Trade, Technology, and Xi Jinping’s Question


July 7, 2018

Trade, Technology, and Xi Jinping’s Question

by Kaushik Basu

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/digital-technology-trade-war-protectionism-by-kaushik-basu-2018-07y Kausik Basu

Despite unprecedented technology-enabled development, the world is beset with challenges, from violent conflict to rising inequality. The underlying reason for these problems may be that we have reached a turning point in the march of technological progress – and we are navigating it very badly.

Image result for xi jinping at davosThe Protectionist (Donald Trump) is the Loser. The Globalist (Xi Jinping) will emerge the winner eventually.

 

NEW YORK – “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” said President Xi Jinping, quoting Charles Dickens’ famous line to open his speech at the 2017 World Economic Forum. “Today,” Xi continued, “we also live in a world of contradictions.” On one hand, “growing material wealth and advances in science and technology” have enabled unprecedented rates of development. On the other hand, “frequent regional conflicts, global challenges like terrorism and refugees, as well as poverty, unemployment, and a widening income gap” are generating deep uncertainty.

Xi then posed a potent question: “What has gone wrong with the world?”

Perhaps the answer lies with the very technology that Xi regards as the key to China’s rise to high-income status. Specifically, it may be that we have reached a turning point in the march of technological progress – one that we are navigating very badly.

Technology has been shaping and reshaping our lives ever since early human beings discovered how to make tools from stone. It is only natural for such a long process to include moments when technological change generates unprecedented challenges.

One such turning point was the Industrial Revolution. In mid-eighteenth-century Britain, the revolution’s birthplace, progress entailed considerable adversity. Some workers toiled 12-14 hours per day, yet inequality surged. And the incidence of child labor rose beyond the levels seen in some of the poorest Sub-Saharan African economies today.

But Europe rose to the occasion. Groundbreaking research in economics was carried out by the likes of Adam Smith and Antoine Cournot, leading to novel interventions like progressive income tax, as well as new labor laws and regulations. As a result, the Industrial Revolution accelerated economic development and human welfare.

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Human development has seen other “industrial revolutions,” including the one that is currently unfolding. This so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is centered on advances in digital technology, including “labor-linking technologies” (which enable workers across continents to work together in real time) and, more recently, artificial intelligence and robotics.

These advances have enabled economic globalization, which, like the Industrial Revolution, has brought unprecedented progress, as Xi acknowledged, while generating new challenges, including rising inequality and worker vulnerability. But instead of managing those challenges, as Europe did in the nineteenth century, much of the world is succumbing to political polarization, rising nationalism, and a toxic blame game. Most notably, the United States under President Donald Trump has initiated what is rapidly escalating into a tit-for-tat trade war – one that will be devastating for the entire world, but especially for the US itself.

What such behavior fails to take into account is that globalization is, fundamentally, a natural phenomenon. It is the result of billions of individuals going about their daily activities, making decisions based on the possibilities available to them. Arguing against globalization is as constructive as blaming gravity for a building’s collapse. As Xi pointed out in his WEF speech, it “is a natural outcome of scientific and technological progress, not something created by any individuals or any countries.”

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In the case of Trump’s trade war, US policy also reflects a misunderstanding – one that economists have repeatedly pointed out – about bilateral trade deficits. According to Trump, a trade deficit is essentially a loss, and the countries with surpluses vis-à-vis the US, such as Mexico or China, are behaving in unfair and exploitative ways. Thus, they should be made to pay.

To understand the fallacy, consider your interaction with the neighborhood grocery store. At the end of each year, you run up a large “trade deficit” vis-à-vis the store, because the store sells goods to you, whereas you do not sell anything to the store. To claim that China “owes” the US for its trade bilateral trade surplus would be like saying that your local grocery store owes you for the money you spent there during the last year. In fact, you were not cheated, just as your employer was not cheated by the bilateral deficit it runs with you. Rather, you made mutually beneficial transactions based on your needs.

