Will Brexit Affect Regionalism in Southeast Asia?

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Will Brexit Affect Regionalism in Southeast Asia?

ASEAN should reflect seriously on Brexit, and the UK will need to reconnect alone with Southeast Asia.

Will Brexit Affect Regionalism in Southeast Asia?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Gunawan Kartapranata

The result of the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) referendum on European Union (EU) membership was a major blow to the EU and will alter the future path of regionalism in Europe. There are predictions that it may well strengthen European regional integration, despite earlier concerns about disintegration, and much will depend on the relationship between Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Beyond the EU’s borders, there is also scope to consider how the UK’s exit from the EU will affect regionalism in Southeast Asia.

One question that arises is whether the relative importance of Southeast Asia as a region has increased in the wake of Brexit. There is evidence emerging that some officials in Southeast Asia are regarding developments in Europe with some confidence. For example, Surin Pitsuwan, the former Secretary-General of ASEAN, suggested after the Brexit result that “we in Southeast Asia, we have [never] been more important to the world, and relatively speaking now even more [given the] unclear situation in Europe.”

The atmosphere in the region regarding Brexit remains composed. Despite a significantly changed EU, it is possible that we are not looking at an altered Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – and certainly not a diminished one as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. The ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok in October 2016, the first held after the UK vote to leave, did not pay much attention to Brexit, with no mention of it within the Bangkok Declaration on Promoting an ASEAN-EU Global Partnership for Shared Strategic Goals released at the end of that meeting.

There have been some suggestions that the legacy of Brexit will be a changed and “differentiated” EU, with different speeds of integration – and perhaps a core set of states at its center. Yet ASEAN already has this awareness and flexibility. It incorporates an ASEAN-X approach into some policy areas, such as economic integration. Furthermore, commentators have suggested that, for better or worse, ASEAN and national leaders would not place such a decision in the hands of the people in the form of a referendum, in any of its constituent states.

Soon after the Brexit result, some suggested that there would not be a type of Brexit in ASEAN as “ASEAN is not linked to domestic politics,” “there is no ASEAN citizenship,” there is no “resentment of Jakarta,” and “little is known about ASEAN.” In short, ASEAN’s loose form of regional organization and apparent separation from its citizenry — despite its slogans of being people-centered — decrease the likelihood that something similar to a Brexit would happen in ASEAN.

Ironically this is both an advantage and a disadvantage, as there is little evidence that ASEAN has sufficient significance to people across the region for them to consider it worthy of a vote regarding ongoing membership. The very loose and relatively informal characteristics of ASEAN mean that its relevance is not very evident to non-elites. At an elite level, there is little interest in Brexit precisely because such an exit seems unlikely to occur. At the same time, these same elites – national and ASEAN officials – would not countenance the idea of deep integration such as the EU has in some areas.

In that vein, Brexit has served as a cautionary tale for both officials and observers in Asia of the perils of a strong, supranational body with complex institutions. Many leaders and observers are not convinced of any virtues in a region-level judicial system and overly demanding regional integration processes. This may lead to a perception that the ASEAN approach to decisions by consensus remains the most appropriate for not only ASEAN, but also for other bodies in the region such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Yet ASEAN cannot afford to be complacent. In some cases, the very attributes that are cited as having contributed to the UK’s referendum result are being used to justify assumptions that ASEAN will not follow a similar fate. Debates about Brexit reflected perceptions of the EU as an elite-driven and out-of-touch organization, and that it is either too intrusive, or not relevant to people’s lives. There was also a reported wave of regret that came over many British voters who had voted to leave; and the surge of google searches for “what is the EU?” after the referendum pointed to low awareness and understanding of the EU in the UK.

The EU’s perceived irrelevance, although stemming from different sources than ASEAN’s in some respects, was a major driver of calls for a British exit from the EU. Yet the losses that the UK will incur on leaving will have a deep impact on students, non-UK citizens, as well as trade and investment. The UK will be exiting a complex and largely advantageous set of trading relationships and access to a close market of some half a billion people.

On reflection, Brexit may well have the effect of Asian regional arrangements further strengthening their self-help mechanisms, such as those already in place with the ASEAN+3 (Japan, China, South Korea), such as the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM) and the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic and Research Office (AMRO). A further consideration is trade deals such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which has potentially already been given a boost on account of U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The RCEP could well be further strengthened as a means to bypass European unpredictability and to defend Asian markets from U.S. protectionism and volatility. It is to be hoped that there will not be expressions of reservations towards free trade within Asia as a consequence of events in Europe, and for that matter, the United States. However, the recent Japan-EU free trade deal, as well as other EU trade agreements in the region, are a sign that countries are taking advantage of the vacuum left by the United States, rather than following suit.

Unless the UK moves to join ASEAN-led fora, it is likely to lose strategic leverage within the region. Once it leaves the EU, the UK would need to apply (if it wishes, which is likely) for a form of dialogue partnership with ASEAN — as currently this is only ensured through the EU. Britain may then wish to seek membership of ASEAN-led fora such as the ARF, of which the EU is currently a member, and possibly the EAS (to which the EU has been invited as a guest to the next meeting, but not yet as a member, despite strong EU lobbying) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus Meetings, to which the EU may eventually gain membership.

Will this mean that the effect of the UK’s exit from the EU could actually bolster ASEAN’s centrality and its influence on potential trade and strategic partners? Or are we looking at the possibility of an eventual more tailored ASEAN partnership with the UK outside of the EU – one that could constitute a win-win situation for both the UK and ASEAN? Either way, ASEAN is in an opportune position to assert its regional leadership towards the UK after Brexit.

Without doubt, there will be a strange situation in the form of a vacuum in cooperation between ASEAN and the UK as they each recalibrate their relationship and as the UK and the world awaits the result of the UK’s negotiations with the EU’s 27 member states and institutions. ASEAN and Southeast Asian regionalism may not be overly affected negatively or positively by the UK’s exit from the EU, but ASEAN would be remiss not to reflect on Brexit seriously, and consider how it will engage with “Global Britain” in the future. It is also an opportunity to reconsider whether ASEAN regional cooperation might provide increased benefits for its citizens, given the example set by British citizens’ disenchantment with the EU.

Laura Allison-Reumann is a research associate at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Philomena Murray is a professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.