KayJay on ASEAN beyond 50


August 17, 2017

KayJay on ASEAN beyond 50

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As ASEAN celebrates its Golden Jubilee, it is opportune for us to take a step back and ask our people what they want of the regional bloc in the next 50 years before striving forward together as one community.

THERE has never been a better time to examine ASEAN as a regional bloc, how far we have come and where we are heading next. It has been exactly 50 years since ASEAN was formed and since then, this regional bloc has never been stronger and more prominent in the global stage.

Malaysia will always be a pro-active member of ASEAN and other multilateral organisations. Our success story as a nation has been predicated upon the stability provided by a multilateral framework. Malaysia as a country is one that reaches beyond its potential and one that has always set its sight on the distant future. For that reason, we must be integrated into a region that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The past is prologue while the future is ours to shape. While taking lessons from the past, we must continue the work of building the future.

Immediately after the 1969 riots, Malaysia embarked on the New Economic Policy, which was to be a new deal for Malaysia in eradicating poverty and rebalancing the economic distribution in the country. Thirty years later, that was followed by Vision 2020, which would leapfrog Malaysia to a country that is modern and developed.

As we are nearing 2020, it became imperative for us to ask ourselves “what’s next?”. The world in 2050 will be much different from the world today – what will guide us to face this future?

This is I have been tasked to reach as many youths as possible to get their aspirations of what they want to see the nation be in the future, to be recorded in a massive plan called the National Transformation 2050 (TN50).

TN50 is an initiative to plan for the future of Malaysia in the period between 2020 and 2050. From the vision of becoming a developed nation, we should strive to be among the top countries in economic development, citizen well-being and innovation.

For this, I’ve spent the first six months of 2017 traveling through all corners of Malaysia, reaching out to more than one million youths and what they aspire for. Most of them coalesce around wanting a future that is fair, sustainable, competitive, united and happy.

What that means is we want a future that goes beyond the old measurement of GDP growth as an indicator of success to one that looks at well-being more comprehensively. One that looks into wealth and income inequality, healthcare, access to quality education, environmental protection, a good standard of living, integrated public transport, sporting achievement, civic consciousness and greater investments into scientific research, among many others.

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With shared dreams come shared responsibility – and nothing binds a society better than having a common weight on their shoulders. Similarly, as ASEAN heads towards 2050, it is opportune for us to take a step back, ask our people what they want of ASEAN in 2050 and then strive forward together as one community.

The challenge of automation and robots, the need for a differently-skilled and adaptive workforce, the breakdown of societal fabric into smaller family units, the shifting powerhouses in global trade and many other challenges await us in the near horizon.

Though individual countries are looking at these in their own way, there are many areas we can embrace together, leveraging on individual strength to compensate for individual weaknesses, so ASEAN can future proof the region and truly become a global powerhouse in the next 33 years.

What would we like ASEAN to be in the next decade, or five decades? The current generation entrusted with the responsibility to shape the future of ASEAN would like to see an ASEAN that will be able to realise all of its potential. An association consisting of 10 sovereign high-income nations fully developed with prosperity for all. It is indeed a tall objective, but not an impossible one, for ASEAN is a work perpetually in progress passing from one generation to the next, a sacred trust to be upheld.

I am an optimist on the future of ASEAN and I am a firm believer in its role as the catalyst for peace and prosperity in this region. Our fate in ASEAN has been pre-determined by our geography. As the saying goes, we can choose our friends but we cannot choose our neighbours.

The success of one nation in the region will have a positive bearing on all, while the failure of any will have a calamitous effect on all. ASEAN’s future is in its togetherness. We can either leverage on our collective strengths to soar together towards greater heights or go separately to face a more dangerous and challenging world.

Economically, we must continue to build upon the ASEAN Economic Community. More integration is needed, not less. By all means draw lessons from Brexit but the right ones not the wrong ones. We must be serious to further bring down barriers to trade both tariff and non-tariff.

We must work to better integrate our economy and welcome investments, ease the process of doing business, and protect intellectual property while better leveraging our various competitive advantages. Healthy competition coupled with pragmatic cooperation must be the way forward.

