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The Edge

Soft Handling of Divisions is ASEAN’s Strength

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By Ooi Kee Beng
For THE EDGE, Malaysia,30 March 2014

One trend is quite certain in these uncertain times, and that is that China’s political economy’s impact on the world will increase for a long time to come. For the Big Powers, China’s rise is understood sometimes as a win-win situation, but oftentimes as a zero-sum game.

For its small and developing neighbours in Southeast Asia, China’s rise no doubt also poses diplomatic and security challenges, but the benefits are also very seductive. Furthermore, the situation is beyond their hands. As is often announced, for these countries, “China is geography, the USA is strategy”.

ASEAN member states are a diverse lot, and how each of them handles the opportunities and concerns depends on their specific conditions. Faced with this fabulous diversity ASEAN as an organization becomes all the more important for the survival and future welfare of these countries.

One can divide Southeast Asia’s countries at the least into northern, southern and eastern segments. The north is not only Buddhist culturally, it is continental in orientation, it perpetually borders China, and it has had a long history of dealing with the powerful neighbor up north. In the south, we have the archipelagic Muslim world with its maritime concerns; and in the east, we have the Catholic Philippines, at least in the northern Philippines.

In northern Southeast Asia, excepting Thailand, we are also dealing with countries that, like China, have only recently discarded command economies. Thailand, along with countries in the region’s south, have always had more globalized and open economies.

If we throw in colonial heritage, then the pattern looks even more complicated, and the differences go even deeper. The east was under American-Spanish control (and is sometimes seen as the western edge of South America), the south was shared between the English and the Dutch, while continental Southeast Asia was French, apart from Myanmar, which was in many ways an extension of British India.

Governance style and political culture thus differ greatly as well, as does ethnic composition within each country.

The founding members of ASEAN include the most developed economies in Asia, and they have now collaborated with each other for a long time. The CLMV—the latecomers—were drawn into SE Asian regionalism only very recently: Vietnam joined in 1995, Myanmar and Laos in 1997, and Cambodia only in 1999. There is therefore a two-tieredness to ASEAN, which becomes relevant in important contexts—such as relations with Big Powers.

China’s steep learning curve

On the other side of our analysis, we have China whose struggle to find its footing in the modern world took over 150 years. In fact, it began its economic revival seriously only after 1978, and successfully only in the last 20 years, i.e. after the end of the Cold War.

In recent years, the fast pace at which China has grown economically and the steep learning curve in international trade and economics that is involved, are matched by the country’s impressive attempts to adapt where political restructuring and foreign relations are concerned.

Chinese policies have to be understood in such a context. It is making do, feeling the stones in the river as it wades along. This tentativeness informs its foreign policies.

As China rises, what has always fascinated me is how the rest of world tends to think that any expansion of its influence, either through its economic clout or through its increased confidence in the political and strategic fields, should be eyed suspicious and as a strategic choice on China’s part. This is strange because we are talking about a giant economy whose growth cannot help but be a challenge to the status quo.

China’s influence and clout expanded naturally as soon as it got its political-economic act together, which in many ways is a reminder of its severely diminished stature before 1992. It cannot help but become influential, it is growing as if on steroids. And like a young teenager, it is clumsy and sensitive.

Second, it is in the nature of the capitalist mode of production that a growing economy should seek to secure supply chains – be this of energy, raw material or technology – and markets. Beyond a certain level, the game is a zero-sum game for the Big Powers. At some point, what’s good for China cannot be good for Japan, Or the USA and so on and so forth.

There is almost no policy path that China can choose that will not be seen as a threat to these powers, Be it for fear of its success, or for fear of its failure. So, much of the problem lies here. Big powers have more to lose than small powers when China rises.

For Middle Powers and small countries, like those in SE Asia, the preferred strategy so far is to play it both ways. The diverse nature of Thailand for example provides it with alternatives in economics and security matters. This means that China’s influence over the Thai economy and politics is in effect quite limited. Indonesia’s decentralized structure does not allow for easy manipulation by outside powers either. Instead, its “friendly ambivalence” towards big powers may be its best stance going forward.

Malaysia has had good relations with China since the 1970s, and that has allowed it to position itself as a ‘small target’ for Beijing’s ire, while it retains strong ties with the US. Vietnam in turn is committed to ‘a long-term, stable, future-orientated, good neighbourly and all-round cooperative relations’ with its giant neighbour.

Myanmar’s ability to position itself between big and middle powers reflects the point often made that China’s influence is exerted through investments, markets and trade and not through military and ideological alliances like in the days of the Cold War. This provides room for smaller nations to maneuver and for the possibility of balancing big powers, big investors and big markets, against each other.

Finally, what about China-ASEAN relations? There is of course worry that the rise of China, the rise of India, and the re-assertiveness of Japan will make intra-ASEAN collaboration and integration that much harder to achieve. There is ground for this worry of course, but the role that ASEAN will be trying its best not play will be that of proxy for big power rivalry. The role it can play best now for its own sake is to be the forum for big power dialogue.

The larger worry for SE Asian countries within the framework of ASEAN is failure on their part to project and maintain common strategic ambitions, be it in staying neutral or in seeking economic integration. Once economic integration stalls, the development of ASEAN as an organization will suffer badly.

The writer is the Deputy Director for the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). This article is a summary of a speech given at the launching conference of the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia, held at the Sunway Pyramid Conference Centre on 18-19 March 2014.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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