Trump and China: Implications for Southeast Asia


July 15, 2017

Trump and China: Implications for Southeast Asia

by Robert Sutter@www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for Trump and Xi

Before his inauguration, Chinese specialists judged that Trump, as a pragmatic businessman, could be ‘shaped’ to align with Chinese interests and would ultimately be easier to deal with than Clinton. President-elect Trump soon upended these sanguine expectations with a few gestures, comments and tweets. After accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, Trump went on to question why the United States needed to support a ‘one China’ position and avoid improving contacts with Taiwan.

 

President Trump eventually was persuaded to endorse — at least in general terms — the traditional US view of the ‘one China’ policy. Though his informal summit meeting with President Xi Jinping in early April went well, Trump has put his Chinese counterpart on the defensive. He made clear how quickly he could take a wide range of surprise actions with serious negative consequences for China. Beijing was compelled to prepare for contingencies from a US president who values unpredictability and tension in achieving goals.

After the summit, the Trump government kept strong political pressure on China to use its economic leverage to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. While stoking widespread fears of conflict on the peninsula, President Trump stressed his personal respect for President Xi. He promised Beijing easier treatment in pending negotiations on the two countries’ massive trade imbalance and other economic issues.

China’s new uncertainty over the US President added to reasons for Beijing to avoid — at least for now — controversial expansions in the disputed South China Sea. How long this will last is a guessing game.

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Trump is preoccupied with North Korea

Further, the Trump administration’s preoccupation with North Korea and China reinforced a prevailing drift in US policy in Southeast Asia. Trump and his officials have announced the end of the Obama government’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy and repudiated its economic centerpiece — the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

What exists of Trump’s Southeast Asia policy at best reflects belated and episodic attention based on a poorly staffed administration with no coherent strategic view. Only very recently have they begun to take steps to show interest in positive engagement with Southeast Asia.

On the South China Sea disputes, the Trump government has followed a cautious approach. It avoided for some time the periodic freedom of navigation exercises by US Navy ships targeted against Chinese claimed land features deemed illegal by an international tribunal in 2016. In Indonesia, Vice President Pence repeated the administration’s insistence on ‘fair trade’ with Indonesia, one of many Asian countries whose trade surplus with the United States has placed them under review by the new administration.

Human rights issues in Southeast Asia — ranging from authoritarian strongman rule in Cambodia and Communist dominance in Vietnam to the newly democratic Myanmar government’s controversial crackdown on the oppressed Rohingya community — have received much less attention from the Trump government than from previous administrations. Recent presidential invitations to Philippine and Thai leaders underline this new US pragmatism on human rights issues.

Southeast Asian officials are correct in complaining that they have few counterparts in the Trump government, particularly in the State and Defense departments, due to the administration’s remarkable slowness in nominating appointees. As they wait, those seeking a coherent and well-integrated US strategy toward Southeast Asia are likely to be disappointed. Barring an unanticipated crisis, the preoccupations of the Trump administration with other priorities seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

On key issues in Southeast Asia, there appears to be broad agreement within the Trump government — shared by congressional leaders — on the need to strengthen the US security position in Southeast Asia along with the rest of the Asia Pacific. President Trump’s proposed increase in defence spending will presumably support recent congressional legislation such as the Asia Pacific Stability Initiative and the Asian Reassurance Initiative Act.

But achieving a unified and sustained position on US economic and trade issues — with Southeast Asia or elsewhere — promises to be more difficult than consistency on security and foreign policy values. Key appointees have records very much at odds with one another. Some strongly identify with the president’s campaign rhetoric pledging to deal harshly with states that ‘treat the United States unfairly’ and ‘take jobs’ from US workers. Others stick to conservative Republican orthodoxy in supporting free trade. Policy is said to move back and forth between these two camps, and where Trump himself will come down in this debate is very unclear.

How much influence the United States will lose or gain in these uncertain surroundings remains to be seen. Much will depend on how well or how poorly China ‘fills the gap’ caused by drifting US policy. For now, it seems that US–China competition in Southeast Asia is more likely than not to remain a muddle for some time to come.

Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at he Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.

An extended version of this article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’. 

 

Book Review: Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post-Hague Ruling


July 13, 2017

Book Review: Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post-Hague Ruling

by Philip Bowring

Book Review: Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post-Hague Ruling

The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration against China on Beijing’s maritime claims to almost the entire South China Sea should have been a seminal event in east Asian history.

