or the risks associated with the Belt and Road Initiative.

ASEAN’s peak of success during the 1980s rested precisely on the ability of its then-members to coordinate as a whole. Together, ASEAN members were able to hold their own when engaging the United States, the PRC and the USSR, even as they brought pressure to bear on Vietnam for its invasion and occupation of Cambodia.

By setting aside differences and holding common positions, ASEAN members gave external actors little chance to sow discord or peel off members through inducement, threat or promise. ASEAN was stable and the region calm. ASEAN was also able to overcome collective action problems through a unity of purpose, mutual trust and efficient coordination — characteristics that are in question, if not absent from, ASEAN today.

Stasis, internal division and a lack of initiative are colouring the present-day ASEAN. Even if ASEAN retains a role in tempering intra-regional tensions, member states can no longer bet on simply working towards a large common ground between an established United States and a rising but satisfied PRC. Believing that what worked in the past will continue to do so is unrealistic.

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Between trying not to choose sides and amid exaggerated fears of some sort of EU-like imperium, ASEAN states chronically neglect to invest in updating the grouping’s own institutional capabilities. ASEAN’s capacity to coordinate and act together effectively when needed is something no amount of infrastructure connectivity, FTAs or smart cities can substitute. Short of a rapid and successful reboot, a more contested world with multiple powerful actors is likely to intensify ASEAN’s drift toward the margins, and with it the scope for its members to pursue their interests and soften major power rivalries.

Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore.

How ASEAN can be resilient


September 11, 2018

How ASEAN can be resilient

Borge Brende and Justin Wood / Khmer Times
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ASEAN has long been praised for its ‘open regionalism’ whereby it pursues economic integration among member states without discriminating against non-ASEAN economies. 

 

As other powers rise, ASEAN is at risk of losing its collective commitment to a shared vision for the region and a common stance on geopolitical issues. Unless ASEAN remains united as a bloc, write Borge Brende and Justin Wood, it will lose its ability to convene regional actors, mediate disputes, and shape principles of international behaviour and interaction.

Is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) resilient enough to thrive amid the regional and global transformations taking place today? While the global economy continues its broad-based expansion, disruptive economic, geostrategic, and technological forces may threaten Asean’s gains of recent years. To survive, Asean members must make important decisions about the role of their community in regional affairs. With the right choices, the region can convert disruption into an opportunity for a resilient future.

ASEAN has undergone an impressive turnaround in the past five decades. A region of turbulence, disharmony, and underdevelopment in the 1960s is today one of relative peace and economic success. Much of the credit belongs to the community-building efforts of the countries under the Asean umbrella. But the region also benefited strongly from the post-World War II global architecture and institutions that promoted inward flows of investment and outward flows of exports.

Today, this global backdrop is in a state of profound transformation. The benefits of free and open trade are being questioned, international institutions are being challenged, new geopolitical powers are rising, and – despite ups and downs – the global economy continues to tilt further toward emerging markets. All of this creates an opportunity for new and competing visions of how the world should be organized and run.

Alongside rising geopolitical uncertainty, ASEAN countries must grapple with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The exponential development of technologies such as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, precision medicine, and autonomous vehicles is transforming economies, businesses, and societies.

ASEAN members will feel the effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution acutely. Consider the future of jobs. The working-age population in the bloc is increasing by 11,000 people daily and will continue to grow at this rate for the next 15 years. This demographic expansion is happening just as many existing jobs will be substituted by intelligent automation and AI. Systems of taxation that rely on labour income will come under pressure. National budgets will be challenged at exactly the moment when Asean members must increase their investment in reskilling labour forces and developing infrastructure for this new age.

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Or consider the future of manufacturing. Technologies such as 3D printing and cheap industrial robots are enabling products to be made in small, highly-customized forms rather than large batches of uniform goods. For ASEAN, the shift from centralized global supply chains to localized production systems could have a serious impact on export revenues and the investment by which it is driven.

Faced with these disruptive shifts, ASEAN must strengthen its community. Economically, regional resilience can be bolstered by building a genuine single market: ASEAN has 630 million citizens with rapidly rising spending power. Fully implementing the ASEAN Economic Community will be key. With a strong regional market, ASEAN can drive its own economic destiny, rather than relying on demand from external markets, and will be better insulated against potential protectionist shocks.

Creating a single market for services will be critical. Here, especially, ASEAN members must respond to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, tackling issues such as harmonization of rules governing the use of data. New technologies – including digital platforms, big-data analytics, and cloud-based services – do not recognize national borders and function best when they operate at scale. With a single digital market, ASEAN can develop truly pan-regional services in finance, health care, education, and e-commerce.

Of course, ASEAN should not build a fortress that keeps out the world. Indeed, the bloc has long been praised for its “open regionalism,” whereby it pursues economic integration among member states without discriminating against non-ASEAN economies. This approach has been integral to its economic strategy from the beginning, and continues with the soon-to-be concluded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership joining ASEAN with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

Strengthening the political-security community is equally essential. With the architecture of global governance being challenged, ASEAN members must make their voices heard if they want a world that supports their interests. Individually, Southeast Asia’s countries carry little weight; collectively, however, they represent almost a tenth of the world’s population and nearly 5 percent of its GDP.

Historically, ASEAN has played a pivotal role in facilitating regional relationships, giving rise to the notion of “ASEAN centrality” in Asia. In 1993, the bloc established the ASEANn Regional Forum – now with 27 members – to foster dialogue on political and security concerns. It established the East Asia Summit, currently with 18 member states, in 2005.

Today, however, the geopolitical context is evolving. As other powers rise, ASEAN is at risk of losing its collective commitment to a shared vision for the region and a common stance on geopolitical issues. Many observers believe that other countries are undermining ASEAN n unanimity by developing dependencies with individual countries, built on investment, trade, and assistance. Unless it remains united as a bloc, ASEAN will lose its ability to convene regional actors, mediate disputes, and shape principles of international behaviour and interaction.

The so-called ASEAN way, characterized by consensus-based decision-making and non-interference, has served ASEAN well, and the bloc would be unwise to jettison it. But a reassessment is needed if ASEAN is to speak with a strong voice on regional matters, rather than allowing dissenting voices within the group to prevent the adoption of collective positions. Given that existing global institutions are being challenged, and given the rise of Asia in global affairs, Asean must reinforce its ability to influence the debate.

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN will be held in Hanoi, Vietnam, on September 11-13 and will provide an opportunity for such a reassessment. In an increasingly uncertain world, the need for the countries of ASEAN to deepen their community and their commitment to integration and collaboration is stronger than ever.

Copyright Project Syndicate 2018.

Borge Brende is President of the World Economic Forum; Justin Wood is Head of Asia Pacific and a member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum.