The New Year is here and it’s been 50 years since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) original member countries signed the Bangkok Declaration on Aug 16, 1967.
In those years, the member countries worked hard to link the different levels of political and economic development systems into one bloc. Despite this, the regional grouping has attracted several criticisms along the journey. The integration process is seen as a slow beat. The region has been perceived to be the playground for rival global powers. The integration process is seen as too externally driven.
Albeit far from perfect, emerging from the ravages of regional instability and the bipolar world order that existed during its birth, Asean can, in fact, be considered successful.
Its leaders showed far-sightedness using the notion of “Asean centrality” to engage with the world through multilateral trade agreements and regional forums, summits and meetings. If the success of Asean is positioning itself as a third-world geopolitical force among global hegemonies, the challenge for the next 50 years would be to deepen its integration as a pact while engaging with external players as equals.
With the diminished interest of the United States under the Trump administration, one might be pessimistic about Asean’s capability to soar as a stronger actor, especially in facing up to China’s increasing influence in the region.
Despite the contentious dispute over the South China Sea, China remains the top economic partner of Asean. The regional grouping’s failure to issue a joint communique on the South China Sea on two occasions in 2012 and 2016, due to disagreements, remains its embarrassment. The various, yet important level of economic reliance of the member countries on Chinese products, trade and investment, has given Beijing the upper hand in the Asean-Sino relationship. To move forward and to realise a resilient regional architecture, Asean needs to reorient its engagement with its giant neighbour besides counterbalancing with the presence of Washington and other external powers.
In truth, China needs Asean as much as Asean needs China. The Asean countries are not just convenient targets for the giant neighbour to feed its needs for energy and raw materials. The region plays as a strategic gateway in Beijing’s implementation of its “project of the century”, the Belt and Road initiative.
If Asean as a region backs away from the project, the Dragon’s ambition would be hard to achieve. Even though one might say it is an unlikely scenario given the interests of the member countries to improve their infrastructure for better connectivity, it would give burgeoning power to Asean in some ways if used cleverly.
After years of increasing assertiveness, including the refusal to acknowledge the ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China nonetheless displayed its goodwill to follow the code of conduct in resolving the South China Sea dispute at the Asean Summit in Manila this year. Even though the breadth and depth of agreement cannot be ensured, Beijing understands the necessity to reassert its “good neighbour policy” with Asean at this critical time.
Asean likewise needs to realise that this is the right timing to garner a smarter approach in dealing with Beijing. The grouping’s leaders require unified commitment in stressing the code of conduct on the South China Sea as the conflict prevention instrument at the minimum level.
Furthermore, as Asean aims to move toward a “2025 people-centred, people-oriented community”, it is important to place non-state actors in the spectrum of relations with Beijing.
While the Asean-Sino relationship is cosy at the government-to-government level, there has been anti-Chinese public sentiment rising in some Asean countries where China are widely seen as exploiting local natural resources without giving much benefit back to the local communities.
Chinese companies are also accused of sapping the competitiveness of local manufacturing potential and businesses. They are also heavily criticised for their scant attention given towards local employment and technological transfers.
Asean leaders, thus, should double down their efforts in urging China and its businesses to adhere to responsible practices. In fact, Beijing is aware of the Sinophobic attitude that can be found around the region. China has lately been focusing more on sustainability activities through corporate social responsibility in engaging with developing countries, including those in Asean.
The China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative has the promulgation environment and social framework. As a non-negotiable price, Asean leaders thus should press the Chinese government and Chinese companies to be socially responsible when it comes to operating trade and businesses. Asean, in return, could facilitate the norm-abiding China to build trust with non-government actors including the media which would give support to Beijing’s profile of “peaceful development”.
The commitment of Asean to improve its competitiveness is also critical. The countries, especially the non-founding ones, should accelerate stimulating local economic activities to produce value-added commodities while strengthening the manufacturing sector for local consumption. The region should aim to develop made-in-Asean products to compete with those made in China. Asean countries, at the same time, need to tackle corruption and promote good governance.
Most importantly, Asean leaders need to strike a balance between regional and national interests should they expect the regional grouping to become a respectable peer of China. They will have to move beyond self-serving diplomacy and opt for more far-sighted approaches.
One may think Asean is weak. However, it is important to remember Asean is the first actor who tamed the Dragon to join the table of multilateralism through the Asean Regional Forum in 1994. Asean could now pick up the strategic baton to further tame China as a “peaceful rise of power” as it claims in the multi-polar world.
Than Tha Aung is Programme Coordinator at the Innovation and Technological Connectivity Programme Department of the Mekong Institute, Khon Kaen University, Thailand.
This article was first published on Bangkok Post