The modern economy depends on bilateral trade deficits; it would collapse without them. In an age of advanced technologies and accelerating specialization, attempting to manufacture everything domestically or bilaterally would be prohibitively costly.

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The One and Only Harley defies Trump’s America First Trade Policy

For now, the US seems committed to its demands that its partners pay up. The more likely scenario, however, is that economies like Canada, Europe, and Mexico will seek to offset the impact of Trump’s tariffs by deepening their ties with China – an obvious win for America’s main global competitor. Meanwhile, US corporations will probably move production elsewhere to avoid retaliatory tariffs, as some – such as Harley-Davidson – have already threatened to do.

There is no denying that the technological turning point at which we find ourselves has caused strain for all countries. But instead of blaming one another for the challenges generated by technological progress – an approach that will only bring about the worst of times – we should work together to address them. Any country that refuses to do so will create strain for all – and end up condemning itself to being left behind.

Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, is Professor of Economics at Cornell University and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Data Driven Preventive Diplomacy For ASEAN Member States


July 6, 2018

Data Driven Preventive Diplomacy For ASEAN Member States

by Hana Hanifah and Askabea Fadhilla, The Habibie Center

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for ASEAN Security

ASEAN countries are no strangers to conflict and violence. As a region comprising diverse nation-states, Southeast Asia has experienced a number of inter- and intra-state conflicts. Political stability in the region has improved over the last decade, especially due to a decline in inter-state disputes. But intra-state disputes in the form of ethnic conflicts, violence against minorities and violent extremism — including terrorism — are gaining ground.

 

There are ongoing reports about Rohingya trying to escape from Myanmar and seeking refuge in Malaysia. Amid the Myanmar army’s denial of its alleged atrocities against the Rohingya, about 700,000 Rohingya have reportedly fled the country since August 2017.

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Meanwhile, according to the Global Peace Index, the Philippines is one of the least peaceful countries in the region due to its bloody war against drugs and crime that has resulted in increasing rates of homicide, incarceration and extrajudicial killings. Based on the same report, Indonesia had the greatest performance drop in the Asia Pacific in terms of peacefulness due to an increase in politically-motivated terrorism and growing tensions between hard-line fundamentalists and minority groups. Indonesia is also more and more vulnerable to the threat of an alliance between the so-called Islamic State, Darul Islam and some local violent extremist groups, as shown in the recent Surabaya bombing.

Even decades before the United Nations’ An Agenda for Peace report in 1992, ASEAN had committed to maintaining peace in the region without using the label of ‘preventive diplomacy’. From its inception, ASEAN was intended to be a regional conflict-prevention mechanism that internalised the practices of peaceful dialogue, consultation and consensus building among its members, amid the geopolitical uncertainty and diplomatic breakdowns that characterised the Cold War period.

The ASEAN Regional Forum defined preventive diplomacy for ASEAN in 2001 as member states’ diplomatic or political action to prevent disputes or conflicts that could pose a threat to regional stability, with the purpose of preventing such disputes from escalating to armed confrontation and minimising the impact of those conflicts and disputes on the region.

But in practice, preventive diplomacy in ASEAN is limited to the execution of forums and meetings that do not necessarily producing binding mechanisms to resolve potentially destabilising intra-state conflicts. ASEAN seems to be stuck in confidence-building measures and has not completely implemented preventive diplomacy as envisioned by the United Nations.

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Critics point to the development gap and significant political differences between ASEAN member states. The ‘ASEAN way’ that rests on the principles of consensus building and non-intervention is often cited as one of the factors that undermine a deeper commitment to implementing preventive diplomacy. ASEAN’s limited definition of preventive diplomacy is also criticised for constraining the practice of preventive diplomacy in the region to only include conflicts between and among states. This excludes non-state and intra-state conflicts or violence, which are seemingly growing in the post-Cold War era.

But the biggest challenge to preventive violence in ASEAN yet to be taken seriously is the lack of knowledge about conflicts and violence. To this day, it remains a challenge to pinpoint the general trend and exact number of violent events and conflicts within ASEAN. Some instances were allegedly perpetrated by the state, while others were committed by non-state entities and individuals. Although some reports intuitively indicate that violence in ASEAN is increasing, it is hard to identify the exact number of incidents because the data is scarce and rarely updated.

