ASEAN: Is it a Successful Sustainable Model for Other Key Actors?

When ASEAN came into official existence in 1967 a pessimistic environment has surrounded its establishment. Bilahari Kausikan a prominent Singaporean diplomat described its unconducive vulnerable regional setting in the following terms:

Consider the situation in 1967. All five ASEAN countries faced Chinese- inspired, if not directly-backed, internal Communist insurgencies…At the same time, almost every member of the five original ASEAN members were at the other’s throat.

The 50th celebrated Anniversary of its inception lead us to think deeply on the overall influential role of ASEAN years. Thus, a noticeable adverse trend in 1967 has reflected a number of indicators such as an escalating tension between Malaysia and Singapore since the latter succession from the former territory. Furthermore, critical circumstances has surrounded the ASEAN’s setting , such as Indonesia in the aftermath of its failed bloody coup in 1965 ending into an undeclared war against Singapore and Malaysia. Furthermore, the Philippines “had laid claim to a large chunk of Sabah an East Malaysian state”. In the meantime “the proto-irredentist movements on their borders has plagued relations between Malaysia and Thailand as well as between Indonesia and the Philippines.” Within a fearful prospect of continuous rivalry between the ex-Soviet Union and China the “clash of civilizations” as advocated by Samuel Huntington another perspective of the vulnerable Middle Eastern region can be added. Otherwise, ASEAN with no real reform process may seem to be a dead political regional entity on arrival. What makes brighter prediction of ASEAN as a sustainable successful model to emulate centers on the empowerment of a pluralistic humanitarian resource-structure.  The latter has covered an enriched diversified demographic structure as clearly apparent in the following statistics:   “240 million Muslims, 130 million Christians, 140 million Buddhists and seven million Hindus”.  This state of colorful demographic affair asserted the need for a more sustained cultural coexistence as a necessary forward step towards the achievement of overall strategic advancement more particularly:   raising the standard and quality of peoples’ living. Thus, it’s salient to assert according to Kishore Mahbubani and Kristen Tang in their celebrated article [ASEAN: An Unexpected Success Story] that “more than 600 million of people living in the region have seen remarkable progress in the fifty years since the formation of the association. ASEAN has brought peace and prosperity to a troubled region, generated inter-civilizational harmony.” From this perspective, ASEAN proved to be a dynamic organization in thwarting “clash of civilizations” something that other organizations failed to turn into a stark reality. Admittedly, embracing China as a critical prominent global economic power second only to United States’ high edged – power house turned out to be an essential strategic and economic move to reckon with.

ASEAN among other key factors has facilitated the long drawn process of inciting China to join WTO (World Trade Organization) as an active and efficient member. Moreover, it is important to add that ASEAN “provided China with a face-saving platform to engage with other major powers during times of tension.” A glaring example concern the troubled bilateral Chinese-Japanese relations which has suffered serious transitory setback due to rising tensions over various issue –areas such as Japan’s wartime atrocities strongly attacked by the then Chinese ex-President Jiang Zemin. What of interest to note is that ASEAN “Allowed China to focus on achieving growth instead of concerning itself with regional security.” Thus, growing interdependent economic relations increases the prospect of peaceful coexistence among the key rival powers in ASEAN. However, in the words of Martin Jacque (When China Rules the World); “if ASEAN has provided the canvas, it is the diplomatic drive and initiative of China that has actually redrawn the East Asian landscape.” This is why China has strived across the years to crystalize its prominent regional influential role in East Asia OR even beyond any specific geographical setting. Along this line of argument, “underpinning its [China] growing influence has been the transformation in its economic power.” What of interest to note in comparative terms centers on China’s European Union’s direct or close relationship that may very well find different modalities of such an interrelationship.

Thus, “unlike the European Union, where economic integration followed politics, in East Asia economies has been the dynamo of change, with political change following in its wake.” As China progresses along the path of the world’s second largest economy preceding that of the United States , Japan relationship with China loses relatively a great deal of its glare brightness. In short, Japan which led for a relatively long time the Asian Tigers and later on the East Asian states “flying geese” has failed to take the lead to become the prime economic powerhouse in the region. ASEAN for its part has increasingly acknowledged this prominent reality that of Chinese speedily striving to gain a larger share of economic exports not just in East Asia but beyond as well. Admittedly ASEAN empowerment powerhouse stem from its enormous economic capabilities. Thus, in 2015 Asian combined GDP exceeded $2.8 trillion placing it as the world’s sixth largest economy. It’s important to realize that ASEAN enjoyed resilient economic dynamic role based essentially on the remarkable economic expanding growth rate at an expected 4.6% whilst the global growth rate projected at 3.4% according to IMF recent statistics.

In fact ASEAN has continued to outperform in comparison to other emergent market regions such as the ones in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East based on an accelerating salient rapid high- edge level.  ASEAN proved to be resilient actor even when the world at large confronted serious economic, and financial crises since 2008. What needs to be analyzed in further detail is the question of addressing the real impact and implications of security and political crises. Furthermore, Trump’s strategic outlook alongside the ramifications with regards to various multilateral economic groupings in key prime regional states in the region mainly China in which the US has high edged trade deficit of $376  billion dollars need to be studied. Admittedly, Trump has already ordered his trade representative to draw up a list of $200 billion in Chinese goods that would face a 10 % tariff. Such a critical situation is conditional upon China’s proceeding to initiate its act of imposing retaliatory tariffs on the $50 billion worth of US goods. From this perspective ASEAN states interacted, responded and adapted their proactive roles to the new dynamics of world and regional politics but more particularly with regards to potential and current security-political threats beyond the economic and cultural fields into the geo-strategic setting.

Ahmad Shikara

Member of the faculty at the EmiratesCenter for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) in Abu Dhabi since 2000. There he works in the Training Department and in Human Resources. He recently published on the ramifications of Iraqi elections. In the past he conducted extensive research at the ECSSR and has conducted graduate and faculty seminars focusing on the effect of resource scarcity on the Arabian Gulf and the United States. Dr. Shikara, and before joining the ECSSR, served on the Political Science Department at the United Arab Emirates University (1980-1994), as an honorary professor at the Institute of Developing Economies in Japan (1994) and as a research fellow in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand (1996-2000).

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