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ASEAN leaders must focus on good governance, fight corruption, end crony capitalism and work for peace, stability and development with equity. Make ASEAN relevant to the lives of Southeast Asians. That means more action and less talk.–Din Merican

We must work to make ASEAN more relevant to the needs of members and the challenges that they are facing, be it political, security or economic. ASEAN will continue to thrive, despite its many challenges, if every member perseveres to make it a national priority; for the national interest of each member could only be advanced effectively through ASEAN collectively.

The first 50 years is coming to an end, so let us now turn the work at hand to the next 50 years dedicating it to the future generation. Let us continue to build on the dreams of the founding fathers of ASEAN who started a journey so improbable that they themselves in their wildest imaginations never could have thought how successful it would eventually be.

That 50 years later, we are marveling at their collective wisdom in every capital of a united ASEAN is the most fitting tribute of all to this greatest and most enduring of endeavours.–by Khairy Jamaluddin

Khairy Jamaluddin is the Youth and Sports Minister. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

Cambodia–Civil Servants and the State


August 5, 2017

Cambodia–Civil Servants and the State

by David Hutt

http://www.newmandela.org

There are times when the work of a journalist in Cambodia is made so easy. Compared to some other countries, where politicians rarely say what they think (or think beyond what they are told), Cambodian officials tend to wear their innermost thoughts on their sleeves, words rolling from the tongue in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion.

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Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen delivers peace, stability and development. Young Cambodians are proud of their country

Such an occasion happened on Monday when Vong Sauth (sometimes spelled Vong Soth), the social affairs minister, spoke at a small gathering for the appointment of new civil servants. The Phnom Penh Post quoted him: “Officials eat the state’s salary, and are asked to be neutral, but do not forget that the state was born from the party, and I think all of our officials must have the clear character of firmly supporting the party.”

Oh, such honesty. By officials, he means civil servants. And by saying this, he echoed what pundits have long accused the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of doing: making civil servants’ jobs dependent upon their support of the party. Indeed, Sauth went on to say that civil servants can’t support the political opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). “If anybody does not support the CPP, submit applications of resignation, and I can help you [with that], but if you are loyal to the CPP you must vote for the CPP, and then you can stay,” he said.

Knowing where the State begins and Party ends in Cambodia entails a microscopic study. It used to be said of Prussia that it was “not a country with an army, but an army with a country”. Might Cambodia be rendered “not a country with a party, but a party with a country”?

The military, supposed to be an independent of political parties in any democratic society, is already firmly symbiotic to the CPP’s interests. Last year, Chea Dara, a high ranking military officer who was incorporated into the CPP’s Central Committee, said: “Every soldier is a member of the People’s Army and belongs to the CPP because [Prime Minister Hun Sen] is the feeder, caretaker, commander, and leader of the army… I speak frankly when I say that the army belongs to the [CPP].”

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Cambodia at Sunrise–Calm, Serene and Captivating

And now we have Sauth demanding loyalty declarations from civil servants. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email to journalists that he “should be immediately fired for his outrageous remarks that demonstrate he knows nothing about either human rights or democracy.” Robertson went on: “He shows his ignorance of modern democratic principles when he fails to recognize that in a democracy, it is politicians who are elected to make decisions on law and policy, but the civil servants have different duties, such as carrying out the day to day functions of government in an impartial and professional way”.

Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly responded to Robertson by saying he was “better off focusing on his chaos-ridden, war-mongering U.S. home that was unfit for the premier’s grandchild”, as the Cambodia Daily phrased it.

Since 1979, the State has been fashioned by the CPP—or “born from the party”, as Sauth said—and, like any offspring, it shares much maternal DNA. And, although the CPP supposedly discarded its communist credentials in the early 1990s, they weren’t completely lost. As I wrote at The Diplomat:

“Not dissimilar to the reign of Norodom Sihanouk, or the Angkor “god-kings” of earlier centuries, Cambodia operates a system noblesse oblige. Education, roads, and other basic services are, typically, not provided by the state but by the ruling CPP – at least this is how the government spins it. Rather than a welfare state, Cambodia has a philanthropic party. And all of this development work comes with the express condition of voting CPP when elections come around.