The limited reliable data that is available reveals that each country in Southeast Asia has its own patterns and characteristics of conflict and violence. In terms of intensity, there are also differences in the number of casualties and frequency of incidents. The types of violence also differ and include civil wars, insurgency, crimes, communal conflicts and violence against minority groups.

Relatively little data on violent incidents existed until recently, and the data is generally focused at the national level. Data on regional trends is patchy and scattered across various sources, which makes it difficult to generate a quick and accurate analysis to aid policy making processes. Not all countries have the capacity to record such data, which itself can be a controversial process in a number of ASEAN member states where conflicts are sometimes highly political.

Knowledge about the distinct features of violence in ASEAN is crucial to enable policymakers and stakeholders to identify shortcomings in the region’s approach to responding and preventing conflict. Such knowledge would also equip them to come up with effective policies and strategies to promote peace and stability in ASEAN.

A knowledge-based approach would enable stakeholders to resolve conflicts more effectively — not only by managing the impacts but also by preventing the escalation of future conflicts and violence. It would also encourage better practices of data collection and recording violence in and between ASEAN member states — which is essential to monitoring and evaluating preventive diplomacy and progress towards peace in the region.

Hana Hanifah and Askabea Fadhilla are Researchers at the ASEAN Studies Program, The Habibie Center, Jakarta.

 

Regional leadership needed to save trade regime


July 5,2018

Regional leadership needed to save trade regime

by Mari Pangestu, University of Indonesia, and Christopher Findlay, University of Adelaide

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/06/24/regional-leadership-needed-to-save-trade-regime/

Image result for Mari Pangestu, University of Indonesia

The world in which Asia Pacific economies operate is changing. Two main forces are driving this change — one ‘top-down’, the other ‘bottom-up’.

The top-down force is the emergence of a world with a larger number of key economies. In recent decades, growth rates around the world have diverged. For much of Asia, this has meant dramatic improvements in incomes and a huge reduction in the number of people living in poverty. It has also meant a new order among countries — a multipolar world.

Image result for Christopher Findlay, University of Adelaide

 

Prof. Christopher Findlay, University of Adelaide

The bottom-up force is the change in the way production is organised, driven by progress in communications and information technology. Technological improvements have shifted the location of production, with production processes becoming increasingly fragmented across countries. The nature of work and the composition of skills within economies have changed.

Given the new order of production and trade, the Trump administration’s mercantilist focus on reducing merchandise trade deficits will end up hurting the United States, as well as disrupting global production networks.

As trade flows change, pressure for domestic structural change can arise. In the United States, a decline in support for international trade and openness has been exacerbated by a lack of adjustment support for geographically concentrated bearers of the burden. Their reaction via domestic political processes has shocked the international system.

In the United States and elsewhere, good macroeconomic outcomes no longer win elections. Much economic policy is now driven by nationalistic and protectionist politics. This is particularly evident in US initiatives to protect its domestic production and seek adjustments from China.

These political conditions were preceded by waning support for openness at a multilateral level. As multilateral negotiations stalled, the response has been the emergence of ‘mega-regional’ platforms such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP 11) and the East Asian Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

These initiatives sit atop a ‘noodle bowl’ of messy bilateral agreements. Before the current US America First regime, these mega-regional and bilateral agreements still operated under the lid of the World Trade Organization. The rules-based trading system was still an anchor for economic integration, especially the dispute settlement mechanism.

Today, the principles of openness, non-discrimination, transparency and open regionalism — which have helped generate prosperity in the region, especially for developing economies in Asia — are being severely challenged. When the United States leaves the TPP, undertakes unilateral action and declares that the multilateral rules have not served US interests, the anchor of the trading system is challenged. At most international forums like the G20, policymakers’ time is being wasted on phrasing defensive communiques instead of cooperating on the substantive trade and investment issues of the day.