Here was an international body rejecting China’s “historic” claims to almost the whole sea and supporting the Exclusive Economic Zone claims of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei as well as those of the Philippines which had brought the case.

In reality, thus far at least, apart from Vietnam the non-Chinese nations themselves have shown themselves to be less interested in principles and long-term national interest than in diplomatic dances and hints of deal-making with China. One year on, China is as forceful and unapologetic as ever in pressing its imperial claims on the ground.

And the other states, again Vietnam excepted, lack of resolve is a reminder that they are relatively recent creations with little sense of their pre-colonial history and hence limited commitment to more than rhetorical nationalism.

Anyone wanting to see in detail the chasm between the precision and detail of the Court of Arbitration and the woolly-minded responses of so many of the region’s politicians and diplomats should get a copy of this collection of essays edited and with a concise preface by James Borton, an independent journalist and a senior fellow at the US-Asia Institute. They complement Bill Hayton’s excellent work “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia” which was published in 2014 and provides the most comprehensive coverage of the past history and the evolution of current claims. Borton’s book was the outcome of a workshop held in Nha Trang last August.

Necessarily in such a collection the quality varies but overall it provides a very useful tour of facts and views. There is detailed if dense exposition of the legal foundations of the Court’s decision and its clarification of Article 121(3) of the Law of the Sea Convention. There are well presented arguments from Vietnamese and Philippine experts both on the ruling and in the Vietnam case its national approaches to settlement of sea boundary disputes such as in the Gulf of Thailand.

Japanese, Indians and Koreans look at the ruling in the light of their own issues with China. US and other academics looks at the wider strategic ramifications of the situation.  And contributors from Thailand and Indonesia show how so many find it easier to drone on about ASEAN unity than address the real issues confronting their neighbors.

Malaysian representation is unfortunately lacking in this collection. But perhaps that accurately reflects its determination to close its eyes and focus on collecting Chinese money than defending its seas – especially those most under threat from China lie off Sabah and Sarawak, not the peninsula where the power lies.

The volume also brings attention to the importance of environmental issues and particularly the management of the fast dwindling fish resources on which so many in the littoral states depend for their livelihood. Indeed, in that context the decision of Philippine “populist” President Duterte to set aside the ruling in pursuit of Chinese gold looks bizarre – or just reflects the lack of deep national commitment among some of the region’s political elites.

Philip Bowring is writing a maritime history of the South China Sea. He is a founder and consulting editor to Asia Sentinel.

Vietnam: A Promising Partner for the Trump Administration


July 12, 2017

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 387 | July 11, 2017
ANALYSIS

Vietnam is a Promising Partner for the Trump Administration

By Huong Le Thu

Image result for Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and President Donald TrumpVietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and US President Donald Trump held talks in Washingotn DC on May 31 (local time), discussing ways to develop bilateral ties in a more substantive manner.

 

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was the first Southeast Asian Head of State – and the third from Asia (after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping) – to meet with President Donald Trump since he took office. During his late May three-day visit, he also visited New York to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Vietnamese membership in the United Nations before traveling to the White House. Phuc’s mission was to forge a personal relationship with President Trump, who has yet to form any consolidated view on policy towards Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea.

President Trump, during the May 31 meeting with Prime Minister Phuc, said that he is glad to see a more “balanced” trade relationship with Vietnam. This new trend of seeking what Trump considers to be more fair trade relationships might be challenging for any Southeast Asian state with smaller size and capacity. However, Vietnam aims to demonstrate goodwill by meeting the White House halfway on such expectations.

Switching Contexts

Almost exactly a year ago, the bilateral relationship reached a new high, with then-President Obama’s visit to Vietnam where he announced the total annulment of the arms embargo that had been in place since the war. In fact, Vietnam’s relations with the United States had been warming significantly over the past few years, coinciding with China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and with the Obama administration’s rebalance policy.

Trump’s victory in the presidential election last November generated some unease in Hanoi that the promising momentum could be lost. Just like other Southeast Asian states, Vietnam rarely figured in Trump’s campaign speeches if at all. He put Vietnam in the same category as China – unfair traders that were dumping their cheap products into the American market. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) posed an existential challenge to the whole project and was a hard hit for Vietnam. Vietnam – the least developed economy of the 12 TPP members – was widely predicted to benefit the most from the trade agreement. More importantly, TPP served as a tool for Vietnamese policy makers hoping to “escape China’s orbit” by reducing economic dependency on Chinese trade. The Trump administration’s declaration that the rebalance is dead only further exacerbated Vietnam’s strategic anxiety.

But Vietnam is no stranger to such difficult circumstances. The visit can be seen as Vietnam’s proactivity in seeking engagement with the United States. With a mission to seek US continuity in its commitment to regional affairs – especially regional maritime disputes – Phuc aimed to lay out benefits for Washington to induce it to keep ties with Hanoi strong. The prime minister tailored his economic agenda for Trump’s business mindset. Phuc – who is viewed domestically as a hands-on economic reformer – was a better fit for the role than conservative party Secretary General Trong or President Quang, who is a former Minister of Public Security.

A “Carrot” for Trump?

Despite Hanoi’s strategic concerns, bilateral economic relations have been doing well. America remains Vietnam’s largest export market; however, it ranks sixth among trade partners with which the United States has the largest trade deficits. Bilateral trade from January through May 2017 amounted to $16 billion, which constitutes an increase of 9.9% over the previous year. US exports grew by 22% compared to last year. The visit aimed at alleviating some of the Trump administration’s concerns about the growing deficit with Vietnam, which totaled $32 billion last year, a fraction of the deficit with China – $347 billion.

Among the deals Phuc signed was a $15-17 billion agreement on the exchange of technological goods and services. President Trump described this win-win outcome as “more jobs for America, more equipment for Vietnam.” In contrast to the US-Vietnam leaders’ exchange one year ago, this meeting avoided values-based talk and was highly transactional in nature. Leaders in Hanoi have taken note of this shift. With such transactional gestures to generate good will, Vietnam hopes not only to boost bilateral relations, but also to draw Trump’s attention to geo-economic and geo-strategic regional developments.

During the Obama administration, Vietnam – along with other Southeast Asian neighbors – was considered a major beneficiary of American engagement in the region, both strategically and economically. The TPP was seen as a “carrot.” Under this administration, countries like Vietnam may need to come up with their own “carrots” to attract Washington’s attention, or at least ameliorate the perception of relative loss.

A New Model for Great Power-Small Power Relations?

Vietnam remains Southeast Asia’s most vigilant actor thus far during the first months of the Trump administration. Despite the apparent challenges – particularly the White House’s low level of engagement in the region – Hanoi can look to a number of advantageous factors. First of all, Southeast Asia’s US treaty allies – Thailand and the Philippines – are growing increasingly distant from Washington and closer to Beijing. Manila’s shift under Duterte is consequential, particularly for Vietnam, because of its role in the South China Sea disputes. The recent 30th ASEAN Summit showed Manila’s reluctance to even raise the maritime issues publicly. Under these changing regional circumstances, Washington should reconsider modes of strategic cooperation beyond the traditional treaty ally framework. While Singapore also remains a US-reliant regional partner, Hanoi will be more hard-pressed to get the relationship right. This means that Vietnam might be the keenest regional actor to invest in this relationship and become Trump’s “America First” connection in Southeast Asia.

Moreover, while the issue of human rights represented an enduring obstacle for the Obama administration, Trump’s less values-based approach means that the government in Hanoi is likely to be more comfortable with Washington’s new foreign policy direction.

Best Timing Ever

For America this could be a golden opportunity to engage with Hanoi. Despite previous efforts, domestic responses to American defense engagement in Vietnam still encounter a level of resistance. At this juncture, however, there seems to be consensus among Hanoi’s domestic leadership that the region cannot afford America’s absence. Thus, Phuc’s trip – as well as his reciprocal invitation for Trump to visit Vietnam – signals more openness than ever before, and certainly a better negotiating position.

The Trump administration needs to realize that the previous lasting investments in this relationship should not be sacrificed for short-term business gains. In fact, it is the Trump administration that is likely to harvest the fruits that previous administrations carefully seeded. Vietnam is now a key actor in the region, and if the United States wants to retain its position in Asia, it should understand that long-term gains from this relationship are worth more than revenues. If Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan has a global meaning, then securing the support of partners should come first. And a promising partner is Vietnam.

About the Author
Dr Huong Le Thu is a visiting fellow at Strategic and Defence Studies Center, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. She can be contacted at LeThu.Huong@ANU.edu.au.

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.

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American Dignity on the Fourth of July


July 5, 2017

American Dignity on the Fourth of July

Reading Frederick Douglass’s Independence Day address from 1852 may ease the despair caused by listening to the President.

