Sunday, 2 September 2012

Pitching for the Asean 10

Asean countries are still developing because there is still much to do, and much to learn about how to do it.


IF Asean is sometimes accused of being a talking shop, it also vividly demonstrates the value and virtues of some talking shops.

Officials’ meetings at various levels are legion, growing in number and scope over half a century until they average a few a day for every day of the year.

Between these are the summits, being more prominent in comprising heads of governments. Besides the content of the proceedings, the frequency of the summits themselves may indicate the state of the South-East Asian region.

When leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand met in Bangkok in 1967 to found Asean, that was somehow not considered a summit. So the “first” summit came only in 1976 in Bali, with the “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-East Asia” and the “Declaration of Asean Concord.”

The second summit came the following year in Kuala Lumpur, coinciding with an Asean-Japan dialogue. Although this was only one year after the first, it was a whole decade after Asean’s founding and would be another full decade before the next.

The third summit (Manila, 1987) decided to hold summits every five years. By the seventh (Bandar Seri Begawan) it would be every year, then after skipping 2006 the Philippines hosted the 12th in Cebu amid local protests.

The 14th summit slated for 2008 in Thailand was postponed to early 2009 over domestic disturbances, then put off for another two months in the broken Pattaya gathering. From then on, summits would be biannual affairs.

Between and beyond the summits, whether or not local scandals and protests add to the news value of Asean gatherings, the original five member nations seem to attract more attention if not also more interest. This is anomalous since Asean membership confers equal status on all members regardless of size, age, clout or political system.

The newer members can actually be quite pivotal in their own way, as Vietnam and then Cambodia had been, and as Myanmar may be now. And several of the older members need not be particularly significant to the Asean 10 as a whole, much less beyond.

With such issues in mind, Malaysia’s Foreign Policy Studies Group last week held another roundtable conference in Kuala Lumpur on how relations between Malaysia and the CLM countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar) can contribute to Asean consolidation.

An earlier roundtable comprised delegates from Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam in assessing how their countries’ relations with Malaysia could progress in the same vein. Vietnam, as the largest and most developed of Asean’s newer CLMV members, had also introduced reforms earliest to qualify to join the earlier dialogue with some of the original members.

Other CLMV countries have progressed on other fronts on their own. It is now 20 years since Cambodia, for example, reached agreement with Malaysia on visa-free travel.

Laos is another country that Malaysia has assisted, with the establishment of bilateral relations (in 1966) even before Asean was founded. Since then, relations have flourished, particularly after Malaysia worked to welcome Vientiane into Asean.

Myanmar today is still undergoing a transition, and therefore also very much a focus of world media attention. Its people now have a greater sense of nationhood following a raft of reforms, mindful of the national interest from economic priorities to the prerogative of rejecting foreign military bases on its soil.

A Malaysian delegate said that the US, following news reports last Sunday, was now looking for a suitable site for a new “missile shield” system in the region. The US and China were the two proverbial “elephants in the room”, and the geopolitical rivalry between them very much an issue for all delegates.

No individual, organisation or country at the roundtable, whether officially or unofficially, was left undisturbed by major power rivalry contaminating the Asean region. This was the more so when preparations abroad tended to centre around a military build-up, with the US “pivot to Asia” involving stationing 60% of its military assets in the Asia-Pacific.

According to one recent analysis, at current and anticipated rates China’s economy could surpass the US’ as early as 2016, and US overall decline could become evident by 2020. Ironically, as with its former Soviet adversary before it, the decline would be underscored by excessive military expenditure and a warlike mindset.

Given these scenarios, it is important to be reminded of some pertinent underlying issues. These may be framed by some telling questions that must be asked, for which answers are vitally needed.

First, are the CLM countries necessarily more dependent on a regional superpower-as-benefactor like China economically, compared to Asean’s older and more developed members. Not so, especially when considering that the latter, with larger economies, have more at stake in dealing with a rising China.

Second, is China even likely to consider challenging US dominance in the region? Despite occasionally dire pronouncements by some there is no evidence of that, indeed quite the reverse: beyond assertions of its old maritime claims, Beijing’s relations with all countries in the region have been progressing and progressive.

US military dominance in the Asia-Pacific is often credited with keeping the regional peace, particularly in the high seas. Is this assumption merited if piracy and terrorism are not included in the calculus, since there may not be any other military force out to wreak havoc in the region post-1945?

Fourth, how much value is there still in the assumption that the US military posture is and will remain the status quo entity in the region? The status quo is helping China’s economy grow, with secure shipping and harmonious development, while the US economy is continually taxed by its large and growing military presence.

Fifth, and by extension, how much pulling power is there today in US efforts at soliciting allies? The problem with enlisting in an alliance for other countries is that to be identified as an ally of a major power is also to identify as an ally against another major power.

Dividing the region in Cold War fashion does not help anyone, and never did. To enlist with a (relatively) declining superpower creates further problems of its own for such allies.

Sixth, can China’s reported flexing of its muscles in the South China Sea and the East China Sea in any way be a show of strength? Since it only gives Beijing a negative image just as it needs to look good, without any gain in return, it is instead a point of weakness.

Seventh, can US efforts to contain China ever work? There is no shortage of instances that verify containment, a situation confirmed by official denials.

So, eighth, why try to contain China at all when in the process the US only loses goodwill before losing face? Perhaps old habits die hard, but more likely the military-industrial complex dies harder.

Smaller countries in Asean and elsewhere have much to learn from the major powers, notably the US and China. Sadly, the lessons are just as much what not to do as they are about what to do.

BEHIND THE HEADLINES By BUNN NAGARA sunday@thestar.com.my

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