At the same time, new issues are emerging in relation to trade and investment, such as the taxation of international income flows, the treatment of data flows and the management of intellectual property. Responding to climate change and finding appropriate policies to deal with inequality are also among the challenges.

Progress will be difficult in the multipolar world without clear leadership from the major economies.

Waiting for a consensus to emerge among key economies about the importance of maintaining these anchor principles — while at the same time dealing with the new issues that have emerged — is not an option. There are no obvious forces now at work to resolve this lack of consensus within a reasonable timeframe. Lower-income people in rural ASEAN areas, for example, should not have to wait for the rest of the world to figure out how to shift their own economies and communities to new sources of growth.

In the absence of leadership from the advanced economies, a shared leadership model in the region should be the answer. The key then is the response of the increasingly influential ‘second-tier’ economies. No actors are more important than Indonesia and Southeast Asia, operating through ASEAN and the ASEAN-plus regional agreements that are already in place and being consolidated under RCEP.

Recent statements by leaders in Indonesia indicate recognition of the role it can play and wants to play. But Indonesia’s contribution will be so much greater and more effective if it acts in concert with others. Concerted action could take multiple forms. It might include unilateral reforms, or working on sustainability initiatives that are in both local and global interests.

Effective concerted action depends on a few factors. Foremost, it depends on shared principles. Part of this is agreeing on a purpose, such as the basic principles of non-discrimination, transparency and support for the rules-based trading system. Other principles can relate to specifics, such as the management of open data flows. These principles provide important reference points as countries take their own actions. There is value in sharing experience and aligning countries’ expectations about each other’s reform programs.

These are not new approaches. Readers with long memories will recall efforts like the APEC non-binding investment principles and Individual Action Plans. But this is the point — we already have relevant structures for mobilising this cooperation that can be rejuvenated.

APEC is the most relevant example. Putting weight on APEC does carry a risk. But APEC has a well-developed network of second-track structures that can be engaged more deeply. Given the complexities of the new issues facing the regional economic order, it is even more imperative that there be wide, multi-stakeholder participation and input.

Even more importantly, APEC remains a forum in our region where key economies in the multipolar world and the leading second-tier countries can interact effectively, and where the major protagonist, the United States, can still be engaged.

Mari Pangestu is former Indonesian trade minister and Professor at the University of Indonesia. Christopher Findlay is Professor and Executive Dean of the Faculty of the Professions at the University of Adelaide.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Trade Wars in Asia’.

 

 

 

If an esteemed historian like PJ Thum can be fooled by fake news, what hope is there for us?


July 4, 2018

If historian PJ Thum can be misled by fakes…

TL;DR – But if you take some effort to google, actually, you can avoid embarrassing yourself.

Singaporean Historian PJ Thum became famous after he was grilled by Minister Shanmugam at the hearing of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods for six hours. Back then, he had made the audacious claim that the politicians of the PAP were the “clear source of fake news”. He based that claim on his work as a historian.

And PJ Thum appeared to be a historian with glowing credentials. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelors in East Asian Studies. He then went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and got a second degree in Modern History and Politics. He returned to Oxford on a Commonwealth Scholarship to get his Doctor of Philosophy. Since 2014, PJ has been a Research Associate at the Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; a Fellow of Green Templeton College, and coordinator of Project Southeast Asia, an initiative of the University of Oxford to expand its range of scholarly expertise on Southeast Asia. In 2015, PJ was elected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Sounds impressive, right? A historian with such sterling credentials must be a really smart person. Someone who won’t be easily fooled by fake news. Someone who would think critically of the things he reads, cross-references multiple sources to ensure that he comes to the right conclusions. Right?

Well… not quite. At least not in this particular instance.

PJ Thum posted this on Facebook recently:

Just in case it gets taken down, it’s a post with this cartoon:

 

Two versions of the same event. What is the truth?

