Asian gazing (8): ASEAN’s usual crisis and looming triumph
17 Jun 2013|

Flags of ASEAN member statesASEAN is ever in crisis or on the verge of calamity. The role of crisis in giving ASEAN a purpose, or even an identity, is part of the abiding mystery of Southeast Asian regionalism. The trick is to pick the moments when ASEAN is offering substance, as against those many occasions when ASEAN is only playing with shadows.

During this bout of Asian strategic star gazing, I heard quite a few people arguing that this time it’s different. This time, they argue, ASEAN truly-rooly is in crisis. Well, perhaps—certainly both the externally-generated pressure and the internal ASEAN divisions are palpable. Yet, for all the immediate problems of trust and strategic uncertainty, it’s also possible to take a few steps back from the anger and angst and glimpse a looming ASEAN triumph.

More on the triumph in a moment; first, obeying the traditions of hackdom (if it bleeds, it leads), consider the credentials of the current mood of crisis. I confess that as a hack who’s written about ASEAN for decades, I’ve produced many an ‘ASEAN-in-crisis’ yarn. Some headlines have an eternal allure. And any regional institution that gathers ten countries together for a thousand meetings a year needs something to produce movement.

A sense of crisis is almost the minimum requirement for an ‘ASEAN way’ which glorifies the idea that the meeting is indeed the message. If just meeting is a triumph of active regionalism—serving the glorious quest for consensus—then a looming calamity is vital to get the ten nation juggernaut to focus and even think about acting.

ASEAN is trying to focus. The claims of looming disaster have been as prevalent around here recently as the lingering odour of a ripe durian. The external pressure exerted by China—especially in the South China Sea—is feeding into the centrifugal forces within ASEAN. The great symbol of ASEAN division was the failure even to issue a communique at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting last year.

The way this is being translated in ASEAN-speak at the moment is through a discussion of the need for trust. Here is Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dun, at the Shangri-La dialogue:

Without trust, there would be no success and harder work asks for bigger trust. In Vietnam, there is a saying that ‘if trust is lost, all is lost.’ Trust is the beginning of all friendships and cooperation, the remedy that works to prevent calculations that could risk conflicts. Trust must be treasured and nurtured constantly by concrete, consistent actions in accordance with the common norms and with a sincere attitude.

Launching the Asia Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was offering a classic bit of crisis caution: ‘Under the surface of growth and development in Asia lie dangerous currents of nationalism, aggression and discord. Unchecked, they threaten to undo decades of peace and progress’.

When Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, addressed the Roundtable, the first of his big three issues facing the region was the ‘trust deficit’ (the other two being territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas and managing change).

For me, though, the sharpest definition of the ASEAN dilemma was offered by a senior Chinese diplomat who said Beijing wanted ASEAN unity, but not if it was directed against China:

China will not support ASEAN to unite against China. And ASEAN is not going to agree to be against China. And the same is true if ASEAN is asked to be against the US; ASEAN countries will be split. This is a group of small and medium-sized countries that does not want to be against anybody.

Mark that as a spot on analysis, equally useful as description and prescription. ASEAN has no more ability to line up against China than it could line up for the US. ASEAN can never be unanimous in going against the big beasts. The institutional aim is always to get some internal levels of consensus within Southeast Asia, and that’s where the trust deficit really hurts.

The central crisis for ASEAN is always the problem of internal split among the ten members. Cracks in the facade of unity let in all sorts of dangers. China is greatly amplifying the fundamental centrifugal tensions ever-present within ASEAN. No surprise in this: the core of the ASEAN being is to act as a confidence building and reassurance mechanism for the ten states of Southeast Asia in dealing with each other. In that foundational mode, ASEAN has had its greatest success. Grafting on to that core role the much larger ambition of leading the whole of Asia (ASEAN in the driver’s seat) is where large amounts of shadow envelop the ASEAN substance.

ASEAN isn’t going to be able to do much about the external pressures. The best hope is that the two simultaneous electoral cycles in the US and China have now run their course and perhaps normal business can resume. The first summit of the US-China g2 might produce an easing of tensions. And, if the g2 does deliver some degree of condominium concert, ASEAN can segue from crisis to an unusual moment of success.

Next year, Burma will serve as ASEAN’s chairman for the first time. Recall that Burma had to forgo its previous rotational right to chair ASEAN because of intense pressure amounting to a veto from the rest of Southeast Asia; plenty of ASEAN crisis in that fight. Now Burma is glorying in its new found popularity, having shed its pariah skin in two years through an amazing period of change. Not least in the many pleasures this promises for the rest of ASEAN is that Burma, as chair, is unlikely to buckle to pressure from China in the same way as Cambodia.

The looming triumph, though, shouldn’t divert us too much from the usual ASEAN narrative of crisis. One of the delights that Burma will bring is some hint of what ASEAN might look like with a democratic majority. A Burma that follows Indonesia’s democratic course could line up with those other regional states also enjoying their own soft democratic springs; Singapore and Malaysia. The Philippines will always be the Philippines (democracy played as anarchy) while Thailand must eventually talk itself out of the strange political cul-de-sac it’s argued its way into. Add in Brunei as the member that will always fall in behind Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore—on those rare occasions that the three line up—and suddenly you have an ASEAN that is predominantly democratic as well as diverse.

No wonder Indonesia’s Foreign Minister is as worried about managing change as he is about the trust deficit. A democratic ASEAN could be perpetually in crisis in exactly the same manner as the old ASEAN. But the ASEAN consensus would need more popular support to endorse the usual set of elite understandings and interests.

Savour that picture of ASEAN triumph for now—because the next column will be about the South China Sea; and that takes us back to the ASEAN-in-crisis headline.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons