WHATEVER the world says, Asean, like water, will find its own comfort level and move on. In such a manner, the regional organisation can achieve much more shorn of acrimonious debates, incessant harassments and constant internal discords.
By Dr Azhari Karim – 7 August 2015 @ 12:00 PM
WHATEVER the world says, Asean, like water, will find its own comfort level and move on. In such a manner, the regional organisation can achieve much more shorn of acrimonious debates, incessant harassments and constant internal discords. A thing to understand as well is to familiarise ourselves with the underlying regional logic at work determining which way Asean must take in order to progress.
This regional logic has three distinct facets: to respond based on historical dictates, not to succumb to the demands of the “mesmerised multitude” of the world and to remain connected to the multilateral world if it benefits Asean.
As the Asean Community, it will be expected to keep itself close to this regional logic come what may. This has prompted observers at the recent 48th Asean meetings in Kuala Lumpur to be a little more sober in their assessment of where Asean is heading towards.
It is not the case here where Asean is listless. Rather, the regional body has worked because its structure only permits movement at the speed of the slowest member. To most in Asean, it is better to be late than never. This allows the smallest and the least-developed members to catch up and come up to the level of the others on their own time without being coerced into action by the others.
This position has been necessitated by the facts of history that surrounded Asean’s formation in its early years. Apart from the five founding members of Asean, countries became members on their own accord. The original five came together to join hands to keep conflicts at bay and work to attain peace and prosperity. Their efforts were followed by the others at different times.
At the same time, Asean had to manoeuvre cautiously not to upset the regional balance held in place by the United States for quite a while, on one hand, but has been forced by an international logic to go homeward-bound. Hence, its presence came to be reduced subsequently. On the other hand, there is China, the resident power, which has been standing by to fill the void.
The former feels it is still holding the cards now since with its “mesmerised multitude” and “multilateral world” policies entrenched in the region, it could influence development to its advantage. The latter, meanwhile, has been busy asserting itself as the new regional power. This could be observed mainly in the economic and investment spheres.
The choice for Asean is to take a middle road between the two logics, the international and the regional. The results of the meetings have revealed that Asean has opted for the regional road and so have the Chinese. We are seeing signs of the Chinese willingness to relax its position on a key issue as the South China Sea. Indications are that they are prepared to agree on the Asean-sponsored Declaration of Conduct in the disputed waters zone. To follow will be their acceptance of a code of conduct for the area as well.
The regional logic is also evident in the decision to address the issue of “irregular migrants”, that is the Rohingyas, not directly but indirectly within the deliberations of a side-meeting, that of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Myanmar, as a result, could open up her mind more freely on the issue. In the past, Myanmar had refused to discuss the issue in an open forum.
It was reassuring that the Malaysian prime minister, in his opening speech at the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, highlighted Asean’s expressed wish to be the fourth biggest world economy and the third largest economy in Asia after China and India.
Asean’s point here is indeed to keep abreast of development in the world economy, especially those driven by the US and China in support of the multilateral world logic referred to above. But more importantly, Asean has been closely watching the energy price trends in the West and the excess funds that may be made available by China to the region. Asean may find it advantageous to work closely with China on this.
Obviously absent at the gatherings were the representatives of civil society, women and youth. Perhaps this meeting of officials could have allowed them to participate and thus assisted in strengthening the people element inside Asean.
The writer is a former diplomat with teaching experience at Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Mara