Accompanying the cartoon, PJ Thum had the following remarks:

“Another from the archives:

“At the end of (Lee’s speech to the joint session of the US Congress), there was a sustained standing ovation… Even before he started his speech, there was a standing ovation – such is the Prime Minister’s reputation.” – Straits Times, 10 October 1985.

“(Lee) was addressing a sparsely attended joint session and drew polite applause.” – International Herald Tribune, 10 October 1985.

Hmmm… now I’m wondering just how much of what Singaporeans believed to be LKY’s vaunted global reputation was actually manufactured by the government-controlled media, in the days when there were no alternative news sources?”

PJ Thum questioned whether the media, controlled by the Singapore government, had manufactured Mr, Lee Kuan Yew’s “vaunted global reputation”.

Is he once again insinuating that the Singapore government is a source of fake news?

Thankfully, there’s a video of the speech

Someone added this video in the comments to PJ Thum’s post, and the video proved PJ Thum wrong.

It’s a video of Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking at a Joint Session of the US Congress taken off C-SPAN.

And at the 3:13 mark, and also 4:09 mark the video shows people applauding in a packed room.

At the 9:47 mark, the video shows Mr Lee Kuan Yew receiving a standing ovation when he wrapped up his speech.

Now we can’t possibly know from the video alone if the Congressmen really respected Mr Lee Kuan Yew, but the fact was that the Joint Session was well attended, and that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had received a standing ovation.

Those are facts.

Captured on video.

Facts which directly contradict what PJ Thum had insinuated. Facts which can be found if Thum had taken a little bit care and effort to verify and check.

Which unfortunately makes PJ Thum look rather bad

This could mean one of two things.

The first possibility is PJ Thum is a sloppy historian who doesn’t dig deeper and look for more sources of information so that he can come to a proper (and accurate) conclusion.

Or the second possibility is that he had deliberately put up the post and asked a question in such a way that would induce people to conclude that the Singapore government is a source of fake news.

Of course, we don’t know which is the truth. We don’t believe that PJ Thum is that malicious as to deliberately spread fake news. But we also don’t think PJ Thum is stupid. So… It’s hard to say. Having said that, if PJ Thum can be so wrong on this incident, what else could he or we have gotten wrong?

Whatever the case is, this incident has again demonstrated that we should all learn to google. And don’t automatically accept anything we read or what we’re told to be true.

ALWAYS check and look for more sources of information. Otherwise, we might end up looking like fools for believing that some piece of fake news is true.

 

Pursuing the Chinese Dream


May 29, 2018

Pursuing the Chinese Dream

By Michael Heng
 https://www.chinadailyasia.com/articles/49/199/85/1527492769468.html

The goal of realizing national rejuvenation will contribute to the cultural richness of humanity

by Professor Michael Heng

The top Chinese leaders, on assuming power, would set out their agenda by announcing a vision to inspire the people. The vision of former President Hu Jintao was to build a harmonious Chinese society. The current President, Xi Jinping, has called on the Chinese people to fulfill the dream of building a moderately prosperous society and realizing national rejuvenation.

Image result for China's Rejuvenation under Xi Jinping

 

Seen historically, Xi’s Chinese Dream is a continuation of China’s ongoing project of national reconstruction after the traumatic experience of repeated defeats by foreign powers since the Opium Wars 150 years ago. This project formed a common theme in the lives of China’s historical figures such as Sun Yet-sun, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

The world should welcome a wealthy and powerful China. A powerful Song Dynasty (960-1279) might have deterred eventual Mongolian military conquests in the Middle East, Europe and Russia. Likewise, a powerful China in the more recent past would have stopped Japan from invading Korea, China and Southeast Asia.

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Deng Xiao Ping –China’s Great Moderniser–To be Rich is Glorious

A strong Chinese economy in the last few decades has energized the global economy, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. However, while welcoming a powerful China, the world would not like to see a bullying China.

The rise of China affects the balance of economic power globally. But, how would Chinese like this period of their history to be understood by future generations?

As a period of remarkable economic growth only? Or as a period of economic development coupled with cultural and intellectual brilliance, with an enduring positive impact throughout the whole world, at par with previous glorious periods of human history?

Most Chinese would prefer the second scenario.Radical economic and social transformations are often accompanied by intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. These transformations throw up many serious issues, challenging the best brains of the time. In attempts to solve these issues, the great thinkers draw on their intellectual heritage, learn from other sources, cross-fertilize them and creatively synthesize them to produce original thoughts.

Examples are Ancient Greece, China’s Spring-Autumn-Warring period, the Islamic golden age, the Indian Mughal period, and China’s Tang-Song period. The most recent experience is the periods of European Renaissance and Enlightenment, which produced giants in the fields of philosophy, natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, music, architecture, and literature.

European intellectuals acted as a positive force during that critical period, functioning both as social conscience and as sources of forward-looking ideas. Their works have shaped the character of modern European civilization.

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Such historical perspective provides new dimensions to the Chinese Dream. In addition to wealth and power, it envisions building a modern Chinese civilization of material prosperity and cultural refinement in equal measure.

This is in line with a deep Chinese aspiration to preserve their cultural heritage while evolving a system of social, economic and political philosophies to cope with the demands of modernization. In this endeavor, the best of morality, culture, ethics and societal values will feature prominently.

Two challenges emerge from this perspective. The first is to draw on China’s own cultural and intellectual resources. With an open and inquisitive mind, old ideas take on new meanings and interpretations in the context of new social and political challenges. In reworking old ideas from one’s culture, one is free and indeed encouraged to refer to other cultures.

The second challenge is to learn from other civilizations. The Chinese are glad that the period of European Renaissance and Enlightenment drank from the well of Chinese civilization. The West has borrowed from China bureaucracy as a system of governance and has improved upon it.

Likewise, the Chinese should be glad to borrow and learn from others, for it can only increase the range of possible solutions. Since the West has a longer history of modernization, China can benefit much from learning their experiences.

What is critical here is meticulous and rational learning, adapting them to suit local conditions and drawing upon local cultural resources to absorb them.

Reinventing socio-cultural practices is quite common in societies undergoing structural changes. It is a part of the societal efforts to refine and refurbish the inner resources of their societies. It is hoped that the Chinese can further refine their intellectual heritage, learn from foreign sources, cross-fertilize them and, through creative synthesis, produce schools of original thought.

The process touches societies in the most profound sense, involving ideas, values, morality, belief systems, culture and institutions. It requires us to revisit our concept of justice, truth and beauty. It is a project with both social and spiritual dimensions. It is a project that looks into the soul of history.

However, economic resurgence does not guarantee corresponding intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. There are formidable obstacles in the long journey.

The economic rise of China may thus be conceived as an opportunity for a Chinese cultural revival, which may or may not happen. Much depends on how the Chinese themselves use the opportunity.

The project of a cultural rejuvenation is an ambitious undertaking. It is likely to last for several generations. It has no walls and borders nor time limits. Contributions from all corners of the world are warmly welcome. Though the stage is in China, the cast and audience are global. This opens up a new arena of international cooperation for all who aspire to contribute to the long-term well-being of humanity. If and when Chinese cultural and intellectual reinvigoration does happen in its full glory, it will lift the Chinese civilization to a higher level.

In so doing, it will contribute to the cultural richness of the world and, through it, elevate humanity to a higher level of civilization. If it succeeds, China will reap its full glory through the realization of the Chinese Dream.

The author,Michael Heng is a retired professor who held academic appointments in Australia, the Netherlands, and at six universities in Asia.

 

Aspiration: Singapore’s Approach to ASEAN


April 25, 2018

Aspiration: Singapore’s Approach to ASEAN

Ja Ian Chong, NUS

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 50th Anniversary Lecture for the Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies on 13 March 2018 was notable for its open acknowledgement of some of the difficulties facing ASEAN, which Singapore is chairing this year. Importantly, Lee recognised that ASEAN is, above all, a political grouping, and that some of its most pressing challenges are fundamentally political.

