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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Asean’s nation-region nexus under great strain

By Ooi Kee Beng for The Edge Malaysia, July 1-7, 2019

Introvertedness is so much a part of nationalist discourses that we are often blind to it. This is as true of Malaysia as of any other country, including major powers like the US and China. The resilience of the collective state of mind that this engenders is not something that can be broken simply because we now have the internet, or have freedom of travel or that our children study overseas.

Narrow nationalism survives on the defensive attitudes inculcated by the key words and repetitive phrases that nourish a country’s sloganic fervour, and which upkeep the illusion that the nation knows the world and is participating in it.

Where foreign relations are concerned, nationalistic attitudes can take the form either of isolationism or of aggression. These two can come in soft or hard forms. Short of open war, which is hard aggression, we have the soft version, today expressed clearly in the tariff war the US has brought to bear on China or in the sanctions war against Iran.

Isolationism is a tougher issue to analyse. Hard isolationism, I suppose, can be exemplified by totalitarian regimes such as Khmer Rouge Cambodia or Maoist China — governments whose nationalist discourses are not sufficiently socially cohesive or are even divisive.

Soft isolationism is the strategy most countries actually adopt, or which they have developed over time, in order to handle a potentially threatening world of diverse national interests and global economics on the one hand, and on the other, to manage and manipulate a sundry and sceptical home population. In each case, this position informs the isolating nature of the domestic discourse and distances citizen consciousness from the complexity of global issues.

In Malaysia, for example, inter-ethnic elbowing overshadows most other concerns and tightens thinking into an introverted contest — petty to the rest of the world, but the wherewithal of Malaysian politicians. I am sure this phenomenon occurs in different forms in other countries, new and old.

As further illumination of this profound control over human thought, one could focus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). There is general consensus among scholars that the peculiar ways in which this organisation succeeds and fails stem from its insistence on unanimity in decision-making and its foundational principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. Frustration over these limitations has constantly led to calls for a system of “Asean minus X” being adopted when deciding on specific issues.

What lies behind these approaches is the fact that Asean culture is very much the result of national politics understood in the soft-isolationist mode mentioned above being applied in the near-abroad by each member state. While scholars see Asean as a regionalist project, to each member, it is but national politics being carried out — or frozen — just outside its immediate borders. The sum of these parts is what defines Asean functionally.

But there is nevertheless much that has been gained for the region as a whole from this multiple-nationalist exercise being marketed as a struggle for regional integration. Before the Trump era, it did not matter if Asean centrality was vacuous or not at some level; what was important was that major powers accepted it albeit for their own ends, and dialogue could be pursued on Asean’s many platforms.
But today, however, when tariffs and sanctions are the weapons chosen by the western major power to wage its domestic political battles instead of free trade and dialogue, Asean will have to reconsider what role it should play to survive, given its nature of being an incidental regionalist project.
When Asean was founded in 1967 by five anti-communist governments, the reasons were strategic and informed by the Cold War and backed by anti-communist major powers. In the 1990s, after the global fall of communism, Asean was able to expand to include all the mainland countries, and its raison d’etre became as much economic collaboration as strategic.
The bare essential facts mentioned above about Asean are sadly more than what most Malaysians — and I would venture, most Southeast Asians — know about the most important international organisation that their country is a member of.
Southeast Asia is this geostrategic space bounded by the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, by China, Australia and by India. At least, this is how we tend to see the region and we like to talk of it as a diverse yet peaceful place. But do others see it that way?
It is through considering how others see this entity that we today take for granted as “Southeast Asia” that Southeast Asians can re-orientate themselves with regard to their own proposed region if they are to rise to the challenges raised, not only by the ended Cold War, but by the ending of the post WWII world order as well.

What should concern them about Asean is that it is the only conceptual and organisational fortress they have upholding their ontological claims that Southeast Asia is a region, and that their national interests sync with Asean interests more than ever before.

European powers seem able to consider Southeast Asia a region. This has much to do with how the Japanese pushed them out of the region to the borders of India in the Second World War. The region thus came into their consciousness, no longer as “French Indochina”, “Dutch East Indies” or “British Malaya”, but as the Southeast Asian War Theatre — a buffer territory between India, China, Australia and the US’s Pacific sphere of influence. This is not to deny that much has changed in the European understanding of the region since then.

For Australians, Indonesia remains their troublesome and unsafe boundary.

India has one of the smallest foreign services per capita in the world, and the Bay of Bengal and its land borders with Myanmar are its major strategic concerns to the east.

To the US, Southeast Asia hardly exists. The American viewpoint on Asia sits in the ocean and their strategic concerns are about Mainland Asia — Japan, South Korea (and Taiwan) having become their western frontline and their strategic dealings in the Southeast Asian region being habitually bilateral. The recent attempt to introduce the term “Indo-Pacific” into global parlance has been controversial for geostrategic reasons, and for Southeast Asia, what the term connotes is a perpetuation of the buffer nature of Southeast Asia (in this case, apart from Indonesia) in the global politics.

For China, the strategic significance of the southern seas and its maritime neighbours there are different from that of the countries the giant country is connected to by land, and these two are therefore dealt with in different ways. The Belt and Road Initiative, expressing China’s modern realisation of the importance of sea routes, through pure size and dynamics potentially challenges Asean centrality, and instead of seeing Southeast Asia as a buffer zone, transforms it into a peripheral region.

These external views all affect each member state of Asean, not to mention them questioning the viability of the Asean project itself. Given the difficult internal disagreements that exist among its member states, Asean is in a more desperate situation than its slow consensus-seeking nature allows it to realise.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2015).

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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