There is so much to dislike in Bilahari Kausikan’s latest splotch of wisdom in Nikkei Asia (“ASEAN needs to get back its old hardheaded realism,” July 7) that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Is it him calling Timor-Leste a “failing state”? Is it his insinuation that Myanmar’s generals should not have been excluded from ASEAN gatherings after the February 2021 coup? Is it his mishandled reading of history that makes ASEAN’s support for the Khmer Rouge after its 1979 overthrow appear consequential and “hardheaded,” not the morally bankrupt and ineffective decision that it was?
The problem with realism is that it frequently masquerades for cynicism. “Strategic thinking” becomes a synonym for the quickest way out of a problem. “Soft thinking,” as Bilahari phrases it, stands in for telling it like it is, as if it’s beyond the imagination of ASEAN diplomats to come up with a strategic and moral decision. Bilahari starts from the noteworthy position that there is something rotten in ASEAN. His statement – “ASEAN also indulged in the luxury of believing that it was inherently central to regional affairs. Posturing too often substituted for policy. There was too much self-congratulation about ASEAN’s ‘centrality’ and too little clinical evaluation of regional interests” – hits the right spot for those of us who think the regional bloc’s actions have been judged by its reputation, rather than the other way around.
One problem is that Bilahari offers very little in the way of a solution, other than a return to a style of the 1980s that ASEAN, in all likelihood, can no longer conjure up. What drives Bilahari’s argument are concerns over disunity. He blames ASEAN’s enlargement. “Expansion of ASEAN’s membership in the 1990s to include Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar without their adequate ‘socialization’ into the group’s mores and practices aggravated” the bloc’s problems, he writes. Even if one grants that, it’s difficult to see how ASEAN, if it hadn’t expanded, would have kept its “informal processes” (rather than something like the ASEAN Charter) as China’s rise became more menacing and Indonesia democratized in the late 1990s.
In 2020, Bilahari courted controversy – although the sort that comes when you only insinuate an unconventional position, so can claim to have been misunderstood or taken out of context – when he suggested that Cambodia and Laos might have to be ousted from ASEAN because of their closeness to Beijing. Rather than entertain progressivist ideas, such as reforming the ASEAN Secretariat, introducing a regional parliament, or creating mechanisms that generate some continuity between the annually rotating chairman, Bilahari offers up nostalgia and the closing of ranks.
All of this is backed by the insinuation that disunity will destroy ASEAN from within. When ASEAN was composed of almost entirely maritime countries that were relatively prosperous, anti-communist and U.S.-leaning, unity was relatively easy. But unless you are going to advocate for the expulsion of those countries that entered after the 1990s (and again in this piece Bilahari only ever offers this by innuendo) then it’s difficult to see a solution other than his appeal for Timor-Leste not to be let into the club or for Myanmar’s general to be welcomed back in with comradely hugs. Moreover, how is disunity a reason for ASEAN’s failure over Myanmar? One could argue there has been too much unanimity to do the bare minimum, and that a little more polarization within the group in the first months after the coup would have resulted in a more proactive response. There is unity around the Five-Point Consensus, after all, and that was a ridiculous deal from the minute it was signed.
Bilahari has a point on this front: “ASEAN has no effective carrots or sticks when it comes to Myanmar.” But his cures seem worse than the current disease. Indeed, it was always going to be near impossible for ASEAN to confect a decent outcome in the months after the February 2021 military coup. And I have argued that it should have immediately said it couldn’t handle this crisis and instead have acted as a mediator for the U.S., China, and other world powers to parlay potential solutions. Indeed, that might have been somewhat like ASEAN’s role in the Cambodia crisis in the 1980s, but this time around it could have remained neutral. What ASEAN needed was some humility, as Bilahari acknowledges.
But because he believes that “by refusing to engage with the generals, ASEAN’s ability to influence them is now practically nonexistent. Unless ASEAN is willing to support a civil war, initiative remains with the military.” Again, it’s not obvious what he’s recommending. He states that it was “a mistake for ASEAN to have barred the junta from ASEAN meetings until it complied” with the Five-Point Consensus. But the use of the past tense muddles whether he thinks it’s still a mistake to keep barring the junta from senior meetings. Presumably so, as he argues ASEAN “can only try to influence the ruling junta by talking to it.” But would it be “strategic” and “hardheaded” for ASEAN to re-admit the generals to high-level meetings after years of excluding them, and after the generals have escalated their violence since their exclusion? That would make the bloc look weak and feckless. How on earth would this re-establish the bloc’s reputation? Good luck getting Joe Biden and the Europeans to show up to the next ASEAN Summit if Min Aung Hlaing is in town.
Next to Timor-Leste. “What strategic purpose was served by ASEAN’s 2022 decision ‘in principle’ to admit East Timor?” he inquires. Why this query, you might ask. Because, as Bilahari sees it, “East Timor has dim prospects and is virtually a failing state.” (Again, Bilahari could do with a little more courage: does he think Timor-Leste is a failed state, and why the need for “virtually”? Either way, it’s not the case.) He doesn’t mention that Timor-Leste has one of the most stable political systems in Southeast Asia, and the region’s most healthy democracy. I’d leave it to the reader to decide whether it is more than just hypocritical for Bilahari, a former Singaporean envoy, to describe Timor-Leste’s politics as “still dominated by the country’s septuagenarian first-generation leaders.”
He is correct that its economy has problems. “About 99% of the government’s revenue comes from oil and gas fields.” Brunei, too, is dependent on oil. It’s worth bearing in mind that Timor-Leste’s GDP per capita ($2,741 in 2021) is more than double Myanmar’s, and bigger than that of Laos and Cambodia. He might also consider that Timor-Leste’s “dim” economic prospects could be made brighter if it is admitted into ASEAN, thereby gaining access to its free trade agreements and connections.
About the 1980s, while he waxes on ASEAN’s response to the Cambodian genocide, he doesn’t consider that ASEAN was in an utter moral vacuum in the case of Timor-Leste, when its “dim” economy and impoverished citizens didn’t seem to occupy the minds of the bloc’s diplomats, who didn’t contest Indonesia’s invasion, colonization, and barbarity.
For all the clearly put failings of ASEAN, it’s far from clear how Bilahari’s prognosis is “strategic.” If you want to balance the bloc against apparent Chinese infiltration, for instance, doesn’t it make sense to admit a new member that is instinctively Western leaning? Wouldn’t Timor-Leste’s inclusion offer up more opportunities for Japan, South Korea, the EU and especially Australia to engage in the bloc, lessening the heat of U.S.-China tensions?
Likewise for Myanmar, Bilahari’s suggestions seem so short-term. He appears to simply want the Myanmar crisis off ASEAN’s agenda, although for what purpose isn’t clear. Leaving the Tatmadaw in situ and the civil war unresolved would merely delay the inevitable chasm in Myanmar’s society for a few more years. If ASEAN was to allow the generals back to summits, it’s far from obvious what they’d discuss which hasn’t already been said.
A “hardheaded” realist might actually say: let’s finally get Myanmar’s problems sorted after more than half a century; the role of the ethnic periphery; the military’s political control; its colossal drug trade. Myanmar, a realist might reason, somewhat heartlessly, needs to engage in a long overdue civil conflict to finally sort out these issues.