More than three-quarters of a century after the delegates of the Second Continental Congress voted to quit the Kingdom of Great Britain and declared that “all men are created equal,” Frederick Douglass stepped up to the lectern at Corinthian Hall, in Rochester, New York, and, in an Independence Day address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, made manifest the darkest ironies embedded in American history and in the national self-regard. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Douglass asked:

I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

The dissection of American reality, in all its complexity, is essential to political progress, and yet it rarely goes unpunished. One reason that the Republican right and its attendant media loathed Barack Obama is that his public rhetoric, while far more buoyant with post-civil-rights-era uplift than Douglass’s, was also an affront to reactionary pieties. Even as Obama tried to win votes, he did not paper over the duality of the American condition: its idealism and its injustices; its heroism in the fight against Fascism and its bloody misadventures before and after. His idea of a patriotic song was “America the Beautiful”—not in its sentimental ballpark versions but the way that Ray Charles sang it, as a blues, capturing the “fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top.”

Image result for Donald Trump July 4 in America  New Yorker Cartoon

Donald Trump, who, in fairness, has noted that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job,” represents an entirely different tradition. He has no interest in the wholeness of reality. He descends from the lineage of the Know-Nothings, the doomsayers and the fabulists, the nativists and the hucksters. The thematic shift from Obama to Trump has been from “lifting as we climb” to “raising the drawbridge and bolting the door.” Trump may operate a twenty-first-century Twitter machine, but he is still a frontier-era drummer peddling snake oil, juniper tar, and Dr. Tabler’s Buckeye Pile Cure for profit from the back of a dusty wagon.

As a candidate, Trump told his followers that he would fulfill “every dream you ever dreamed for your country.” But he is a plutocrat. His loyalty is to the interests of the plutocracy. Trump’s vows of solidarity with the struggling working class, with the victims of globalization and deindustrialization, are a fraud. He made coal miners a symbol of his campaign, but he has always held them in contempt. To him, they are luckless schmoes who fail to possess his ineffable talents. “The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son,” Trump once told Playboy. “If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination—or whatever—to leave their mine. They don’t have ‘it.’ ”

Trump is hardly the first bad President in American history—he has not had adequate time to eclipse, in deed, the very worst—but when has any politician done so much, so quickly, to demean his office, his country, and even the language in which he attempts to speak? Every day, Trump wakes up and erodes the dignity of the Presidency a little more. He tells a lie. He tells another. He trolls Arnold Schwarzenegger. He trolls the press, bellowing “enemy of the people” and “fake news!” He shoves aside a Balkan head of state. He summons his Cabinet members to have them swear fealty to his awesomeness. He leers at an Irish journalist. Last Thursday, he tweeted at Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, of MSNBC: “I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came . . . to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!” The President’s misogyny and his indecency are well established. When is it time to question his mental stability?

The atmosphere of debasement and indignity in the White House, it appears, is contagious. Trump’s family and the aides who hastened to serve him have learned to imitate his grossest reflexes, and to hell with the contradictions. Melania Trump, whose “cause” is cyber-bullying, defends the poisoned tweet at Brzezinski. His righteously feminist daughter Ivanka stays mum. After the recent special election in Georgia, Kellyanne Conway, the counsellor to the President, tweeted, “Laughing my #Ossoff.” The wit! The valor! Verily, the return of Camelot!

Trump began his national ascendancy by hoisting the racist banner of birtherism. Since then, as candidate and as President, he has found countless ways to pollute the national atmosphere. If someone suggests a lie that is useful to him, he will happily pass it along or endorse it. This habit is not without purpose or cumulative effect. Even if Trump fails in his most ambitious policy initiatives, whether it is liberating the wealthy from their tax obligations or liberating the poor from their health care, he has already begun to foster a public sphere in which, as Hannah Arendt put it in her treatise on totalitarian states, millions come to believe that “everything was possible and that nothing was true.”

Frederick Douglass ended his Independence Day jeremiad in Rochester with steadfast optimism (“I do not despair of this country”). Read his closing lines, and what despair you might feel when listening to a President who abets ignorance, isolation, and cynicism is eased, at least somewhat. The “mental darkness” of earlier times is done, Douglass reminded his audience. “Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.” There is yet hope for the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and “the genius of American Institutions.” There was reason for optimism then, as there is now. Donald Trump is not forever. Sometimes it just seems that way. ♦

This article appears in other versions of the July 10 & 17, 2017, issue, with the headline “Dignity and the Fourth.

David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

Phasing out the US (dis)order in the Asia Pacific


June 9, 2017

Phasing out the US (dis)order in the Asia Pacific

by Jean-Pierre Lehmann, IMD

http://www.eastasiaforum.org
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It is widely held that there is qualitative distinction between the benign, liberal US global order prevailing in the Asia Pacific, and a potentially threatening and malign Chinese imperialist order. This perspective is quite hallucinatory.

 

To cite the most egregious example, the Vietnam War, apart from its bloody savagery, was fought with cultural arrogance. It was during the Vietnam War that the Kafkaesque term ‘body count’ was coined, whereby the number of corpses from battles were tallied up and transmitted to the Pentagon. Much forgotten was the US war in neighbouring Laos where an estimated 10 per cent of the population were killed and 25 per cent, mostly civilians, were made refugees.

Also widely ignored are the origins of the US presence in the Asia Pacific. John Hay, US Secretary of State from 1898 to 1905, expressed his vision that while ‘the Mediterranean was the ocean of the past and the Atlantic the ocean of the present, the Pacific is the ocean of the future’. When the Spanish-American War (1898-1899) broke out, Hay ensured that the US also obtained Spain’s colony in the Philippines. As even The Economist, a notoriously pro-US newspaper, points out, ‘The generals in the Philippine campaign had nearly all earned their spurs fighting Native Americans; in the tropics they applied the same genocidal techniques of terror, atrocities and native reservations’.

By no means has US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific been invariably malign. On balance, the US presence in the Asia Pacific has ultimately been positive. The US occupation contributed significantly to the economic reconstruction of Japan. There can also be no doubt that US aid, the opening of its market and technology transfers contributed mightily to the economic rise of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. This was further enhanced by former president Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to Mao Zedong in Beijing and eventually the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. As Kishore Mahbubani argues, ASEAN owes its successful existence in good part to the collaborative, rather than conflictual, relationship between the United States and China.

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But that was then and now is now. In the second half of the 20th century, the US’ main rival in the Asia Pacific, as elsewhere, was the Soviet Union. The Sino–Soviet split in 1960 allowed the United States to consider China a potential ally in the Cold War, paving the way for Nixon’s visit.

But the 21st century has witnessed the spectacular re-emergence of China as a global power. China’s economic growth has had a most positive effect in China itself — especially the massive reduction in poverty for an estimated 700 million — and for the world. Following the great financial crisis of 2007, China has been an engine of global growth. Its aid, trade and investments in Asia, Africa and Latin America have been significant.

As awesome as China’s rise has been, it has also generated considerable anxiety, including — or perhaps especially — among Asian nations. In contrast to the US that has a whole network of both formal and informal alliances in the Asia Pacific, China only has one: North Korea. Asian nations are increasingly faced with the thorny dilemma: while China is their major economic partner, the United States is their major strategic partner.  

The greatest geopolitical threat to the world is China and the US falling into the so-called Thucydides trap of war, which for Asia Pacific countries would require making a choice between allying with either China or the United States. Following the early 20th century pattern in Europe, the Asia Pacific risks becoming the terrain of great power military conflict.

There are many frailties and tensions in the Asia Pacific landscape. The drama unfolding on the Korean peninsula vividly illustrates how the United States may be aggravating these tensions, rather than mitigating or resolving them. By seeking to bring its allies Japan and South Korea into a confrontation with China and North Korea, Washington is playing with potentially explosive fire in Northeast Asia. The current situation of continued US military domination and presumed political leadership in the Asia Pacific is unsustainable.

Instead, Washington should take a leaf out of the post-World War II history book. While the US ‘saved’ Europe in both World War I and World War II, after World War II it provided strategic, economic and moral support to allow and encourage European governments themselves to build the post-war European edifice, especially through Franco–German reconciliation and collaboration.

Ideally, the US should phase out its military presence, while providing leadership in trade and global economic governance — in other words, the opposite of the present situation. Recognising that while at times the US presence in Asia was malign, at others benign, and that on balance it was positive, the time has come to turn the page and open a new volume in the Asia Pacific’s narrative. The construction of the 21st century Asia Pacific must be left to Asia-Pacific nations.

This process must be undertaken incrementally over the long term. A sudden impulsive US departure from the Asia Pacific region would create a perilous vacuum. Major geopolitical great power transitions have almost invariably involved war. In the process of dismantling the US-led Asia Pacific order, a new 21st century edifice with solid foundations should be constructed by the Asia Pacific itself, though with the US’ benevolent support. This seems the only viable course for peace.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD, Switzerland, founder of the Evian Group, and Visiting Professor at Hong Kong University. You can follow him on Twitter at @JP_Lehmann.

 

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.