Asean engages global strategic partners
The Trump administration's chaotic and erratic diplomacy has prompted Asean to intensify and widen engagement with its strategic partners. At its recent summit in Singapore, Asean elevated Russia and the European Union to its eighth and ninth strategic partners, respectively.
After four decades of proactive engagement with the outside world since 1977, the grouping has finally established strategic partnerships with major movers and shakers. These partners are the US, China, EU, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Canada remains the only dialogue partner that is not a strategic partner.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.
Asean's strategic partners come in all sizes, influences and areas of cooperation, reflecting their geopolitical and geo-economic values. They first joined as dialogue partners which have also been sources of development assistance, technology transfers and export markets for the grouping.
When New Zealand was upgraded to a strategic partner in 2015, some great powers, namely the US and Russia, along with the EU, were flabbergasted. The frequently asked question was: How could a small country without any nuclear weapons, and only marginal political clout, be given this privilege ahead of the global powers? Indeed, from Asean's perspective, Wellington has been considered one of its closest strategic partners in all fields of cooperation.
Beyond the free trade agreement, which was done together with Australia, New Zealand also worked with Asean in traditional and non-traditional security areas, including defence and security, disaster-risk management, connectivity and maritime cooperation. Its existing action plan and past achievements related to Asean have covered the whole gamut of a valuable strategic partner. To say the least, Asean-New Zealand cooperation has been efficient and focused. That is why tiny New Zealand was ahead of the superpowers.
That same year also saw the US become the seventh strategic partner. It was long overdue, given the US's regional and global status. Washington's past inconsistency on Asean-related policies prevented its members from forging a consensus over the improved US status. Thanks to former president Barack Obama's close personal rapport with all of the Asean leaders from 2009-2017, Asean-US ties have improved markedly.
Indeed, he left a great legacy as the US president who forged an unprecedented level of friendship and cooperation with his Asean colleagues. Mr Obama was also popular among Asean youth, transforming the US-Asean youth programme into an exceptional example of cooperation.
That was the reason Mr Obama pulled off the February 2016 summit, the first held on the mainland US -- a tangible outcome of Asean-US extraordinary relations as enshrined in the 17-point Sunnylands Declaration. Without such a strong foundation, the current state of Asean-US relations would be backsliding. The Trump administration has yet to assign a new US envoy to Asean -- a position that has been vacant for the past two years.
Truth be told, it pained Asean greatly not to upgrade Russia as a strategic partner in 2015 due to a lack of support among members. Moscow has not paid enough attention to the grouping despite saying the right things officially. Russia, which wields enormous political power outside Southeast Asia, has refocused its foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific region. After repeatedly failing to kick off its new pivot toward the region in 2012, Moscow realised that more efforts were needed to strengthen ties with Asean beyond its excellent friendship with Vietnam.
In Singapore earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his presence felt at the 13th East Asia Summit (EAS) for the first time and the 3rd Asean-Russia Summit, stressing the importance of the regional grouping in Russia's external relations, which used to focus only on the independent Central Asian States and EU.
Mr Putin knows Asean well. He was at the inaugural EAS meeting in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005 as the chair's guest and was scheduled to attend the EAS in Phnom Penh in 2012. However, he skipped that summit at the last minute because of scheduling changes by the host to accommodate other EAS leaders, missing a great opportunity to posit Russian Asian policy in the regional scheme of things.
In Singapore, for the first time, Russia felt at home with Asean leaders as Mr Putin successfully pushed for stronger future ties between Asean and his brain-child, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) -- a memorandum of understanding was signed on economic cooperation by the two blocs. Apart from Vietnam, which is an observer of the EAEU, other Asean members have also shown interest, including Thailand.
Future Asean-Russia relations will become more strategic, as Moscow is getting more interested in the regional process. Russia can play a role in the regional security architecture and serve as a countervailing force in the "vicious world" as described by President Donald Trump last week. Asean has already tapped into Russia's overall strategic assets, including its energy surplus, military technology, and information and communications potential.
Finally, the EU's long-standing demand to be both a strategic partner and an EAS member has been partially fulfilled. From its inception in 1977, the EU has been most generous in providing development and capacity-building assistance. Furthermore, it has been the top provider of foreign investment to Asean and now ranks second as trading partner. However, their relations have been bumpy and unpleasant.
The 28-member economic union has different views of Asean, as most of them tended to look down on Asean as a talking shop or a petty club for dictators. From Asean's perspective, EU leaders are arrogant and smug, and love to lecture Asean on norms and values. Of late, these negative views have faded away and the EU has become more sensitive and appreciative of the grouping's efforts to promote free trade and multilateralism.
Despite issuing regular criticisms of different levels of political development within Asean, the EU has shown restraint. The EU's internal challenges to fully implement a values-based approach among its members have increased overall awareness of the difficulties other countries with similar issues face. But Brussels remains a strong advocate of respecting human rights and democracy.
The dramatic shift in the trans-Atlantic alliance since Mr Trump came to power has also affected the EU's attitude toward Asean, making it easier to forge closer ties collectively. The EU and Asean will soon discuss a region-to-region free trade agreement. In the past two years, President Trump has belittled Europe time and again, pushing European countries, once close allies of the US, to build their own new coalition of the willing.
With Mr Trump's personal diplomacy still going strong and having far-reaching repercussions, Asean has responded quickly by inviting more strategic players. The announcement of the EU's strategic partnership will be made in Brussels at the 22nd Asean-EU foreign ministerial meeting in January.
For the first time, both regional organisations can look forward to cooperating in new strategic areas such as maritime security, climate change, cybersecurity and combating violent extremism. The EU now views Asean as a driving force for dialogue and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
Asean will continue to intensify its engagement with external powers to strengthen its role in the regional mechanism and ensure that no nation can establish hegemony in the region. After all, the strength of Asean centrality is the guarantor of the region's well-being and survival.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs