Inside Story

ASEAN as a bloody miracle

Books | Somehow, this extraordinarily diverse group of countries has held together for half a century. Can it last?

Graeme Dobell 12 December 2017 2067 words

Living laboratory? Myanmar’s state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (centre), with Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha (right) and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak at last month’s ASEAN summit in Manila. Romeo Ranoco/EPA/Pool

The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace
By Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng | NUS Press | $53.95

Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia
By Michael Vatikiotis | Weidenfeld & Nicolson | $32.99

The fifty-year effort to build security and community in Southeast Asia is a political and diplomatic marvel — perhaps even a geopolitical miracle. Instead of becoming East Asia’s version of the Balkans or the Middle East, the ten nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, have created an extraordinarily successful set of regional institutions. Only the European Union has done a bigger building job.

Unlike Europe, though, Southeast Asia created a region without a shared religion or roughly common culture. The ASEAN that celebrated its fiftieth birthday in August rests on the shifting foundations of deep differences.

In making the case that ASEAN is “a living and breathing modern miracle,” Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng argue that Southeast Asia is, in civilisational terms, the most diverse corner of planet Earth: “No other region in the world can match its cultural, religious, linguistic and ethnic diversity. In a relatively small geographical space, we find 240 million Muslims, 130 million Christians, 140 million Buddhists and seven million Hindus.”

The Muslim monarchy of Brunei sits beside the American-model razzmatazz of the Catholic Philippines. More than a Chinese island amid the Malay sea, Singapore has become the Confucian state with a multiracial method, gazing across the strait at its giant neighbour Indonesia and linked by the causeway to Malaysia.

The birthday cake is iced with the peace and plenty, but what’s striking about ASEAN’s peace dividend is the limited amount of power that has passed to the people. This is a government-created project run by elites, reflecting the way elites hold power in member states: whether in communist Vietnam and Laos, the one-party democracies of Singapore and Malaysia, or the newly born democracies of Indonesia and Myanmar.

In one of his novels on the vibrant yet vicious life of modern Southeast Asia, Timothy Mo offers an acid line on how it works: “In the East, the placid poor lived in terror of the violent rich. In the West, the rich lived in terror of the criminal poor.”

Or behold the Janus-face of modern Southeast Asia that Michael Vatikiotis has been gazing at for forty years: “One face projects astonishing social and material progress… the other, facing inwards, is one of stern, uncaring authoritarianism with no concern for the suffering of those left behind in the chaotic scramble to get rich and be glorious.”

Vatikiotis’s viewpoint is that of a journalist who rose to be editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and then a conflict negotiator for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. His book grapples with the “grim realities — and paradoxical limitations — of unconstrained power.” Why, he ponders, does democracy have such weak institutional roots in a region that proclaims its success and growing riches? He describes how political elites constantly bargain for better position and more power: “Often, the higher up the social and political hierarchy you go, the more backward the thinking. Across the region, people in power seem to view progressive political change as a threat.”

Blood and Silk is a fine reporter’s book as well as an analysis of what ails Southeast Asia. Vatikiotis’s experiences as a reporter in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong weave through the work. Arriving as a correspondent in Jakarta in 1987, he found a place of “unfathomable intrigue and bureaucratic obfuscation.” Indonesia, under Suharto, had an undercurrent of “muted fear and apprehension.” Vatikiotis writes that words like “authoritarian” and “repressive” sound like “technical terms; dry, remote and distant, they convey neither the physical pain nor mental suffering that the victims of autocratic government suffer.”

Modern Southeast Asia is plagued by a state of demi-democracy, says Vatikiotis. Profound inequalities of wealth and welfare fuel unrest and conflict, amid politics both volatile and unprogressive. “The stability of Southeast Asia therefore remains questionable,” he writes, “its politics unpredictable, its societies in flux.”

The counter argument sees Southeast Asia as flush, not in flux, offering the chance for hope and happiness based on the many disasters that have been avoided. This is the picture painted by two ASEAN cosmopolitans, Mahbubani and Sng, who got to know each other as children in a poor Singapore neighbourhood. Mahbubani became Secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry and is now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, while Sng has lived in Thailand since the 1980s.

Their version of ASEAN’s miracle is history delivered as a passionate pep talk. The book is published by the National University of Singapore, and a grant from the Lee Foundation has had it translated into Bahasa Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese.

“One weakness of ASEAN,” the two authors write, “is that the 600 million people who live in Southeast Asia do not feel a sense of ownership of ASEAN. Indeed, they know little about the organisation.” The yin and yang of the Association, Mahbubani and Sng argue, is that it draws influence from its limited power:

ASEAN’s strength can be found in its weakness. The reason ASEAN has emerged as the indispensable platform for great-power engagement in the Asia-Pacific region is that it is too weak to be a threat to anyone. So all the great powers instinctively trust it.

They describe an organisation “born to fail” at a time of great turbulence in Southeast Asia, but surviving to create an “ecosystem of peace.”

As the Vietnam war agony built, the original five members of ASEAN came together in 1967 to reassure each other and seek collective strength. ASEAN has always understood a brutal truth: hang together or hang separately. “The fear factor is important,” Mahbubani and Sng write. “It was the critical glue that held the five countries together.” The document of creation, the ASEAN Declaration, hints at the fears by defining the goals: economic growth, regional stability, equality and partnership.

ASEAN has built a region with a set of agreed purposes, expressing a regional imagining that today unites Indochina and maritime Southeast Asia, giving common cause to communists and capitalists.

Mahbubani and Sng describe Vietnam’s decision to join ASEAN in 1995 as “one of the biggest ironies of history.” Just as the uncertainties of the Vietnam war “first generated ASEAN’S cohesion and solidarity,” so ASEAN built its international profile and diplomatic muscle by opposing Vietnam for a decade over its 1978 invasion of Cambodia. Here is the pragmatism of a practical region: Vietnam joining the group created to resist it, as ASEAN embraces the fear that formed it.

ASEAN’s greatest achievement is internal: the set of mutual guarantees that have become important strategic and diplomatic norms for its members. Just as the European Community makes another war between France and Germany unthinkable, so ASEAN’s drive is to create a sense of region so strong that Southeast Asia will not war with itself. The end of the cold war meant the 1990s was the moment of expansion and inclusion, as Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia joined the Association.

The ASEAN Miracle nominates the peace dividend as one of three major achievements to justify the term miracle: “Apart from the EU, no other regional organisation comes close to matching ASEAN’s record in delivering five decades without any major conflicts. In many ways, the ASEAN project is synonymous with peace.”

The second achievement Mahbubani and Sng offer is the lift in livelihoods across Southeast Asia, with ASEAN providing the hidden X-factor to drive national economic development.

The third is the courtship of ASEAN by great powers “bearing gifts” (the United States, China, Japan and India, the European Union and Russia): “No other regional organisation has been as assiduously courted as ASEAN by the great powers.”

As China’s power grows and US attention wavers, ASEAN faces serious stress tests. The Association’s response is to restate the old lessons about hanging together. The internal guarantees between the ten members are as important as ever, and ASEAN has to work harder to maintain the place it claims for itself “in the driver’s seat” of Asian regionalism. My list of ASEAN ambitions in the years ahead (based on the decades past) is this:

• Deliver peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia by protecting state sovereignty and maximising influence.

• Use the collective influence of the ten states to give ASEAN members a central role in developing Asia’s strategic system.

• Influence the way strategic competition is conducted, aspiring to the creation of regional norms.

• Use ASEAN to manage the big powers.

• Create maximum diplomatic and security space. Avoid ever having to choose between the US and China.

The ASEAN project stepped into a new era in 2015 with the announcement of the ASEAN Community — a three-legged creation of a Political–Security Community, an Economic Community and a Socio-Cultural Community. It’s a typical ASEAN act of creation. Announce the thing exists, then set to work via hundreds of meetings to create a reality to match.

The Community aspiration confronts the old problem of making ASEAN more than just an elite endeavour, driven by government. ASEAN may have delivered for its people, but it’s yet to get the people to love ASEAN. Mahbubani and Sng make this what they call their most obvious recommendation for the future: “If ASEAN is going to survive and succeed over the long term, ownership of the organisation must shift from government to the people.”

ASEAN, they write, offers positive responses to Western pessimism about the clash of civilisations:

As the world moves away from two centuries of dominance by Western civilisations and towards a multi-civilisational world, ASEAN provides a valuable model for how very different civilisations can live and work together in close proximity. No other region can act as a living laboratory of cultural diversity, so the whole world has a stake in the success of ASEAN.

Michael Vatikiotis looks at the same landscape and sees a darker future: “Frankly, Southeast Asians have good reasons to worry.” The region fails chronically to deliver on the promise of popular sovereignty: “The one constant I have experienced over the last forty years is the perpetual selfishness of Southeast Asian elites and their wilful subjugation of the rights of citizens to their own considerations of wealth and power.”

The bonds of tolerance and inclusion underpinning social stability in Southeast Asia have loosened:

Identity politics is on the rise. Following a global trend, growth in religious orthodoxy has hardened the boundaries between different religious communities and generated high degrees of intolerance and exclusivity that increasingly fuel violent conflict.

This observation is given bloody emphasis by the Marawi conflict in the southern Philippines and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.

Vatikiotis describes outside pressures tearing at the region:

The spread of conservative Islamic dogma and extremist ideology fuelled by the contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the rise of China as an economic and military power are two of the most significant developments Southeast Asia has experienced since the Pacific War and the end of the colonial era.

He predicts that China will trump the United States, helped along by Trump. He doubts that India or Japan can provide sufficient strategic ballast against China. “Based on these stark realities,” he writes, “quite possibly by 2050 Southeast Asia will have lost the minimal benefits of trade and security afforded by ASEAN membership. The ten member states will have become more aligned on the basis of geography and economic dependency — mostly with China.”

Australia will be deeply involved and subject to the same pressures and promises. That’s why next March, with Sydney Harbour as the glittering setting, the prime minister will host the first Australia–ASEAN summit to be held on Australian soil. Malcolm Turnbull says he’ll be talking to the ASEAN leaders about what he calls “our region.”

Australia wants closer strategic alignment with ASEAN and ever greater economic integration. With the ten-nation grouping now representing about 15 per cent of our total trade, ASEAN is our third-largest trading partner after China and the European Union.

Australia, a middle-power player in Asia, is a natural partner of this middle-power grouping. Our Asian dreams will be shaped by ASEAN’s success or failure. If the ASEAN Community project is a success — in its social, political and strategic dimensions — Australia will want to be deeply involved. Equally, Australia’s interests would be deeply compromised if ASEAN stalls or fails.

ASEAN’s future as miracle or misery will say much about Australia’s own future. •