Asia’s Fragile Strategic Miracle


August 20, 2017

Asia’s Fragile Strategic Miracle

by Richard N.Haass*

http://www.project-syndicate.org

*Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. He is the author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

It is too soon to know whether and how the challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will be resolved. But it is not too early to consider what that challenge could mean for a part of the world that has in many ways defied history.

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The moniker “Asian Miracle” goes some way toward conveying just how extraordinary the last half-century of economic growth in many Asian countries has been. The first economy to take off was Japan, which, despite a slowdown in recent decades and a relatively small population, remains the world’s third-largest economy.

China’s ascent began a bit later, but is no less impressive: the country achieved over three decades of double-digit average GDP growth, making it the world’s second-largest economy today. India, soon to be the world’s most populous country, has lately been experiencing an impressive 7-8% annual rate of GDP growth. And the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations averaged some 5% growth in recent years.

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Crony Capitalism and Patronage

But contemporary Asia’s economic miracle rests on a less-discussed strategic miracle: the maintenance of peace and order. Since the end of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s, Asia has stood out for its lack of major conflicts within or across borders – an achievement that distinguishes it from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and even Latin America.

This stability is all the more extraordinary because Asia is home to a large number of unresolved disputes. When World War II ended in 1945, Japan and Russia did not sign a peace treaty, owing largely to their competing claims over the Southern Kuril Islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories. Eight years later, the Korean War also ended without a formal peace treaty, leaving behind a divided and heavily armed peninsula.

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Asia’s Future depends on this handshake between Abe and Abe?

Today, competing territorial claims – mostly involving China – continue to stoke tension across Asia. Japan is embroiled in a dispute with China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the East China Sea. More than half a dozen other Asian countries disagree vehemently with China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. And India is at loggerheads with China over their long-shared Himalayan border.

Despite all of these tensions, Asia has remained largely at peace, partly because no country has wanted to jeopardize economic growth by initiating a conflict. This perspective is most clearly associated with Deng Xiaoping. In leading China’s process of economic “reform and opening-up” from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Deng explicitly emphasized the importance of a stable external environment to facilitate internal economic development. The reliance on regional trade ties to support growth and employment has provided yet another incentive to sustain peace.

But economics was probably not the only factor at play. Because most Asian countries are host to relatively homogenous societies with strong national identities, the chance of civil conflicts erupting and spilling over national borders is relatively low. Last but certainly not least, America’s strong military presence in Asia – which underpins its robust regional alliance system – has reduced the need for Asian countries to develop large military programs of their own, and has reinforced a status quo that discourages armed adventurism.

These factors have contributed to peace and stability in Asia, but they cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, they are now coming under increasing pressure – putting the strategic miracle that has facilitated Asia’s economic miracle in jeopardy.

What changed? For one thing, China’s economic rise has allowed it to expand its military capabilities. As China adopts an increasingly assertive foreign policy – exemplified by its border dispute with India and territorial claims in the South China Sea – other countries are increasingly motivated to boost their own military spending. As that happens, it becomes more likely that a disagreement or incident will escalate into a conflict.

Meanwhile, the US – the only power with the capability to offset China – seems to be retreating from its traditional role in Asia. Already, US President Donald Trump’s administration has withdrawn his country from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and confronted US allies on their defense spending and persistent trade imbalances. More generally, the growing unpredictability of US foreign policy could weaken deterrence and prompt allies to take their security into their own hands.

The most immediate cause of potential instability is North Korea, which now poses not just a conventional military threat to South Korea, but also a nuclear threat to all of Asia, as well as to the US. This could invite a devastating preemptive strike from the US. But, if the US refrains from military action, the results could also be catastrophic, if the North actually does strike. Even just the threat of such a strike could be destabilizing, if it drives concerned US allies such as South Korea and Japan to increase their military spending and reconsider their non-nuclear postures.

Should any of these scenarios come to pass, the consequences would be far-reaching. Beyond the human costs, they would threaten the economic prosperity of not only Asia, but the entire world. A conflict between the US and China, in particular, could poison the single most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century.