In an earlier article I described the ethos this creates amongst ordinary Cambodians and the civil servants: “because basic services are doled out by the party and not the State, they have to be earned.” One might also add employment for civil servants to this.

If this is a problem now, it will become even more apparent as the next general election approaches (it is set for next year). Sauth seems to think victory for the CPP is assured: it has the human resources, money, and power, he said. In his speech, he also imparted what was discussed at an internal meeting the day before, at which, he said, Prime Minister Hun Sen laid out the party’s strategy: “This election, if there are more problems with protests, your heads will be hit by the bottom of bamboo sticks.”

Elections in Cambodia are testing anyway but added to this is the knowledge that a handover of power to another political party (if that ever happens, or is allowed to happen) also entails the reformation of much of the State apparatus. Indeed, the question for the opposition CNRP is not just whether it can win next year’s general election but whether it can take over a State that appears inseparable from the CPP. This, in fact, might be the more difficult task.

David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh. He is also the Southeast Asia Columnist for the Diplomat, and a contributor to numerous regional publications.

 

Promises and Pitfalls of the Belt and Road Initiative


July 20, 2017

Asia Pacific Bulletin
Number 388 | July 19, 2017
ANALYSIS

Promises and Pitfalls of the Belt and Road Initiative

By Bipul Chatterjee and Saurabh Kumar

China’s signature economic and foreign policy project – the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), also known as ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) – is the most ambitious global connectivity project ever launched by China or any country. The project aims to connect 65 Asian, African, and European countries comprising two-thirds of world’s population, through various sub-projects. The estimated investment cost for realizing this project is $4-8 trillion.

The goal of BRI is to connect China with Asia, Europe, and Africa through a network of railways, highways, oil and gas pipelines, fiber-optic lines, electrical grids and power plants, seaports and airports, logistics hubs, and free trade zones.

The promise of BRI

First, a promising aspect of this initiative is the potential reduction in transportation costs which would reduce the price of trade more broadly. At a time when countries are looking for specific measures to reduce trade costs and shying away from free trade agreements, a reduction in transportation costs as a substitute for trade deals can effectively widen the volume of international trade. A Bruegel study pointed out that a 10% reduction in railway and maritime costs can increase trade as much as 2%, while the effects of a reduction in tariffs would take a much longer time to be felt. An Asian Development Bank and Purdue University study estimated that improvements in transport networks as well as trade facilitation measures could increase the gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 % for India and 0.7 % for the South Asian region as a whole.

Second, BRI presents huge business opportunities for companies engaged in infrastructure development. A total of over $900 billion is expected to be invested in roads, ports, pipelines and other infrastructure as part of the project. This could immensely benefit countries suffering from inadequate infrastructure for their economic development.

Third, from the point of view of trade facilitation there are a number of factors that will create dynamic effects. China may accrue significant long-term trade benefits if it reduces tariffs through free trade zones, particularly on products from BRI countries. Beijing is also expected to reduce some of the non-tariff barriers hampering the prospects of foreign firms doing business in China including in those emerging areas such as internet banking and electronic commerce.

Potential Implications

Apart from the sheer number of participating countries, BRI appears to be both economic and strategic in nature. This became visible during the recently held Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. The initiative came under scrutiny after European Union officials voiced apprehensions over transparency, labor, and environmental standards. This resulted in the EU’s refusal to endorse a trade statement tied to BRI. India’s non-participation due to sovereignty issues relating to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through part of Jammu and Kashmir also served as a serious dampener.

Even though BRI seeks to create trade infrastructure around India, it also encircles the country by creating a ring through land and sea routes passing through several countries with which India has sensitive relationships. However, India – with around 90% of its international trade through maritime routes and only 10% by rail and road – is comparatively less likely to see much benefit through enhanced connectivity under the initiative. Most of India’s maritime trade occurs from its western ports located in Arabian Sea and via land routes within the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal network.

