Saturday, November 15, 2014

Memo to China, US: Stay Out of ASEAN's Business

Some guests just don't make themselves popular. They're the ones who criticize their hosts' interior design choices; complain about people's table manners, offer unsolicited advice on how to keep the neighborhood tidy and upset the family balance with gifts of money.

This tends to be how China and the United States behave at the annual ASEAN summit, and the meeting this Thursday was no exception. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a bit like a family that has its work cut out for it out just keeping the peace.

A strange creature

Differences among the EU's member states are nearly imperceptible in comparison to the ASEAN countries. Home to a population of 240 million, Indonesia is gradually consolidating its fledgling democracy, while Thailand is home to a population of 70 million and recently reverted to military rule. Democracy in the Philippines, meanwhile, is vibrant and stable; Vietnam is led by reformist communists, while the city states of Singapore and Brunei both have highly stringent albeit very different governments.

Moreover, no other alliance of states in the world contains such a wide range of religions, from Christianity to Buddhism and Islam in both moderate and radical forms. There is also a wide wealth gap between the various member states.

ASEAN was founded in 2009, using the EU as a blueprint. It has since transpired that finding consensus among 600 million people is a lot more complicated. Even identifying a common position on China is divisive. In 2012, the meeting between 10 Southeast Asian foreign ministers in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, ended without their having agreed on a final declaration, because they were unable to decide how to deal with China.

Exercising restraint

Against this backdrop, there is only one solution: the guests from China and the US at the ASEAN summit in the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw should have exercised as much restraint as possible. No sniping about family dynamics, and no well-meaning but unwelcome advice to other members of the family.

But that's not the Americans' style. No sooner had he touched down, than US President Barack Obama began harping on about the human rights situation in Myanmar, criticizing a perceived step backwards in the process of political reform.

"Progress has not come as fast as many had hoped when the transition began four years ago," he told reporters. "In addition to restrictions on freedom of the press, we continue to see violations of basic human rights and abuses in the country's ethnic areas, including reports of extrajudicial killings, rape and forced labor." Obama finished on a conciliatory tone, saying that "the democratization process in Myanmar is real" - but his words were little consolation.

None of the ASEAN countries want to be lectured to like this by the American president, not least because no one in Asia believes that the United States can judge which political system is ever best under the circumstances in the first place. ASEAN countries have other yardsticks. Stability counts more than freedom. Not standing for any kind of interference is not anti-American but symptomatic of a fundamental Western value, namely self-determination. It's a value that - surprisingly - plays more of a role in Beijing's foreign policy that in that of many Western nations.

Beijing also likes to interfere

But Beijing too is not happy to stay completely out of things. The Chinese just do it in a quieter and less obvious manner. Rather than taking a public stance they prefer to have individual consultations with the various members of the ASEAN family and to play them off each other. The $480 million that China will contribute as aid to ASEAN members in the coming year is naturally not for the countries to do with as they desire. The money is directed by Beijing according to political motives. Naturally, Beijing can adopt the position of "he who pays also decides." But this is short-sighted: ASEAN states that pull together, and perhaps represent a conduit for dialogue with the world, would be able to stabilize Asia both politically and economically.

But the United States and China are only interested in this if ASEAN does what they want. As long as this is not the case the two world powers continue to mess around in ASEAN affairs. In this way ASEAN states, that often enough stand in their own way, never come together.

Of all people it fell to Prayut Chan-o-cha, a pro-West army general who now rules as prime minister after a putsch in Thailand, to find the right words. He said ASEAN states should "together and independently from outside influences" demonstrate that they can solve their differences with China alone.

In the coming year there will be plenty of opportunity for this: At the meeting in Myanmar the ASEAN states agreed that 2015 would be the year of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation.

DW columnist Frank Sieren is one of Germany's leading experts on China. He has lived in Beijing for 20 years.


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