Global Policy Forum

US and China Tug at ASEAN Unity


By Michael Vatikiotis*

Asia Times
May 8, 2007

Something has changed in Southeast Asia, and no one seems to want to talk about it. Over the past 40 years, countries of the region have fostered a tradition of loose but often effective multilateral cooperation in the shape of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Of late, however, the ASEAN spirit of consultation and consensus appears to be fading. In part that's because ASEAN has grown, now comprising 10 members instead of six. And the expansion, pulling in economic laggards Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, has understandably diluted the old bonhomie among the original six members - Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines.

But the grouping is also being fragmented by intensifying US-China competition for regional influence, which is putting a premium on bilateralism with the big powers at the expense of ASEAN's ambition toward more regional multilateralism.

The framework for regional cooperation among the original six members expanded as economies boomed in the 1990s. Dialogue partners were taken on, and larger East Asian and South Asian neighbors were brought into the circle. Now, however, the global focus of attention has swung away from economic growth in ASEAN toward growth in China, which has weakened considerably ASEAN's incentive to bond as a region.

The result has been a return to reflexive bilateral engagement. Witness the recent signing in Bali of a bilateral extradition treaty and defense-cooperation agreement between Singapore and Indonesia. Both these landmark deals were tough to negotiate and brought the two sides into a degree of friction with one another. The question arises: Where was ASEAN in all this?

Why hasn't the organization crafted a regional mechanism to ensure that ill-gotten gains squirreled away from one country can be traced and recovered in a neighboring one? The question can equally be asked: What do Singapore and Indonesia need a bilateral defense agreement for in an era when regional security cooperation should be the goal? Indonesia has proposed an ASEAN security community, but the idea has languished near the bottom of official agendas at recent ASEAN meetings.

In the 1990s, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore frequently met at a high level in a more explicitly multilateral context. There were optimistic joint declarations to create zones of joint economic development, such as Sijori (Singapore, Johore and Riau) and the Northern Growth Triangle encompassing North Sumatra, the Malaysian island of Penang, and southern Thailand.

Nothing came of these projects because, while the leadership may have been willing to invest in joint development, little effort was made to break down political and bureaucratic barriers among the countries involved. More is the pity, since a regional framework like the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle, if seriously implemented, might well have dampened conflicts in Aceh and southern Thailand by providing local people with higher levels of economic growth and fostering a benign sense of regional identity that didn't threaten individual countries' sovereignty. In both cases, economic marginalization has fueled historical nationalist sentiment.

But nationalism at the state level remains as strong a political impulse today as it was half a century ago, and there is little sign of regional borders dissolving. Today, wealthy Singapore says it is different from other countries; Indonesia now thinks it is more democratic than others; and Thailand is looking inward as it confronts prolonged political crisis. Vietnam goes its own way, and Myanmar is drifting further apart from the rest of Southeast Asia.

Fading multilateralism

In other words, ASEAN nowadays is suffering from a lack of firm commitment to multilateral cooperation.

To be sure, a multitude of meetings are still held: ASEAN exists as a complex matrix of official meetings on one subject or another. However, this is also part of the problem: ASEAN has been delegated by the leadership, which turns up once a year to preside over summits that are increasingly venues for bilateral engagement on the sidelines rather than multilateral agreement at the main event. The recent announcement of an ASEAN bilateral summit with the United States to be held in Singapore in September will no doubt serve as a case in point.

Lately, ASEAN has been hijacked by bigger geopolitical forces. As China, the US and to a lesser degree India vie for regional influence, the arena of cooperation and integration has been greatly expanded. And ASEAN is arguably now part of a greater East Asian whole. Some of the more interesting regional discussions are now held under an ASEAN Plus Three umbrella that includes China, Japan and South Korea, including this weekend's multilateral meeting in Japan to discuss the creation of a regional bond market and pooling part of the region's collective US$2.7 trillion in foreign reserves to shield regional currencies against financial speculation.

Such initiatives signal the changing power dynamic in the region being driven in large part by China's recent economic emergence. So long as China lacked the confidence to flex its diplomatic muscle, Beijing hid behind ASEAN's preceding familiarity and credibility with big Western trading partners. This started to change after 2003, when China harnessed ASEAN to its own notion of a regional framework, one that is less dependent on the West.

Much hope is now pinned on a new ASEAN charter due to be unveiled in Singapore at the end of this year. The document, once approved, is expected to reinvigorate ASEAN, endow its moribund secretariat with new powers and breathe new life into the notion of a single community. A more empowered secretary general will aim to restore some luster to this once-respected vehicle for regional diplomacy. But perhaps the problem is not one of internal dynamics. Perhaps instead ASEAN is less a victim of its own weakness than a hostage to the new global order - one in which multilateral bodies have been damaged or weakened by the clumsy unilateralism of big powers, principally the US and China.

The United States, for example, insists on negotiating free-trade agreements bilaterally rather than with ASEAN as a whole, a deal that might have accelerated ASEAN's own incarnation as a free-trade area. Whenever ASEAN has floated notions of stronger regional management of the financial or security environment, such institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have expressed fears about losing supervisory control.

On the security front, the US has always been concerned about the ASEAN Regional Forum established in 1994 with ASEAN as convener and chairman. The idea of a security forum in which the United States is not in a dominant position simply wasn't acceptable to Washington, which has mostly characterized the forum as toothless. The so-called "global war on terror" since 2001 has further weakened ASEAN's autonomy over security concerns, with the US linking its own concerns to bilateral trade and aid. No doubt this security priority will be front and center at the commemorative bilateral ASEAN summit in September.

ASEAN enjoyed the peak of its success at the end of the Cold War, when superpower rivalry was at its nadir. This allowed ASEAN to steer its own economic and security policies and get a feel for real regional cooperation. Now the cycle is reversing itself as US-China rivalry for regional influence intensifies and individual ASEAN member states need to demonstrate strong bilateral ties with both Washington and Beijing to benefit from access to preferential trade and security agreements.

Today, the leaders of Southeast Asia are forced to keep busy burnishing ties with the major powers as well as each of their neighbors - which are often likewise striking bilateral deals - rather than relying on their foreign ministers to sort things out collectively over a few cold drinks after a round of golf at one of those old-fashioned ASEAN meetings.

For all these reasons, just as individual countries pay less heed to the United Nations these days, so ASEAN as a grouping no longer invites the scrutiny, analysis and respect that it once did.

About the Author: Michael Vatikiotis is the regional representative of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore.

More Information on Nations & States
More Information on Political Integration and National Sovereignty


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.