ASEAN Ready for Global Role?

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Much has been made over the last decade concerning the rise of Asia – led by China and India – and the continent’s increasingly important role. The announcement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year that the 21st century would be America’s “Pacific Century” further strengthened the belief that the epicenter of 21st century global politics would be located within Asia. And, as has been well-documented, ongoing economic turmoil has also led to growing numbers of Western countries looking at Asia – particularly China – for financial assistance. In light of various leadership transitions taking place later this year among the major powers, one can expect conditions in Asia to factor significantly in the political discourse of their leaders.

What does Asia’s increasing prominence mean for ASEAN – a ten-member political community whose regional presence has received growing attention from the global community of late? Already Washington has embarked on its “forward-deployed diplomacy” strategy in the region as evinced by Clinton’s attendance at last year’s ASEAN Regional Forum and her landmark visit to Burma in December. The United States’ recent conduct of separate high level meetings with both the Philippines and Singapore over defense and security issues suggests that ASEAN will be a strategic region as far as Washington’s military strategies are involved. In a recent interview on CNN, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for his part, noted that the U.S. presence in the region since World War II has been a “tremendous benign influence” and that it was “a good example for the Chinese to seek to emulate.”

Beijing, meanwhile, has also embarked on its own charm offensive, putting its money where its mouth is. By matching its political rhetoric with material resources, China has increasingly built its reputation as a credible long-term stake holder within the region. In addition to the ASEAN-China Free Trade, the Chinese government also reportedly proposed a fund of $10 billion for infrastructure projects, along with a $15 billion loan for other developmental projects in the region over the next three to five years. Indeed, Beijing’s ability to maintain its stellar economic performance despite the global economic downturn has also prompted analysts to suggest that China could emerge as an independent source of demand – the potential of the Chinese consumer to replace, at least partially, the consumption lost in the West has been much discussed.

The need to straddle both Washington’s and Beijing’s interests isn’t lost on ASEAN countries, as noted by Singaporean Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, who suggested the U.S. needed to avoid anti-Chinese rhetoric in domestic debates while on his visit to Washington earlier this month. Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, in a recent interview, explained the ASEAN strategy as “[bringing] the major powers (particularly the U.S. and China) together and embed[ding] them in a cooperative framework…thereby [reducing] the deficit of trust.” With the newly revamped East Asia Summit hogging the regional limelight of late, some scholars have also described the need for ASEAN to lead the EAS in such a way as to make it “acceptable to Beijing as well as relevant to Washington.”

One way this is currently being achieved is the stress on “ASEAN centrality” – the notion of an ASEAN-led regional architecture in which the region’s relations with the wider world are conducted with the interest of the ASEAN community in mind. Over the years, this strategy’s usefulness has been demonstrated at the EAS, a forum whose agenda and membership are determined solely by ASEAN members. The inclusion of the U.S. and Russia into the meeting last year suggests that greater attention is accorded to the ASEAN political theatre. Last year’s ASEAN Regional Forum also witnessed ASEAN countries engaging in a wide range of issues from territorial disputes in the South China Sea to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. According to ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, speaking in an interview last year, “the fact that the world is interested in ASEAN’s forums and Asean’s stage [means] that we have delivered, it means we have served the purpose and that there are values in our stewardship of this architecture of cooperation [in East Asia].”

Nevertheless, there’s a danger of overstretching the usefulness and effectiveness of such an approach, especially if ASEAN states start to adopt an inward-looking, it’s all about ASEAN mentality. 

Paradoxically speaking, ASEAN’s ascension to global prominence came about as a result of ASEAN countries’ willingness to open themselves up to the wider global community of nations. In other words, ASEAN centrality was made possible because individual ASEAN countries chose to align their fortunes with the rest of the world, and in doing so, created the collective success of the ASEAN community.

In light of the increasingly complex and multifaceted nature of global challenges, the tendency and temptation for ASEAN to look inwards and close in on herself will grow. Anxieties over big power relations and the uncertainties of how these interactions could play out may lead ASEAN member states to disengage from global challenges and instead develop parochial and isolationist tendencies. Such an outcome would be unfortunate for ASEAN, and would paralyze the region whose very growth was founded upon a diverse and dynamic relationship its member states have with the wider world. 

Already, the first two months of 2012 have witnessed the emergence of several political narratives that could define global matters for the rest of the year. Events such as the ongoing Syrian crisis, the Greece financial impasse and Iran’s defiance of international sanctions will test the resourcefulness and resolve of the community in articulating a proper response. Inevitably, ASEAN will be drawn into the picture. The question is the extent to which it will be able to maintain its global engagement while at the same time keeping its own house in order. This will be a critical test of its readiness – and relevance – as a regional stakeholder.

Benjamin Ho Tze Ern is an Associate Research Fellow in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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