Asean chairmanship has many limitations
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Asean chairmanship has many limitations

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha accepts the chairmanship of the regional group at the Singapore meeting of the Asean Summit and Related Summits. Thailand and Prime Minister Prayut will chair Asean during 2019 at a time when regional vision is sorely lacking. (AP photo)
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha accepts the chairmanship of the regional group at the Singapore meeting of the Asean Summit and Related Summits. Thailand and Prime Minister Prayut will chair Asean during 2019 at a time when regional vision is sorely lacking. (AP photo)

Just as all politics is ultimately local, all regionalism is mostly domestic. Such is the case with Asean. Whichever of the 10 member states chairs Asean, its role and performance tends to be domestically rooted. To envision and drive Asean forward requires deft leadership, bold ideas and smart diplomacy that must extend beyond and transcend parochial domestic concerns. No Asean member has shown this sort of farsighted regionalist ambition in recent years. Thailand appears on course to be no different when it chairs Asia's most durable organisation next year.

To be sure, Asean as a group, especially before its expansion from six to 10 member states in the 1990s, used to be smarter, bolder, more confident and assertive. Its formation in 1967 was a demonstration of leadership and diplomacy in defiance of an adverse external environment. Taking personal reputational risks and placing Thailand's regional role at stake, then-foreign minister Thanat Khoman mediated and assembled warring neighbours to build on past organisational endeavours and optimise their geographic setting to maintain regional autonomy and promote national development.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

Fast-forward to the next generation, former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Thailand's Anand Panyarachun were instrumental in harnessing Asean's economic dynamism and combined geopolitical weight to anchor regionalisation. That era spawned Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 1989, an Asean Free Trade Area in 1992, and the Asean Regional Forum in 1994. These were later leveraged into Asean Plus Three in 1998 and the East Asia Summit in 2005, before the launch of the Asean Charter three years later. Since then, Asean has proceeded with other Asean-centred enterprises, such as the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. Asean centrality, meaning 10-member grouping as the default and de facto driver of regionalism and architecture-building in Asia, became a bicycle that had to be peddled without pause lest it fell.

But now, all is different and unwell. Despite mutual reassurances, routine self-congratulatory gestures and patting each other on the back, Asean centrality is being overshadowed and potentially overwhelmed. A thousand meetings a year, underlined by comforting words and impressive announcements and communiques will not make Asean's ominous challenges go away.

Chief and most fundamental among these challenges is the superpower rivalry between the United States and China. When Asean was formed, it was intended to keep regional autonomy during the bipolar Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Asean weathered the Cold War with flying colours, keeping communist expansionism at bay and the two superpowers at arm's length, while benefiting from economic development enabled by relative political stability. Now the neighbourhood is fraught with rivalry and confrontation between another pair of superpowers, incumbent and challenger, the US and China.

Any bold Asean leadership would have to address this challenge first and foremost. It is the same as in the beginning long ago. Asean is congenitally about keeping the major powers from dominating Southeast Asia, maintaining internal peace among member states, and enabling economic growth and development. While Asean has witnessed remarkable economic success, with intramural peace, notwithstanding occasional bilateral acrimony between next-door neighbours like Thailand and Cambodia, Southeast Asia's regional organisation has been divided.

It has had no effective response to China's territorial expansion in the South China Sea and construction of dams on the upper Mekong River to the detriment of downstream Cambodia and Vietnam. Asean trumpets that it now had a "single document" with China that can be negotiated and finalised into a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Yet China has made no major concessions and shown no intent of abiding by an agreement with a bunch of smaller states. In mainland Southeast Asia, the non-binding Mekong River Commission that oversees water resource utilisation has been made irrelevant by China's newly launched Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiative.

Moreover, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state has consumed much of Asean's global bandwidth with no notable regional redress. It has become an international consensus that Myanmar has engaged in systematic offences constituting no less than "ethnic cleansing". Asean, under Singapore's leadership this year, mustered a few words of concern but these were quickly crowded out by international condemnation and Myanmar's official recalcitrance.

On another front, Asean's authoritarian upsurge merits scrutiny. It slowed but was not halted by Malaysia's poll outcome last May whereby a corrupt autocratic regime was voted out. Authoritarian practices in violation of basic rights needs to be addressed, especially in the case of Thailand's delayed transition to popular rule and Cambodia's manipulated election that produced a virtual one-party dictatorship.

The broadest challenge of all is the US-led pushback against China, with close support from Australia, Japan and India to a lesser extent. It has taken shape in the so-called free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). As China will not be taking it hands down without a fight, superpower tensions will likely rise. Even on the Korean Peninsula, where there has been tentative progress towards de-nuclearisation, the first Trump-Kim summit that took place last June in Singapore, which is Asean's outgoing chair, it was an outcome outside Asean's purview.  Where Asean wants to be a catalyst, such as in the completion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, it needs more depth and density to be a full-fledged regional free-trade platform.

Asean is unlikely to vet these most daunting issues at any length that can make a difference. What Asean can and will discuss, to be fair, includes the threat of extremism and terrorism, disruptive technologies, humanitarian assistance and disaster risk and management, and the like. These important challenges warrant attention but they are marginal and incidental to what Asean is all about and where it needs to be going to remain effective and central in Asia.

At this time of heightened geopolitical tensions and competition by bigger powers, Asean should look for ways to adapt and promote a rules-based order that suits and accommodates member states and the outside powers. Asean is normally a rules taker but it should aim to make a few rules and dissuade and discourage others from breaking them. Such is Asean's most existential dilemma which awaits a regional leadership that is driven by a broad consensus at home.

Thailand's Asean theme for next year of "sustainable development" in line with "sufficiency" and the UN's "sustainable development goals" can hardly be faulted. Sustainability in all of its layers and dimensions should be heeded and pursued. It just happens to be off the mark for the kind of leadership Asean needs. It merely reveals Thailand's risk aversion and fairly minimalist approach for having botched its last chairmanship in 2008-09 when street protests disrupted top-level Asean-led meetings. It is a pity that getting by this time after what happened last time may just be good enough for Thailand because this co-founder and birthplace of Asean used to lead and deliver much more.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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