ASEAN captain Malaysia prepares to set sail into maritime disputes, ‘democratic recession’

Malaysia this year takes over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. As one of the original founding members of ASEAN, set up in 1967, Malaysia appears to be in the right place, at the right time — controlling the helm of ASEAN in the very year its community-building efforts will be realized.

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun – Jan 25, 2015

Malaysia this year takes over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. As one of the original founding members of ASEAN, set up in 1967, Malaysia appears to be in the right place, at the right time — controlling the helm of ASEAN in the very year its community-building efforts will be realized.

Last year’s ASEAN chairmanship was a matter of controversy. Myanmar, for the first time since its admission into the club in 1997, volunteered to serve as ASEAN chair, having skipped its rotational chairmanship twice in the past.

It was controversial because some Western governments still doubt Myanmar’s seriousness in promoting political reform. Myanmar was accused of exploiting the ASEAN chairmanship to legitimize the regime of President Thein Sein, which is backed by the 25 percent of Myanmar’s Lower House seats occupied by the military.

Malaysia is thus challenged by old and new issues that have the potential to threaten the success of ASEAN. The government of Prime Minister Najib Rasak wasted no time in initiating a theme for its chairmanship — “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision” — to emphasize its people-centric agenda.

ASEAN has long been criticized for being a predominantly state-led talk shop with little participation from the citizens of its members. Yet, recent developments in ASEAN suggests its approach may be shifting.

For example, the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights demonstrated the organization’s new priority in protecting human security. In materializing such priority, Malaysia lays out a 10-year road map (2016-2025) with the aim of forming a “community” of ASEAN citizens based on shared identities, cultures, knowledge and prosperity.

One way of accomplishing this is to allow greater engagement by the people in the state’s decision-making process. Aside from empowering the people’s sector, Malaysia is tasked with strengthening ASEAN’s organizational structure.

The ASEAN Economic Community, one of the three pillars of a community being built to create a single market and production base, will serve as the grouping’s superstructure to strongly connect ASEAN with other economies.

Columnist Prashanth Parameswaran wrote that Malaysia’s mission is to help conclude negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will be the world’s largest free trade agreement grouping: ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand upon its completion by the end of 2015. RCEP’s conclusion, along with the expected launch of the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, will reshape Asian regionalism and highlight the prominent role of China.

Additionally Malaysia is keen to further institutionalize some of ASEAN’s regional architecture including the ASEAN Regional Forum, which deals primarily with security issues, and the East Asia Summit (EAS), first founded in Kuala Lumpur 10 years ago.

The EAS is coming home, and Malaysia will seek genuine political will and commitment from summit members so that this forum can be entrusted to manage grave strategic issues.

The membership at present includes the 10 ASEAN members (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam), China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, the United States and Russia. Malaysia’s chairmanship will encounter a rocky road. There are at lease two critical hurdles for Malaysia to overcome:

First, the territorial conflict in the South China Sea will surely find a way of testing the resolve of Malaysia’s chairmanship, defying the solidarity of ASEAN, and complicating the organization’s relations with the great powers. The South China Sea conflict has been on for more than a decade now and has traditionally guaranteed a heated debate at almost all ASEAN gatherings.

Malaysia itself claims ownership of the Spratly Islands. Other claimants are Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan and China. As a party to the conflict, Malaysia’s position will not be seen as neutral. The challenge here separating Malaysia’s national interest from that of the region, as it mediates the conflict.

At the crux of the conflict lie two different approaches in tackling the issue. ASEAN claimant states prefer to deal with the conflict on a multilateral basis, mainly with the involvement of ASEAN itself, while China insists on managing the issue bilaterally. As a powerful nation, China’s position will benefit from the bilateral option simply because China holds greater bargaining power. It’s because of China’s overwhelming influence that ASEAN claimants are aware that they would negotiate from a disadvantageous viewpoint. ASEAN is thus torn between two contrasting solutions.

In the past decade, China has successfully made economic inroads into the less developed states of ASEAN, particularly, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Chinese influence is formidable in the foreign policy decision-making process of those states.

Cambodia decided to allow its national interest and cozy ties with China to trump its responsibility as ASEAN chair in 2012. For the first time in its history, ASEAN was unable to agree on a closing statement on the South China Sea. Will Malaysia let this happen again?

The second hurdle challenging Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship derives from how Malaysia will address the democratic recession in the region.

Najib’s own ruling party lost the popular vote in the country’s election in 2013, signaling a call for decentralization in Malaysia. But ASEAN is a mixture of strange political beasts — absolute monarchy, one-party state, communist regime, semi-authoritarian government, and outright military rule.

Its golden rule of noninterference is still upheld tightly by ASEAN members; since most are themselves politically vulnerable, they tend not to blame others for behaving undemocratically.

What has happened in Thailand following the May 2014 coup and the slow democratization process in Myanmar will directly challenge Malaysia on how to construct a sound ASEAN Political Community at the time when democracy is still broken elsewhere in the region.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.