The good news is that none of this is inevitable. There is still time for governments to embrace restraint, explore diplomacy, and reconsider policies that threaten to undermine stability. Unfortunately, we are living in a time of rising nationalism and at times irresponsible leadership. Add to that inadequate regional political-military arrangements, and it is not at all certain that wisdom will triumph over recklessness, or that Asia’s unique decades-long peace will endure.

 

The Bamboo–It’s Magic


August 13, 2017

The Bamboo–It’s Magic

 

 

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I am fascinated with Bamboo. It is Nature’s gift to mankind because it is versatile and durable. Dr.Kamsiah and I plant bamboo in our home, no. 26, Jalan SS22/39, Damansara Jaya, Petaling Jaya to enrich our environment and attract the birds.

Have a good weekend.–Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican

Buddhist Philosophy–Its Value for Humanity


August 7, 2017

by Antonio Damaso

http://www.nytimes.com–Book Review

Anyone writing (or reading) about Buddhism faces a critical question. What is Buddhism, really? A religion, complete with supernatural deities and reincarnation? A secular philosophy of life? A therapeutic practice? An ideology? All of the above? Robert Wright sketches an answer early in “Why Buddhism Is True.” He settles on a credible blend that one might call Western Buddhism, a largely secular approach to life and its problems but not devoid of a spiritual dimension. The centerpiece of the approach is the practice of mindful meditation.

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The goal of “Why Buddhism Is True” is ambitious: to demonstrate “that Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” It is reasonable to claim that Buddhism, with its focus on suffering, addresses critical aspects of the human predicament. It is also reasonable to suggest that the prescription it offers may be applicable and useful to resolve that predicament.

To produce his demonstrations and to support the idea that Buddhism is “true,” Wright relies on science, especially on evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience.

This is a sensible approach, and in relation to Buddhism it is almost mainstream. Over the years, in a number of encounters, I have found the Dalai Lama and those around him to be keenly interested in science. Wright is up to the task: He’s a Buddhist who has written about religion and morality from a scientific perspective — he is most famous for his 1994 book, “The Moral Animal.”

My take on Wright’s fundamental proposals is as follows. First, the beneficial powers of meditation come from the possibility of realizing that our emotive reactions and the consequent feelings they engender — which operate in automated fashion, outside our deliberate control — are often inappropriate and even counterproductive relative to the situations that trigger them. Second, the mismatch between causes and responses is rooted in evolution. We have inherited from our nonhuman and human forerunners a complex affect apparatus suited to life circumstances very different from ours. That apparatus — which is controlled from varied sectors of our nervous systems — was created by natural selection and assisted by genetic transmission over a long period of time.

It worked well for nonhuman primates and later for human hunter gatherers, but it has worked far less well as cultures became more complex. Third, meditation allows us to realize that the idea of the self as director of our decisions is an illusion, and that the degree to which we are at the mercy of a weakly controlled system places us at a considerable disadvantage. Fourth, the awareness brought on by meditation helps the construction of a truly enlightened humanity and counters the growing tribalism of contemporary societies.

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Wright’s book is provocative, informative and, in many respects, deeply rewarding. A good example is Wright’s description of his first full entry into the realm of mindfulness. Arriving at this new mental state generated in him an intense emotive response and a memorable feeling that Wright evokes with suggestive but spare prose. It rings true. This scene lets the reader glimpse the power of mindful meditation and be intrigued, even seduced, by the transformative potential of the practice. I found myself not just agreeing but applauding the author, on a number of passages. A case in point is his unflinching embrace of the notion of feeling, which he understands as the mental experiences of physiological states, states imbued with a valence ranging from positive and pleasant to negative and unpleasant. He is referring to phenomena in the mind, private to each specific human being and not inspectable by others. He does not confuse feelings with emotions, which are public and can be inspected by others. Surprisingly, this distinction between feeling and emotion is often glossed over not just in popular accounts but also in the scientific literature. And yet, it is fundamental for the understanding of how living organisms with nervous systems can behave, develop conscious experiences and construct individual minds, sociality and cultures.

