The induction of China’s ‘fifth generation’ of leaders has observers around the world anticipating the effect of their new policies.
For ASEAN, it is likely that China’s policy and attitude toward the association will stay the course. Equally significant is the re-election of President Obama. Within two days of his victory, the White House announced a four-day visit to Southeast Asia, with the anchor being the East Asia Summit. The president’s attendance at the US–ASEAN Leaders’ Summit and visits to Thailand and Myanmar reaffirmed America’s commitment to ASEAN and reflects its strategic pivot to Asia.
ASEAN countries have substantial trade ties with the United States and rely on the sheer firepower of the US Navy in ongoing maritime disputes in the region, while at the same time ASEAN countries continue to benefit from China’s growth. This arrangement may be functional now, but the status quo will not remain static. What is painfully missing from the equation is the ASEAN community. The institution of ASEAN exists because the fates of these countries are tied together — a fact that is reflected in historical experience. What is predictable for the future is that security destabilisation or financial crisis will have regional effects. It will not always be in the interests of the United States to confront ASEAN’s rivals, nor can ASEAN always trust China to be a responsible international stakeholder.
What currently exists is a 45-year-old institution that has successfully maintained peace and liberalised trade among 10 countries. But what is also becoming clearer is that there are two ASEANs. One ASEAN is caught between the United States–China rivalry, the other is making its own decisions; one ASEAN worries about foreign-made goods, the other is buying out its competitors; one ASEAN looks inward while the other takes a regional outlook.
Malaysia is ASEAN’s blue chip; its oversubscribed initial public offerings, newly opened Tun Razak Exchange and million-dollar Iskandar project in Johor are all turning heads. But Malaysia has not taken a leadership role in ASEAN since the end of Mahathir Mohamad’s tenure in 2003. Prime Minister Najib Razak, the man who preaches ‘moderation’ in conflict resolution, has adopted the Chinese mantra and agreed not to multilateralise the South China Sea affair. Malaysia’s commitment to regional trade is also questionable, as the government continues to use domestic subsidy programs.
In Indonesia, ASEAN’s boom town, L’Oreal has built a US$130 million plant, which will serve as Southeast Asia’s production and distribution hub, while Toyota is doubling its capacity through a US$1.3 billion investment plan over the next five years. These multinationals seem to understand the advantages of regionalism, but many Indonesian politicians and policy makers do not. Instead, protectionist mining laws are being passed, based on the input of powerful interest groups ahead of the 2014 elections. Credit must be given to Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s shuttle diplomacy in July, however, which managed to reconcile some of the differences after the breakdown at the ASEAN ministerial summit. Yet it is unclear why Jakarta did not step up much earlier.
Thailand, which received visits both from President Obama and Premier Wen Jiabao in November, is well positioned to use its status as a pivot state to enforce ASEAN centrality. Instead, Bangkok is distracted by domestic affairs. From the recent anti-government Pitak Siam street rally to Prime Minister Yingluck’s no-confidence debate — Thailand seems unable and unready to take on a regional role.
Lastly, there is Myanmar, ASEAN’s biggest attraction. Myanmar stands to gain greatly from regional cooperation. President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi now share the top spot in Foreign Policy Magazine’s 100 Top Global Thinkers for their reforms, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s iconic status and tour of the West have substantially raised the country’s international profile. But neither the government nor Aung San Suu Kyi herself have taken action against the glaring ethnic violence and apartheid-like conditions that its own people are perpetrating against the country’s Muslim minority; and a much-anticipated foreign investment law that will provide the proper channels for investment continues to be delayed.
In many ways, ASEAN is a bastion of growth; it does not suffer from an overwhelming debt burden or unmanageable unemployment, but these conditions are not a permanent fixture, and global uncertainty and shocks are imminent. However, given this future outlook, the leaders and people of these 10 countries have a crucial choice to make: advocate and commit to further integration or become pawns in the new Great Game in Southeast Asia. While the pros and cons of the ASEAN+6 trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership are being assessed, it is the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint that should take centre stage. Neglect of the ASEAN agenda will have a detrimental effect in the long run for member states. Leaders must rethink their national agendas and invest in a regional foreign policy. ASEAN unity will continue to be tested and it is only through further regionalisation and staunch support for multilateralism that nations can prosper.
Chayut Setboonsarng is a policy analyst at the CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.
This article was first published here in the Bangkok Post.