In presenting BRI, China appears to be unaccommodating with respect to political and diplomatic issues as well as economic concerns. Trade facilitation alone cannot drive trade flow upward. There needs to be smart and secure management of trade routes so that end-to-end supply and value chain networks can be strengthened. In recent times, piracy has emerged as a major potential threat for railways and highways as well as maritime routes. BRI does not address these challenges in a meaningful way.

Although the project was launched around four years ago, it suffers from a lack of key information, operational strategy, terms of reference, and detailed work plan for the role of partner countries. This has eroded trust.

The Next Steps

While it is true that China’s economic and strategic interests are intertwined, it would have been beneficial for the BRI to be planned more holistically in order to give due consideration to the economic and political interests of other participating countries. For a large project like BRI, an international governance structure involving all the participating countries to institutionalize objectives and safeguard the interests of participants has to be established now with a particular emphasis on financial mechanism. The decision-making structure for the execution of BRI should be based on consensus.

“While it is true that China’s economic and strategic interests are intertwined, it would have been beneficial for the BRI to be planned more holistically in order to give due consideration to the economic and political interests of other participating countries.”

Several sub-projects of various Chinese companies to receive political and financial support from the Chinese government are being touted as part of this initiative but have nothing to do with it and should be de-coupled so that ambiguity can be cleared and only official BRI projects can be materialized. Participating countries should also get equal treatment in the financing of BRI, so that they can also reap the long-term benefits of the project, a step in this direction could be the revamping of the New Development Bank. A clear operational strategy for the entire project with an economic and political matrix should now be made to increase trust and transparency. This should clearly indicate relative as well as absolute potential losses and gains of participating countries. Active participation of global institutions such as the United Nations, the International Court of Arbitration, and International Court of Justice should be included for reliability as well as to resolve a potential dispute.

BRI should be executed in a selective manner with focus on economically viable sub-projects developing trade and economic corridors, for example a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor in the case of South Asia.

About the Authors

Bipul Chatterjee and Saurabh Kumar are Executive Director and Policy Analyst, respectively, at CUTS International. They can be contacted at bc@cuts.org and sbk@cuts.org.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contact washington@eastwestcenter.org.

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Cambodia-Vietnam Ties Turn 50


June 21, 2017

Cambodia-Vietnam Ties Turn 50

http://www.eastasiaforum.com

by  Vannarith Chheang, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

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Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung  of Vietnam (photo: Duc Tam/ VNA)

2017 marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and Vietnam. Both countries have organised a series of events to commemorate their time-honoured traditional friendship that is bound by strategic convergence, common vision and shared interests.

Over the past fifty years, the relationship ebbed and flowed with changing geopolitics and domestic politics in both countries before settling since 1979. Yet anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia — mainly driven by domestic politics — has constrained both countries from deepening their strategic partnership.

Cambodia’s opposition party tends to use ‘Vietnam threat’ rhetoric to gain popular support. In an attempt to delegitimise the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of the upcoming elections, former President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has posted a series of short video clips explaining the roots of the CPP and its connections with the communist party of Vietnam. But Cambodian voters are increasingly concerned about their livelihood, social justice, good governance, human rights and environmental protection much more than the Vietnam factor.

There is political cost attached to strengthening bilateral relations with Hanoi, including potentially losing votes to the opposition. Despite this, the long-ruling CPP remains committed to maintaining and enhancing the Vietnam relationship for the sake of national and regional peace and development.

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A new bridge is now linking Vietnam and Cambodia after being inaugurated on April 24, 2017 by Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his Cambodian counterpart Samdech Hun Sen. The Long Binh-Chrey Thom Bridge is built over the Binh Di River and connects the provinces of An Giang in South Vietnam with Cal Dal in Cambodia. It is 442 metres long and 13 metres wide and is designed to withstand speeds of 80km/h and allow cars to cross at a speed of 80 km/h.

It is clear that Cambodia is unable to enjoy peace and development without having good and stable relations with its immediate neighbours. Both countries understand that without sticking together under the ASEAN umbrella, their regional role and leverage will be weakened. As a result, Cambodia and Vietnam’s foreign policies have both focused on regional integration and community-building.

Cambodia and Vietnam also share the concern that rivalry between major powers is threatening regional peace and stability. Learning from their Cold War experience, they must stay united to survive and thrive.

In early 2017, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Cambodia three times, including to attend the ground-breaking opening ceremony of Chrey Thom–Long Binh Bridge (connecting Cambodia and Vietnam), pay an official state visit and attend the World Economic Forum on ASEAN. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is planning to visit Vietnam later this month to commemorate 40th anniversary of his struggle against the Khmer Rouge regime. Such frequent high-level bilateral talks significantly contribute to nurturing political and personal trust, which are the foundations of the relationship.

Early in 2017 at the 4th Meeting on Cooperation and Development among the Border Provinces, both countries’ deputy prime ministers underscored the need to develop the Vietnam–Cambodia border area. They agreed to modernise infrastructure facilities, promote trade, investment, services and tourism and build border economic zones and markets.

Vietnam is now the fifth largest investor in Cambodia after China, South Korea, the European Union and Malaysia — it has invested in 183 projects with an aggregate value of US$2.86 billion. The investment projects target rubber plantations, telecommunications and banking. Vietnam is also Cambodia’s third largest trading partner with about US$3 billion over the last few years. They aim to achieve a US$5 billion trade volume in coming years. The planned construction of 116 warehouses at strategic border crossings between Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — expected to be completed by 2035 — will improve trade flow between the two countries.

People-to-people connectivity between Vietnam and Cambodia has been markedly strengthened over the years. There are currently more than 400 Cambodian students pursuing their higher education at various universities and institutions in Vietnam. And Vietnamese are the largest group of tourists to Cambodia, accounting for 19 per cent of all visitors.

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The  Neak Loeung Bridge located in the Prey Veng Province is 2,220 metres long, 13 metres wide and 37.5 metres above the water level. It will have two wide lanes for traffic. When completed it will facilitate trade between Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Looking ahead to the next fifty years, Cambodia–Vietnam relations will evolve in tandem with the speed of ASEAN community building. ASEAN provides institutional and diplomatic leverage for its member states to strategically manoeuvre and collectively hedge against major powers to minimise risks while maximising interests where possible. Collectively advocating for a rules-based regional order will help smaller countries like Cambodia and Vietnam to protect their legitimate interests.

To reduce ‘Vietnam threat’ perceptions in Cambodia, both countries need to promote engagement at all levels. Right now there is a lack of academic or intellectual dialogue between the two countries. Exchange programs among students, youth leaders, future leaders and community leaders need to be further promoted. Political parties in Cambodia should not use Vietnam for their own political gains — such a strategy is obsolete and does not fit into the evolving dynamics of ASEAN regionalism.

Differences over the management of the Mekong River and the South China Sea dispute need to be resolved the ASEAN way — through consultation and consensus. Cambodia and Vietnam might have different views on these complex issues, but they need to respect each other’s national interest and position without harming bilateral friendship and ASEAN unity.

Vannarith Chheang is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore

What is new in Gulf Area: We in ASEAN have seen it all


June 21, 2017

What is new in Gulf Area: We in ASEAN have seen it all, so learn from us about building Win-Win Strategic Partnerships to secure Peace, Stability and Development

by James M. Dorsey

Two competing visions of ensuring regime survival are battling it out in the Gulf.

To Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the 2011 Arab popular revolts that toppled autocratic leaders in four countries and sparked the rise of Islamist forces posed a mortal threat. In response, the two countries launched a counterrevolution that six years later continues to leave a trail of brutal repression at home and spilt blood elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

Virtually alone in adopting a different tack based on former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s principle of “riding the tide of history,” Qatar, a monarchical autocracy like its detractors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, embraced the revolts and wholeheartedly supported the Islamists. The result is an epic battle for the future of the region that in the short-term has escalated the violence, deepened the region’s fissures, and put the tiny Gulf state at odds with its larger brethren.</span

Ironically, an analysis of political transition in Southeast Asia during the last three decades would likely prove instructive for leaders in the Gulf. At the core of people power and change were militaries or factions of militaries in the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar that saw political change as their best guarantee of holding on to significant powers and protecting their vested interests.

