Mekong mainland coalesces after Asean rift

Mekong mainland coalesces after Asean rift

The annual meeting in Vientiane was marred by an inability to take a stand on the court ruling over the South China Sea. (Photo via Asean.org)
The annual meeting in Vientiane was marred by an inability to take a stand on the court ruling over the South China Sea. (Photo via Asean.org)

Although it was established 49 years ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as we know it has been around only since 1999 when Cambodia joined Southeast Asia's premier regional organisation as its 10th member state after Laos and Myanmar had entered two years earlier. Asean was originally set up on different rationales and for different purposes than what it has become today as a loosely structured grouping of a diplomatic community with ambitious regionalisation plans that require a central strategic role in Asia.

Over the past two decades, Asean's similarities and differences co-existed and enmeshed in a non-binding but useful and significant "Asean way" by ultimately leaving each other alone, cooperating where its 10 members can, putting off and fudging areas where collective action is not possible.

Asean's non-interference and non-supranational formula is now under an existential challenge because of shifting great-power dynamics. China's recent rejection of the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration's decision in favour of the Philippines over conflicting claims in the South China Sea is undermining Asean's reason for being. That the 10 members cannot stand together when one or more of its constituent parts are being pushed around has exposed Asean's raw weakness.

In a broader sense, the differences between Asean's old and new members have surged to the fore. The divergent interests between Asean's maritime and mainland states have also become more acute. Geography and economic development, otherwise known as Asean's "connectivity", are the intersection of these dynamics. Cambodia and Laos are far apart from the Philippines and Indonesia on South China Sea issues.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Other China-leaning states include Brunei and Thailand, whereas the rest would rather sit on the fence to avoid Beijing's ire in hopes that repercussions from the PCA's watershed decision blow over soon. Vietnam is the pivotal state between old and new, mainland and maritime Asean. But with China as a giant next door neighbour and top economic partner, Vietnam has played it safe. It should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Philippines because the two countries have similar stakes in the South China Sea that are at risk from Chinese unilateral takeover but Hanoi has been conspicuously quiet.

Going forward, Southeast Asia is likely to see more great-power rivalry and interference. As Asean's regional integration falls short despite the plans for an Asean Economic Community, development on the ground in mainland Southeast Asia is likely to pick up pace.

Mainland Southeast Asia now provides several concentric circles of development and destinations for trade, investment and tourism. Its future will be like before Western imperialism when its peoples traversed the land in search of opportunities.

The Greater Mekong Sub-region, including the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, is home to more than 400 million people with half the size of Asean's US$2.5 trillion (87 trillion baht) GDP. In smaller frames of regional mainland growth, CLMTV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) have a combined GDP of US$700 billion and a 250-million-people market. Minus Vietnam, the China-dominated CLMT space alone offers a market of 150 million and half a trillion GDP in dollar terms. Most important, all of these regional development frames are expanding indefinitely. Even with Thailand's laggard trend growth of 3% in the medium term, the overall growth trajectory of the Mekong Mainland space is in the 5-6% range.

These numbers are matched by connectivity and economic opportunities on the ground. In the East-West economic corridor, long promoted by the Japan-sponsored Asian Development Bank, road connectivity is viable from Mawlamyine in southern Myanmar crossing into and through central and northeast Thailand and southern Laos to end up in Danang. The North-South road passageway similarly connects Kunming in southern China to Bangkok and southern Thailand. The southern corridor from Dawei in southern Myanmar to Thailand's capital and lower northeast through Cambodia and eventually to Vung Tau in south Vietnam is the most inchoate of ADB's road connectivity projects but it has made progress.

These promising growth and connectivity trends are accompanied by myriad problems from human and drug trafficking to transnational crime.

Harmonisation problems are everywhere. Roads are often bumpy, border crossings snagged by delays and cross-border bureaucracies that are accustomed to work separately. Languages and internet speeds differ along the way. Yet most of the connected towns across the Mekong mainland areas are seeing more tourism and business, not less.

Over the next two decades, on-the-ground development and integration in mainland Southeast Asia will increase steadily. It will be facilitated by geography and driven by business opportunities. Governments will not have to play as big a role except in harmonising and enabling standards and bureaucratic procedures and combating crimes.

This is in contrast to Asean as a whole which is largely steered by member governments and less by natural drivers on the ground. The geopolitical implication from the rise of mainland Southeast Asia is that the China-Japan relationship will be the main determinant, as opposed to the maritime Southeast Asia where China-United States ties are critical.

For Thailand in a world where order and stability are unravelling inexorably and where its domestic politics will have to find a new footing and an agreeable set of newly written and unwritten rules, a regional cushion for growth and development is a must. Mired in domestic tension and conflict indefinitely over the past decade, Thailand's saving grace for its economy to keep growing incrementally may well be mainland Southeast Asia with the Mekong running through it.

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