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Wright is not as persuasive when he attempts to establish the truth of Buddhism by considering the circumstances in which feelings arise. He readily admits the value of feelings as basic guides to the way we run our lives. For example, feelings can express states of our physiology by letting us experience thirst and hunger and satiety and pain and well-being. He designates such feelings as “true” because their experience is congruent with the organism’s state of need or lack thereof. But when, in modern life, emotions such as fear and anger are incorrectly and unnecessarily engaged — for example, road rage — Wright calls the respective feelings “false” or “illusory.” Such feelings, however, are no less true than the thirst, hunger or pain that Wright accepts and welcomes. When we feel road rage, the feeling faithfully depicts the disturbed state of our physiology brought about by anger. That feeling is just as true as the feeling of pain after we suffer a wound. Practical inadequacy is the issue, not lack of truth.

More often than not, we gain from subjecting the recommendations of any feelings to the scrutiny of reason. With some exceptions — situations of panic being an example — emotions and the feelings they engender need to be judged by reason, in the light of knowledge, before we let them guide our behavior. Even “good” feelings such as empathy, compassion and gratitude benefit from distance and discernment.

We can agree that mindful meditation promotes a distancing effect and thus may increase our chances of combining affect and reason advantageously. Meditation can help us glean the especially flawed and dislocated status of humans in modern societies, and help us see how social and political conflicts appear to provoke resentment and anger so easily. Over and above the personal benefits of meditation one can imagine that populations engaged in such practices would expand their awareness of the inadequacy and futility of some of our affective responses. In turn, that would contribute to creating healthier and less conflicted societies, one person at a time.

But there are important questions to be raised here. How does one scale up, from many single individuals to populations, in time to prevent the social catastrophes that seem to be looming? I also wonder if, for some individuals, the successful practice of meditation and the actual reduction of the anxieties of daily life is not more likely to induce equanimity regarding social crises than the desire to resolve those crises with inventive cultural solutions. Individual therapy and the salvation of society are not incompatible, of course, but I suspect they can be easily uncoupled.

Wright correctly defends the view that the self as director of operations and decider of one’s actions is an illusion. I could not agree more. But there is an important distinction to be made between the idea of self as mastermind and chief executive officer, and the process of subjectivity. The self appears fragmented, in daily life and in meditative states, but subjectivity does not break down. It never disappears, or we simply would be unable to observe the fragmentation in the first place.

I would venture that in most meditative states some subjectivity remains, as representative of the biological interests of the individual. As far as I can imagine, the complete disappearance of a subjective view would result in a “view from nowhere.” But whose view would that be, then? And if not ours, how would we come to know let alone seek such a view, such an emptiness? Mindful meditation is no stranger to the world of paradox. Is there anything stranger than discovering the pleasures of not feeling?

Antonio Damasio directs the USC Brain and Creativity Institute. He is the author of a number of books, including “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.”

Moon and Trump and North Korea–Divergent Path between Diplomacy and Confrontation


July 20, 2017

Moon and Trump and North Korea–Divergent Path between Diplomacy and Confrontation

Image result for South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump and North Korea

Moon and Trump in The White House Lawn

by Jeffrey Robertson @at Yonsei University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

During a recent sit-down with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at the Oval Office, a larger than normal media contingent surged forward, knocked over some furniture and invited rebuke from President Donald Trump. The media expected the perfect storm — a reserved and determined South Korean leader who wants dialogue with North Korea meets an impulsive and egoistical US leader who wants to sanction and pressure North Korea. Instead, the media received a lesson on how well-trained and skilful diplomats can avoid the perfect storm.

The incompatibility of Moon and Trump was recognised from an early stage. Commentators noted during the South Korean election that in ideological convictions, policy objectives and personalities, Moon and Trump appeared to be irrevocably incompatible.

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And signals the beginning of diplomatic engagement with North Korea for Peace and Stability

Moon’s election position was to ultimately engage North Korea through increased interaction by civic organisations, re-opening tours to the South Korean-constructed and managed Mount Geumgang resort, re-opening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and even potentially holding an inter-Korean summit. Of particular concern to the US was Moon’s inconsistent position on the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system — Moon positioned himself between his core supporters and the swinging voters concerned about China’s retaliatory economic pressure.

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Tough Talking President Donald Trump prefers isolating and sanctioning North Korea

Trump’s position on North Korea could not be more different. Officially, it appears Trump has little interest in Korean Peninsula affairs. He lacks a strong East Asia advisory team and is yet to appoint an Ambassador to Seoul (although rumours suggest it will be Victor Cha) or an Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs to the State Department. There have been no formal processes to elaborate a clear strategy. But from his first Tweet to his last, Trump has consistently called for isolating, sanctioning and pressuring North Korea.

The media sensed the potential for a clash of wills. Harold Nicolson, the renowned British diplomat and scholar, long ago warned against the risks of politicians playing diplomatic roles. Diplomats, he argued,  are not prone to emotional outbursts, zealotry or partisan short-term goals. By contrast, politicians are prone to ‘impulsive settlement’, ‘imprecision’ and the pursuit of ‘short-term victories’. Moon and Trump seemed destined to clash.

But seven hours after the two leaders completed their talks, the two sides released a Joint Statement. The significance of the statement lies not just in the fact that one was released, but also in the timing. In meetings with Japan and India joint statements were issued immediately, and with Vietnam and Saudi Arabia after several days. The seven hour delay was reportedly caused by either poor administration or (more likely) wrangling over wording.

Regardless of the delay, the media in both the United States and South Korea applauded the meeting. There was something to placate all sides. The South Korean media emphasised Trump’s acquiescence to Moon’s desire for a dialogue-first approach to North Korea and his openness to direct dialogue under the ‘right conditions’. The US media emphasised the renegotiation of the Korea–US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) and the renegotiation of burden sharing for the support of United States Forces in Korea. Through skilful diplomacy, the diplomats of South Korea and the United States established a difficult modus vivendi between two presidents with two very different positions.

But the diplomats of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Department cannot rest on their laurels. On the issue of North Korea, Moon and Trump are on inherently divergent paths. As Moon settles in and consolidates his administration, these divergent paths will become clearer. In particular, if Moon is able to secure a stronger position after the April 2020 National Assembly elections, he will have the legislative capacity to push through a more progressive agenda.

For Trump, North Korea has been a welcome distraction, and South Korea represents an ideal target to make good on election promises to renegotiate trade deals and push allies to pay more for US support. But the sustainability of his approach is rapidly disintegrating, and the Korean Peninsula will soon require substantially more attention — not in sporadic Tweets but in the form of considered and responsible strategic policy.

The diplomatic modus vivendi is a cautious first step. On 4 July, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile — reported as a game-changing test that transforms the strategic calculus. President Trump pledged to react ‘very strongly’. On 6 July, South Korea’s President Moon delivered a key policy speech in Berlin, expressing his aim to engage North Korea, and a willingness to meet Kim Jong-Un ‘at any time, at any place’. There will be no slowdown for the diplomats smoothing over the Moon–Trump relationship.

  • Jeffrey Robertson is Visiting Fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, The Australian National University and Assistant Professor at Yonsei University.

 

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’.

The ASEAN Community: A Lofty Historical Challenge


May 11, 2017

The ASEAN Community: A Lofty Historical Challenge

by Michael Heng

“As an economic power, ASEAN is small by international standards. Given the level of development and technological base, ASEAN is unlikely to make a big impact on the global economy.” Do you agree with Professor Heng’s observation)?

http://ippreview.com/index.php/Home/Blog/single/id/433.html

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967. Its 50th anniversary this year is a good time to take stock and to look ahead. ASEAN was established with the goal of preserving long-term peace in region at a time when the First Indochina War was raging, even though its explicitly stated goals were economic growth, social progress, and cultural development. One of its guiding principles is to abide strictly by the modern international system of sovereign states where countries do not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. ASEAN’s leaders have chosen to make decisions by consensus, and to avoid airing their differences in the public.

ASEAN has scored significant success as an economic community, due largely to the activities of global production networks in the region. In the assessment of a senior Chinese official speaking at a workshop in 2009, ASEAN is the healthiest and most integrated regional organization in Asia and it should be the center and platform to promote Asia’s economic integration.

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However, one cannot ignore the failure of ASEAN to resolve significant intra-ASEAN problems such as the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, the annual haze originating from Indonesia, and the blatant violation of human rights in Myanmar. Such problems cannot be resolved within ASEAN because of the strict non-interference policy in each other’s internal affairs. But conditions in the international arena today are different from when ASEAN was formed half a century ago. Environmental pollution, climate change, epidemics, terrorism, and transnational crime cannot be solved without close international cooperation. In the event of large scale violations of human rights, sovereignty cannot be used as a cover for the state to fan off interference by the international community. With the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, the concept of state sovereignty in the past few decades has acquired subtle but important new interpretations. ASEAN’s strict insistence on non-interference is out of sync with prevailing international norms.

Before the 1997 Asian financial crisis, global capital had focused on gaining market access and investment in Southeast Asia. In the wake of the crisis, it began to be disenchanted with the region’s failure to respond effectively to the crisis. Meanwhile, critical examination of the financial meltdown revealed some serious flaws among the political leadership in most ASEAN member states. This period also saw the rise of China and India as new economic powers next door. Between them, these events prompted soul-searching within ASEAN.

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Driven by internal and more so by external developments, ASEAN has strived to deepen and widen its integration and has set its sights on becoming a community of nations. To do so, it has to look beyond the geopolitical and economic dimensions, and widen its scope to include the social and cultural dimensions. Though some progress has been made in this direction, especially in their agreement to the terms of the ASEAN Charter, it remains to be seen whether the member states will be able to live up to the ideals as enshrined in this document. Even if they do so, they need to go further than this document in order to be in tune with prevailing international norms as adopted by the United Nations.

Unity in Diversity

One of ASEAN’s achievements has been its ability to group together ten member states with different political systems, population sizes, geographical sizes, languages, religions, historical backgrounds, and stages of economic development. It should come as no surprise that the ASEAN Charter has adopted as its principle the concept of “unity in diversity.”

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Unity in diversity is the concept of “unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation” — thereby moving and raising the focus from unity based on mere tolerance of physical, cultural, linguistic, social, religious, political, ideological and/or psychological differences towards a more complex unity based on an understanding that differences enrich human interactions. One should add that this understanding should go beyond the utilitarian aspect to one founded on the basis of appreciating and cherishing differences. No wonder that unity in diversity is said to be the highest possible attainment of a civilization, a testimony to the noblest potential of the human race.

ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint

Just like unity in diversity, the concept of social justice is found in many ASEAN documents. For example, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint of 2009 claims that “ASEAN is committed to promoting social justice and mainstreaming people’s rights into its policies and all spheres of life, including the rights and welfare of disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalized groups such as women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and migrant workers.” The reality in the ASEAN countries however shows clearly that there is a wide mismatch between such lofty statements and what the people experience.

A close reading of the ASEAN Charter will reveal that it has some lofty and high sounding concepts. For example, ASEAN and its Member States shall act in accordance with, among others, the principle of “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.” This sounds hollow when its member states undermine the independence of their judiciaries, allow corruption to run wild, pay scant attention to protect their environment, indulge in gerrymandering, and harass their political opposition.

Same Journey but at Different Speeds

ASEAN may be seen as a fine example of unity in diversity. But to strive towards the goal of a community of nations, they must live up to the goals and aspirations as written in their own official declarations. One way to do so is to emulate the best among them in a given area. For example, Indonesia has made significant progress in democratic transformations, and can fairly be said to be the most democratic of the ten. While Indonesia should continue to make progress, the other nine should be inspired by the success of Indonesia and follow its example. Similarly, Singapore’s achievement in economic development and clean government should spur the other nine to do the same.

The common struggles of the ASEAN peoples across the region will be a firm foundation for the growth of ASEAN solidarity, shared consciousness, sense of common interests, and an ASEAN identity.

It is of special importance that Indonesia can carry out democratic reforms, and Singapore can practice clean government. It means that these institutions and practices are not alien to Southeast Asia or in a wider context to the non-Western world.

Unity in diversity here may take on additional meanings: united in pursuing the goals of social justice, economic prosperity, clean government, human rights, democracy, etc. but with different member nations proceeding at different speeds. Those moving ahead should nudge and help those trailing behind.

Promoting Knowledge at the People-to-People Level

According to the Charter, community building is to be intensified through enhanced regional cooperation and integration via the means of the security community, economic community, and socio-cultural community. The first two have enjoyed the lion’s share of official attention. The third deserves to be given its due attention.

A recent study reveals that the general public in cities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore perceive the formation of the ASEAN Community as beneficial, but they see the formation as elitist and state-centric as it did not involve the people. This is a disturbing finding. City residents are generally more well-informed and involved in the political life of their countries. If they do not feel so involved in the formation of the ASEAN Community, one can imagine how low the sense of involvement can be in the rural areas. Much more must be done therefore to create and nurture a sense of participation by the citizens.

There is a useful role to be played by ASEAN’s professional bodies, like the ASEAN Associations of Lawyers, Engineers, Doctors, Accountants, Architects, Journalists, Writers, Teachers, etc. Through their regular contacts and sharing, we have new channels for evolving ASEAN styles of landscaping, architecture, paintings, music, and so on. The Association of Doctors could also be a good forum for them to develop a teaching program on traditional medicine based on research and as practiced by their ancestors.

In additional to the above are regular exchanges of cultural troupes. Their works should be featured on national television channels, and tickets should be subsidized by sponsors. For those more inclined to intellectual discussions, their interests can be served by local think tanks hosting talks and seminars by public intellectuals and thinkers on topics concerning the broader and long-term future of the region.

Looking Ahead

From its humble beginning, ASEAN has grown into a regional body that is courted by major world powers. Given the different historical backgrounds, cultures, political systems, and their lack of complementary economic activities, its endurance and success might come as a surprise. Credit must be given to its political leaders for being able to respond well to the emerging challenges and opportunities.

The success of ASEAN can also be seen as a clever response to the challenges posed by globalization. This is clearly seen in how the Asian financial crisis prompted ASEAN to speed up and deepen its integration. The same was again seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The latest is how global production networks have integrated the ASEAN economies with that of China, forming the basis for the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement.

But the imperatives for regional integration need to be combined with an awareness of the limitations arising from inter-state competition and divergent domestic capabilities within its member states. Here there is a need to work for the greater common good and with a long-term perspective. There are at least four areas where this approach is needed. The first concerns industrial policy. The member states need to sit down and formulate industrial policies which are complementary to each other. Doing so will increase intra-ASEAN trade, which currently constitutes only 25 percent of ASEAN’s trade. The second concerns protection of the environment, a point that was touched on earlier. The third concerns supporting local cultures and intellectual activities, so that Southeast Asia can boast its own world-class writers, painters, thinkers, musicians, and architects. The fourth and arguably the most difficult, is to translate into real practice the paper commitment of ASEAN member states to democracy and social justice. It includes protecting and respecting the rights of minorities, appreciating the political opposition as assets of the countries, and guaranteeing freedom of the press and association.

As an economic power, ASEAN is small by international standards. Given the level of development and technological base, ASEAN is unlikely to make a big impact on the global economy.

Perhaps the most important area which ASEAN can contribute to the world is to bring about the ASEAN Community with cultures and historical backgrounds different from those of the European Union. The new global conditions present Southeast Asia with opportunities and challenges. The greatest opportunities are the big avenues for economic growth in the region, and long-lasting peace. Territorial contestation leading to war is for most countries a thing of the past. Some challenges are persistent — nationalism, ethno-religious parochialism, discrimination against women, massive natural disasters, diseases, and poverty. Some challenges are new — climate change, environmental degradation, depleting natural resources, transnational crime, and terrorism. The challenges call for political, religious, opinion, and business leaders to re-orientate their courses of action toward the greater common good of the people in the region.

What is more crucial and effective is for the citizens of ASEAN countries to render support to each other in their struggle to realize the ideals of the ASEAN Charter such as environmental protection, rights of migrant workers, human rights, and social justice. It would be difficult for the governments to suppress these struggles because these are struggles inspired by a document crafted and endorsed by the government leaders themselves. The common struggles of the ASEAN peoples across the region will be a firm foundation for the growth of ASEAN solidarity, shared consciousness, sense of common interests, and an ASEAN identity.

Like other historical processes, the journey to the formation of the ASEAN Community will take time and will not be easy. There is still a wide gap between the deeds and words of the government leaders of ASEAN. If and when the realities on the ground are in line with the lofty proclamations of the ASEAN documents, then and only then will the ASEAN Community be no longer a dream but a reality. It will be an ASEAN with a new identity, for it will represent a new moral and political order, able to articulate global issues in international forums with moral authority and coherence.