Both internal and external political forces are buffeting ASEAN members. On the one hand there is the growing influence of different major powers in Southeast Asia such as China and India and their diverse domestic influences in various ASEAN member states. On the other there is the still important but uncertain role of the United States in Asia.

 

Image result for Lee Hsien Loong and Donald Trump

 

Such developments call into question ASEAN’s continued relevance and unity. Unfortunately, Lee offered little in the way of concrete responses to the changing circumstances he sketched out, whether for ASEAN or for Singapore.

An important area of tension that Lee pointed out is ASEAN’s longstanding focus on consensus. Lee sees this ‘laborious’ process of finding ‘common ground’ as fundamental to enabling the group’s diverse members to move forward together on issues like trade liberalisation, economic integration and the management of territorial disputes (for instance in the South China Sea).

But recent initiatives by China and India to gain influence in Southeast Asia, alongside radical departures from past precedent in US approaches to foreign policy, are pulling ASEAN members in disparate directions. Responses to these cross-cutting dynamics — often guided by domestic considerations — make intra-ASEAN consensus much more difficult to attain. Projects such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the United States’ ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific‘ idea may move ASEAN members in different directions well before any consensus can emerge.

Image result for Lee Hsien Loong and ASEAN

A related concern is the competition for influence from alternative regional arrangements and external powers — a process Lee described as ‘Darwinian’. Even if not explicitly stated, this word choice implies that Lee may be conceding that ASEAN risks extinction if it cannot adapt to the changing circumstances. For the ASEAN project to persist, Lee said, ASEAN members ‘must come together to maintain relevance and cohesion’.

Yet, given that ASEAN’s ability to sustain cohesion is undergoing unprecedented internal and external pressure, the organisation faces a real risk of marginalisation, maybe even irrelevance. Major powers active in the region are beginning to offer alternative institutional arrangements that may ultimately prove more attractive to some of the group’s members.

While the frank assessment of ASEAN’s current difficulties is welcome, Lee provided few clear, practical responses to these issues. The few goals Lee laid out are largely aspirational. He called on ASEAN governments to look beyond immediate domestic considerations, trust in past experiences of cooperation and commit jointly to the ASEAN project.

Within these parameters, Singapore — as current ASEAN chair — will seek to move member states to strengthen existing frameworks for political, economic and socio-cultural cooperation with a focus on resilience and innovation. This includes advancing existing economic proposals such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the ASEAN–EU Comprehensive Transport Agreement. Even then, progress on these issues will be trying, owing to a ‘growing mood of nationalism and protectionism’ that is on the ascent in many countries.

Lee called on ASEAN governments to make bold decisions based on enlightened, long-term considerations to improve livelihoods. Noble as such goals may be, one wonders what such considerations mean in terms of concrete policies. After all, it is unlikely that any government will admit to making policies based on timidity, benightedness and short-term conveniences that are detrimental to livelihoods.

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There is also the matter of how the Lee administration aims to get other ASEAN governments and partners on board with its vision before a new Singaporean leadership takes over, possibly by 2022. This in turn raises the more pedestrian but perennial issue of improving long-term intra-ASEAN coordination across issue domains given member states’ preferences for an institutionally weak secretariat and secretary-general. Adequately addressing these institutional factors may well be crucial in moving Lee’s hopes for ASEAN closer to reality.

Lee reiterated that ASEAN is of critical importance to Singapore and its future. This suggests that Lee views the global political trends he discussed as having a direct effect on Singapore, its interests and external outlook.

But it is on Singapore’s relationship to the region and how Singapore’s foreign policy fits within this context that Lee is vaguest. He echoed Singapore’s former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee in calling for a ‘delicacy of perceptions’, where academia and business weigh in on critical issues of the day to help inform the decisions of professional bureaucrats and political appointees. But Lee left how this ‘delicacy of perceptions’ should play out or what kinds of policy directions Singapore should follow unexplored.

While Prime Minister Lee presented a refreshingly honest outlook on ASEAN’s uncertain future, he did not offer much more than an uncertain policy approach to match.

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