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.

Cambodia embarks on the Fourth Industrial Revolution


September 13, 2018

Cambodia embarks on the Fourth Industrial Revolution

by Chheang Vannarith / Khmer Times
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In today’s world, more countries are looking for innovative strategies to deal with the rising uncertainties they are facing. Asean, not cushioned from the same concerns, is at a crossroads with the rapid evolution of the geopolitical and geo-economic spheres.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is evolving at an unprecedented speed and its impact will be felt everywhere. This is the main theme at this year’s World Economic Forum held in Hanoi. In order to adapt to and make full use of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Asean member countries are reforming their institutions and regulations at varying degrees.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the host of this year’s forum, proposed a five-point strategy for ASEAN: fostering digital connectivity and data sharing; harmonising the business environment; building synergies among innovation incubators; managing talents; and creating an education network for life-long learning.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo stressed that “with creativity, with energy, and with collaboration and partnership, we, humanity, shall enjoy abundance and we shall produce infinite resources”. He warned about the misguided belief and misperception that the rise of some will lead to the decline of others, saying it is a dangerous notion.

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Prime Minister Hun Sen set out a list of priority areas that Cambodia and ASEAN should focus on to enhance the application of technology for socioeconomic development and poverty reduction.

 

In his remarks at the forum, Prime Minister Hun Sen set out a list of priority areas that Cambodia and ASEAN should focus on to enhance the application of technology for socioeconomic development and poverty reduction.

Cambodia is concerned that digitalisation and automation might lead to job losses and increase inequality. The Cambodian government is already developing policies to seize opportunities and overcome the challenges that come with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

First, the government is going to double its investment in upskilling the country’s human capital, especially in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Second, the Cambodian premier said a bigger investment is needed to develop digital platforms that can be used to share knowledge.

Third, he said more support mechanisms for the private sector are needed, especially for digital literacy, digital infrastructure development, and research and development.

“Cambodia can leapfrog if it can maximise its comparative advantages in terms of the demographic factor and its open economic structure. Hence, more investments are needed in education and knowledge governance,” Mr Hun Sen said.

He added that he was hoping to encourage innovative ways to narrow the brain gap.

“What ASEAN can do, Cambodia should be able to do as well and, if possible, better, because of the advantage of hindsight. This can be done by investing more in human resource training in Cambodia.”

The idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution was first put forward by Klaus Schwab, a Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. He argues in his book ‘Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ that governments, businesses, and individuals must make the right strategic decisions regarding the development and deployment of technologies.

“The scale, complexity and urgency of the challenges facing the world today call for leadership and action that are both responsive and responsible. With the right experimentation of the spirit of systems leadership by values-driven individuals across all sectors, we have the chance to shape a future where the most powerful technologies contribute to a more inclusive, fair and prosperous community”, he wrote.

In Hanoi, Prime Minister Hun Sen and several other leaders from Asean stressed the importance of human capital as the nations embark on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“Human capital, technological innovation and artificial intelligence need to be utilised side by side and with equal emphasis for Industry 4.0 to work,” he added.