Tuesday, March 6, 2012

ASEAN centrality: a year of big power transitions

Much has been made of Asia’s rise to global prominence and the continent’s increasingly important role in global politics.

But what does this mean for ASEAN, whose regional presence has also received growing attention from the global community of late?

The US has already launched its ‘forward-deployed diplomacy’ strategy in the region, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s attendance at last year’s ASEAN Regional Forum and her landmark visit to Myanmar in December last year. And the US’s recent high-level meetings with the Philippines and Singapore over defence and security issues equally suggest that ASEAN will become a strategic region for Washington in the not-so-distant future.

Meanwhile, Beijing has embarked on its own charm offensive by putting its money where its mouth is. By matching its political rhetoric with material resources, China has increasingly built its reputation as a credible long-term stakeholder within the region, with very positive results. The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area is now the third-largest in the world by trade volume. Additionally, Beijing has embarked on other new initiatives such as the Greater Mekong Subregion, the emerging Beibu Gulf Economic Rim, the Nanning-Singapore Economic Corridor and the East-West Economic Corridor.

In 2009, the Chinese government also proposed to invest US$25 billion in infrastructure and other development projects in the region over the next three to five years. In fact, Beijing’s ability to maintain its stellar economic performance despite the global economic downturn has prompted some analysts to suggest that China could emerge as an independent source of demand, with Chinese consumers making up — at least partially — for consumption loss in the West.

The need to straddle both Washington’s and Beijing’s interests is not lost on ASEAN. While visiting Washington earlier this February, Singapore’s foreign minister, K. Shanmugam, suggested that the US needed to avoid anti-Chinese rhetoric in its domestic debates. Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh also explained the ASEAN strategy in a recent interview as ‘[bringing] the major powers (particularly the US and China) together and [embedding] them in a cooperative framework … thereby [reducing] the deficit of trust’.

With the newly revamped East Asia Summit (EAS) in the regional limelight of late, some scholars have described the need for ASEAN to lead the EAS in such a way as to make it ‘acceptable to Beijing as well as relevant to Washington’. One approach currently being pursued is the stress on ‘ASEAN centrality’ — the notion of an ASEAN-led regional architecture in which the region’s relations with the wider world are conducted with the interests of the ASEAN community in mind. Over the years, the usefulness of this strategy has been demonstrated at the EAS, a forum whose agenda and membership are determined solely by ASEAN members. The inclusion of the US and Russia in the meeting last year suggests that greater attention is now being accorded to the ASEAN political theatre.

Last year’s ASEAN Regional Forum also saw participating countries discuss a wide range of issues from territorial disputes in the South China Sea to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Indeed, the forum found considerable traction among top global leaders, as seen by the attendance of both Hillary Clinton and China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi.

Nevertheless, there is a danger of overstretching the usefulness and effectiveness of such an approach, especially if ASEAN countries start to adopt an ‘inward-looking, it-is-all-about-ASEAN mentality’. Paradoxically, ASEAN’s ascension to global prominence came about as a result of member states’ willingness to open up to the wider global community of nations. In other words, ASEAN centrality was made possible because individual ASEAN countries chose to align their fortunes with the rest of the world; this opening up is the main driver of the ASEAN community’s collective success.

In light of the increasingly complex and multifaceted nature of global challenges, the tendency and temptation for ASEAN to look inwards and close in on itself will grow. Anxieties over big-power relations and the uncertainties of how these interactions will play out could lead ASEAN member states to disengage from global challenges and develop parochial and isolationist tendencies instead.

The Bali Concord III, signed in November 2011 by ASEAN leaders, must not be used to justify an overly ASEAN-centric view of the world. Such an outcome would paralyse a region whose very growth was founded upon the diverse and dynamic relationships its member states have with the wider world. Already the first two months of 2012 have witnessed the emergence of several political narratives that could define global matters for the rest of the year. ASEAN will inevitably be drawn into the picture; its ability to maintain global engagement while keeping its own house in order will be a critical test of its readiness — and relevance — as a regional stakeholder.

By Benjamin Ho Tze Ern Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. East Asia Forum. A version of this article was first published as RSIS Commentary No. 28/2012

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