MANDALAY — With much of ASEAN stuck in the economic doldrums and its senior members beset with issues ranging from unprecedented levels of corruption to violent insurgencies and maritime disputes with China, the regional bloc has known better days.
But from the most unlikely corners of northern ASEAN, a more common sense approach to the region’s increasingly complex political dynamics appears to have accompanied leadership change.
The electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in Myanmar (and her subsequent appointment as state counselor) plus the appointments of Bounnhang Vorachith as president of Laos and Nguyễn Xuân Phúc as the new prime minister in Vietnam may well have ushered in a surprising new era.
The CLMV and Being Important
Along with Cambodia, the grouping of Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam as the CLMV has sometimes derogatorily been referred to as the poor relation of ASEAN. Their combined gross domestic product is about $224 billion, less than 10 percent of the $2.4 trillion GDP enjoyed by the entire 10-nation bloc.
All four were latecomers to ASEAN, joining in the 1990s. At the time, the secretariat in Jakarta came under fire from some quarters for allowing Cold War pariahs Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and the military controlled Myanmar into a club whose members were, for the most part, democratic and Western focused.
Most issues regarding these countries were shaped by their lack of money, a reliance on foreign handouts, and an inability to look after anyone but those closest to the ruling party. They also lacked competent infrastructure systems, particularly legal and financial.
Those needs drove Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos heavily toward an expanding China and its foreign aid policy, which dispensed money that by and large did not come with strings attached, unlike Western governments where issues like human rights were tied to funding.
But relations appear to have changed as the three new leaderships stepped onto the diplomatic stage at this year’s ASEAN summits in Vientiane. Some of the political baggage of the past that always seemed intractable now looks negotiable.
In Laos, Bounnhang’s government has impressed as this year’s chair of ASEAN, worthy of applause after Stalinist-styled edicts were issued by his predecessor on how to behave at these summits. But more importantly Laos has changed the China dynamic and has pushed his country closer to Beijing’s historical nemesis, Vietnam.
As a result, talk of building multi-billion-dollar fast trains across Laos, from Thailand, and into China, and the damning of the Mekong River at a cost Vientiane can ill-afford has faded, at least for the time being.
That has eased the politicization of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) where infighting and allegations of corruption has worked only to the detriment of the 70 million people who feed directly off the river.
Meanwhile Beijing, which backed the military in Myanmar, has responded to the changing times and is now offering Suu Kyi an olive branch. China is even signalling it is prepared to use its influence to support her peace negotiations with ethnic Chinese insurgents.
“I do believe that as a good neighbor China will do everything possible to promote our peace process,” Suu Kyi told journalists ahead of early September’s five-day peace talks. There were no breakthroughs at the talks but they were still hailed as an important step.
“Without peace there can be no sustained development,” Suu Kyi said.
With these leadership changes, China can no longer count on automatic support from Laos or Myanmar and is almost friendless in its hotly disputed maritime claims in the South China Sea to waters long held by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.
Buoyed by the Philippines’ victory over Chinese claims in the international courts, Vietnam has also found some legal vigor in its bid to have negotiations held on a multilateral basis with ASEAN, as opposed to the bilateral talks with each country preferred by China, which would be to its strategic advantage.
Thailand and Singapore have done their best to remain out of the dispute.
That leaves Cambodia as China’s sole dependable ally and it has formally asked ASEAN to remain silent on the maritime issue. As one analyst, who declined to be named, said: “This is hardly a formidable combination and any influence Phnom Penh may have had within ASEAN has been compromised by its stand on the South China Sea.”
ASEAN’s Finest Not Always the Brightest
CLMV has often been intimidated by its more prosperous, senior ASEAN neighbors. However, the countries once lauded as Asian Tigers have fallen on hard times when judged by their own historical standards.
Succession issues with an ailing monarch and a military government that seized power through a coup continue to dog Thailand. Corruption, the 1MDB scandal, and militant Islam have sorely tested Malaysia, once known for its brand of secularism and as a model regional business partner.
In the Philippines, the deadly crackdown on drug dealers, launched by recently elected president Rodrigo Duterte, has resulted in about 2,000 extrajudicial killings, enraging human rights groups and governments around the world. A state of national emergency has been declared.
President Joko Widodo’s extraordinary use of the death penalty in Indonesia has eroded perceptions of a modern, forward looking leader, which got him elected in the first place, while Brunei’s introduction of sharia law has earned it comparisons with Pakistan and the Taliban.
Coupled with China’s sharp economic slowdown, the major regional players are also facing their harshest economic climate since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. The era of 20 percent year-on-year ASEAN export growth into China is over.
“ASEAN economies are tied closely to China and any major contraction in the market will naturally hurt ASEAN,” said Keith Loveard, a risk-assessment analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Security.
This has cost the traditional, senior members of ASEAN some clout.
Fresh Faces, Old Challenges
The political winds are changing and appear to favor Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.
But Suu Kyi still has to defuse any future confrontation with the Rohingya and resolve a multitude of ethnic insurgencies along her country’s troubled borders. Her stocks have been bolstered by pledges of help from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who attended the peace talks, and his predecessor Kofi Annan, who will chair the newly created Rakhine State advisory commission, with hopes of resolving conflict with the Rohingya.
In Vietnam, another fresh face, President Tran Dai Quang, has given an unprecedented interview with the international wire service Agence France-Presse (AFP) and sought help in resolving the maritime dispute with China.
“We highly welcome the cooperation from France and other nations in the process of maintaining peace and stability in the region and the world and on the East Sea,” he told AFP. The South China Sea is known as the East Sea in Hanoi and the West Philippine Sea in Manila.
It was hardly sensational but it was unprecedented for a communist leader from Vietnam to give such an interview and that should be welcomed. And the stench of corruption that accompanied the previous administration, ranging from football to banking, has also dissipated.
Like Vietnam, Laos remains a one party communist state. Laos is still expected to resolve the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, who went missing in December 2012 and has since become a focus for civil society groups holding that country to account.
Advocates too are hopeful the new leaderships will be more open to dialogue over human rights issues, which have been a perennial thorn in the side of all three northern ASEAN states, and Cambodia, since they were admitted to the bloc.
It’s too early to say whether a majority of ASEAN’s poorer states have turned the corner and are offering a cleaner, clearer way forward but with a new batch of leaders, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam have rebooted and are off to a positive start.
And that is already changing the face of ASEAN.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt