Asean nears its Thucydides trap turning point
In the whirlwind of the 554 officially listed events which marked the start of the UN General Assembly debates in New York two weeks ago, the concern raised by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres -- that the world is moving towards a Great Fracture -- was understandably lost in the cacophony.
After all, the annual gathering of the world's parliament had a more-than-usual array of events associated with it -- ranging from the Climate Action Summit, to High-Level Meetings on Universal Health Coverage, and Financing for the Furthest Left Behind, to Forced Organ Harvesting in China, and a session entitled Pamoja for Mamas (pamoja means "together" in Swahili).
Meanwhile, young climate protesters and "extinction rebels" out on the streets under the banner "We the Future" noted that airline flights produce 895 million tonnes of CO² a year, and more than 11 million trees are cut down each day for paper, with global warming likely to be irreversible within 10 years.
Earlier last week, Mr Guterres, in an open letter to member states and the UN's 37,000 employees, warned that the organisation is running a deficit of US$230 million (about 7 billion baht) and will be in default by the end of November, since many member states have not paid their dues. He further warned that conferences and meetings will have to be cancelled or postponed, services reduced, and travel restricted only to essential activities.
Indeed, at a time when youths are going onto the streets around the planet, splashy conclaves of government leaders are losing some of their aura. How leaders meet and what they produce is also starting to change. No grand themes, and even not having joint communiques, are becoming the norm. As France's Emmanuel Macron, who chaired the G7 session in France in August noted, "No one reads communiques, let's be honest. And in recent times you read the communiques only to detect disagreements.. None of the leaders discusses them in advance. These are the quarrels of bureaucrats and the deep state."
A bland communique certainly not only marks the lowest common denominator, but also constrains individual national views, making the whole less than the sum of its parts. Mr Macron called for "intimate" sessions among leaders to come up with practical directions, but admits current crises of democracy, capitalism, and equality together with a "widespread fascination with authoritarian regimes" will make consensus increasingly difficult, undermining multilateralism and adherence to the rule of law.
Which brings us back to Mr Guterres' warning about the Great Fracture. He defines it as "the world splitting in two, with the largest economies on earth creating two separate and competing worlds, each with their own dominant currency, trade and financial rules, their own internet and artificial intelligence capacities, and their own zero sum geopolitical and military strategies". The two worlds will certainly have different value-systems.
For Southeast Asia, the idea of a modern Thucydides' trap, in which war ultimately occurs between a dominant power -- in this case, the United States -- and a rising power, China, has become an accepted fact of life. It is even being taught in some Thai primary schools. But the prevailing view among governmental leaders has been that we still have time -- perhaps 10 to 20 years -- to duck and weave among the major players, to balance economic interests and security imperatives, to balance freedom and control. But what it is, is essentially a yearning for the status quo, and an equilibrium in external relations.
In recent days, we have witnessed an increasingly distracted Washington in policy disarray, a Europe still entangled in a Brexit knot, the unabashed militaristic triumphalism of the China's 70th anniversary celebrations, continuing popular discontent in Hong Kong, an increasingly weaponised South China Sea, and the breakdown of North Korean nuclear talks. It may be time for Asean to consciously adapt and change to suit the circumstances, rather than cling to the status quo.
The concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific had been predicated on a core Quad group of democratic market-economy countries -- the US, Japan, India, and Australia. The unspoken assumption was that it would draw other like-minded nations into an alliance to counter-balance China.
However, Asean's well-meaning Outlook on the Indo-Pacific -- which welcomes everyone -- essentially dilutes the concept as a meaningful make-weight.
The current visit to India by China's President Xi Jinping for bilateral talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi underscores the point that the Indo-Pacific concept may already have outlived its strategic usefulness. Because the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement, if brought into being, would reinforce the gravitational shift in the world's balance of power equation, with China in the centre.
Not much, but as a start, and in line with the We the Future environmental street protests, in addition to that of "We the People", it will be necessary to look to the Track II conclaves of civil society organisations to strengthen the sinews of regional understanding and cooperation. Representatives of the Asean Civil Society Conference and/or Asean People's Forum, whose annual get-together in early September had been shunted to the outskirts of Bangkok, should be brought into the mainstream of dialogue and decision-making with Asean governmental leaders. Conscious and coordinated efforts must be made towards this end. The region's resilience can only come from vibrant civil societies. Economically and militarily, we cannot compete with major players. Without a firm base linking all ten nations, Asean will be in a more exposed situation. The locking of arms on stage must become more inclusive.
It can no longer be just meetings between governmental leaders, or big corporations. The civil societies of Asean countries must now be engaged and brought into a formal and structured dialogue about the future. Rather than weapons or GDP growth, the civil societies of Asean may ultimately be our strongest line of defence. Young Greta Thunberg and her colleagues vividly demonstrated on the streets of New York and elsewhere, that there is strength in passion at grassroots level. Asean members must adapt and turn towards building on such strengths, especially when multilateral institutions appear to be in decline. We must transit out of the usual modes of conferencing.
Before he passed away, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had warned that "China's strategy for Southeast Asia is fairly simple: China tells the region, 'come grow with me.' At the same time, China's leaders want to convey the impression that China's rise is inevitable and that countries will need to decide if they want to be China's friend or foe when it 'arrives'."
Given the recent accelerated trend of events around the world, that time is fast "arriving" for this region. A time for decisions is approaching faster than most have anticipated, and perhaps faster than Asean leaders are comfortable with. Time is being compressed by circumstances. For Vietnam, as chair next year, the overriding expectation will be to help steer Asean towards a safe passage. Beyond next year, it may well be too late.
Asean changed the image of this region from being the "Balkans of Asia" -- a region of rival, tribal and warring states -- into the most successful subregional organisation in the world. It is now important to guard against the process of "Finlandisation", by which smaller countries defer to a powerful neighbour, even though allowed to keep their nominal independence and political systems.
More relevant than the Thucydides trap at this moment might be the hypothetical construct of "Buridan's donkey", named after 14th century French philosopher, Jean Buridan. He posited that a hungry donkey caught exactly in the middle of two bales of hay may eventually die of starvation because it cannot decide which way to turn.
We have reached an inflection point. From this point, there can be no business-as-usual. Asean will have to make hard choices. How we and future generations live depend on it.
Kobsak Chutikul is a retired ambassador and former elected member of parliament.