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The Young People of ASEAN

In the Philippines and Indonesia, factions of the military partnered with civil society to show the door to the country’s autocrat (Suharto). In Myanmar, internationally isolated, the military as such opted to ensure its survival as a powerful player by initiating the process of change.

Sheikh Hamad, and his son and successor, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, have adopted the principle set forward by Southeast Asian militaries and their civil society partners with one self-defeating difference: a belief that by supporting political change everywhere else they can retain their absolute grip on power at home.

In fact, if there is one fundamental message in the two-week-old Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, it is the recognition of the two countries’ ruling elites that they either thwart change at whatever cost or go with the flow. There are no half-measures.

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There is however another lesson of history to be learned from the Southeast Asian experience: change is inevitable. Equally inevitable, is the fact that unavoidable economic change and upgrading rather than reform of autocracy like Saudi Arabia is attempting with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the driver’s seat has a limited shelf life without political change.

Gulf autocrats marvel at China’s ability to achieve phenomenal economic growth while tightening the political reigns. It’s a model that is proving increasingly difficult to sustain as China witnesses an economic downturn, a failure to economically squash popular aspirations, and question marks about massive infrastructure investment across Eurasia that has yet to deliver sustainable results and has sparked debt traps and protest across the region.

The Southeast Asian lesson is that political change does not by definition disempower political elites. In fact, those elites have retained significant power in the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar despite radical reform of political systems. That is true even with the rise for the first time of leaders in Indonesia and the Philippines who do not hail from the ruling class or with the ascendancy to power in Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi, a long-persecuted daughter of the ruling elite, who has refrained from challenging the elite since winning an election.

The bottom line is that ruling elites are more likely to ensure a continued grip on power by going with the flow and embracing political change than by adopting the Saudi-UAE approach of imposing one’s will by hook or by crook or the Qatari model of playing ostrich with its head in the sand.

The Qatari model risks the ruling Al Thani family being taken by surprise when an inevitably reinvigorated wave of change comes knocking on Doha’s door. More ominous are the risks involved in the Saudi-UAE approach.

That approach has already put the two states in a bind as they struggle in the third week of their boycott of Qatar to formulate demands that stand a chance of garnering international support. Even more dangerous is the risk that the hard line adopted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE will fuel extremism and political violence in an environment starved of any opportunity to voice dissent.

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The ASEAN Way–Building Win-Win Strategic Partnerships to secure Peace, Stability and Development

The lessons of Southeast Asia are relevant for many more than only the sheikhdoms that are battling it out in the Gulf. International support for political transition in Southeast Asia produced a relatively stable region of 600 million people despite its jihadist elements in the southern Philippines and Indonesia, jihadist appeal to some elsewhere in the region, religious and ethnic tensions in southern Thailand and Myanmar, and deep-seated differences over how to respond to Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

That support also ensured that the process of change in Southeast Asia proved to be relatively smooth and ultimately sustainable unlike the Middle East where it is tearing countries apart, dislocating millions, and causing wounds that will take generations to heal.

To be sure, Southeast Asia benefited from the fact that no country in the region has neither the ambition nor the ruthlessness of either Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

Southeast Asia also had the benefit of an international community that saw virtue in change rather than in attempting to maintain stability by supporting autocratic regimes whose policies are increasingly difficult to justify and potentially constitute a driver of radicalization irrespective of whether they support extremist groups.

Former US President George W. Bush adopted that lesson in the wake of 9/11 only to squander his opportunity with ill-fated military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, a flawed war on terrorism, and a poorly executed democracy initiative. The lesson has since been lost with the rise of populism and narrow-minded nationalism and isolationism.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.Image result for Learn from ASEAN embracing political change.

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

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/06/18/aseans-strategic-diplomacy-underpins-regional-stability/

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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’.