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Faster Pace of Change is Upon Southeast Asia

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By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia, November 20, 2015

In recent weeks, the Southeast Asian region has been getting more global attention than it is used to, or is in fact comfortable with. But while governments there have for years been reiterating ASEAN Centrality as the cornerstone of their foreign policy, most of the important events that have been taking place in the region concern major powers, and how they relate to individual Southeast Asian countries more than the Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) as a whole.

Chief among these events has been the dispatch in late October of USS Lassen on what the US calls a Freedom of Navigation operation into waters within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island constructed by the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. Apart from the wish to affirm those waters as being outside the jurisdiction of any country (read China), the American initiative can also be seen as timely support for its ally, the Philippines.

Manila had in 2013 filed a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China’s claims in the South China Sea. Incidentally, the Court ruled in late October this year that it had the authority to hear the case, thus rejecting Beijing’s assertion that it did not. That move in itself may forebode ill for China.

The on-going strategic tussle between Washington DC and Beijing was also starkly manifested in the signing on October 5 of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) finally reached between the US, Japan and twelve other countries. TPPA signatories from Southeast Asia were Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. The others—Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Australia and New Zealand—are all clearly traditional American allies.

While Vietnam is expected to gain hugely from the trade pact, the benefits accruing to Malaysia are far from clear. Many Malaysians who had been willing to lend their support to Malaysia’s membership in the TPP had been hoping that the agreement would help to dismantle the affirmative action structure of the government, which they believe has been hampering the country’s economic development. More than that, the race-based policies that Malaysia has been practicing since the early 1970s is considered by many to bear much of the blame for the shockingly easy penetration of Islamic fundamentalism into the Malaysian state.

Erstwhile supporters of the TPP were left disappointed however, when the full text of the agreement was made known recently. They had hoped that impartial obligations would disallow the government from continuing its race-based procurement policies. As it turned out, the exceptions allowed Malaysia in the TPPA would exempt exactly those processes from being changed.

While there is no doubt that the government of Najib Razak, which has been under tremendous pressure from various factions of Malaysian society to resign, will get the agreement ratified in parliament early next year, the country’s troubled economy, reflected most strongly in the dramatic drop in recent months of the value of the Malaysian ringgit against all major currencies, means that the prime minister will need all the help he can get to convince enough parliamentarians and opinion-makers that the TPP will benefit Malaysia in the long run. Most importantly, he has to convince key members in his party to trust his judgement.

Basically, with so little known about the concrete effects of the TPP, Malaysians will indeed have to take the prime minister’s word for it. The trouble is, his word carries little credibility nowadays. Fighting for his political survival, Najib’s government has since it won the elections in 2013, been more concerned with silencing dissent than with positive policy making, and dozens of Malaysians are facing trial for sedition.

President Barack Obama’s recent visit came therefore at the right time for Najib. The President tried to balance between being concerned about winning support the TPP and criticising Najib for his political missteps. This was Obama’s second visit to Malaysia. His first, in April last year, was actually the first by a serving US president since Lyndon B. Johnson dropped by in 1966, right in the middle of the Vietnam War. This simple surprising fact has not gone unnoticed in Malaysia or in the region, and it is generally understood as an effort to lend credibility to the American pivot to the region.

Much has been happening in the region which signals the highly transitional nature of politics there. For example, while US-Thailand ties have been troubled after the military coup in Bangkok, the successful election in Myanmar, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party coming to power is expected to strengthen US-Myanmar relations in the coming months.

As a rule, while giving rhetorical importance to ASEAN Centrality, Southeast Asian countries tend to practise a balancing act between the major powers. Singapore epitomises that choice most clearly. Needless to say, that is what the other TPP members from Southeast Asia are also doing in joining that initiative. All this is quite easily understood. It is the lot of small countries clamped between major powers that they cannot afford to trust too much to be of potential use to each of these.

Since August this year, Singapore is in charge of ASEAN-China relations. This chairmanship is something it will hold for the coming three years. Some pressure is to be expected from China during that time, as well as opportunities. The city-state has agreed to the third government-led China-Singapore project, a business and services hub in Chongqing.

The changes in trade and strategic infrastructure in the greater region are potentially game-changing if one considers the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that will kick off at the end of the year, alongside the ASEAN Economic Community that will largely be in place by January 1, 2016. The One Belt One Road initiative that China has announced has the potential to introduce a paradigm shift to the region. Its lack of clarity is an offer for proactive participation from all who are interested, and can therefore alter the strategic sympathies in Central Europe and maritime East Asia.

Being courted on all sides is not an unenviable situation for Southeast Asian countries to be in, as long as one does not actually give its hand away in marriage. Keeping the interest of suitors alive but never saying a final “Yes” is a difficult art, but one that Southeast Asian governments must master.

The writer is the Deputy Director of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), Singapore. His recent book is The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World.

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