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Bilahari Kausikan: ASEAN must work harder to stay 'central'

The balance of regional vs. national interests is becoming trickier to maintain

ASEAN foreign ministers attend the closing ceremony of the 50th ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila in August.   © Reuters

Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, "centrality" is a defining concept, an implied vision of regional order in which the collective interest of member states comes first -- or at least is not disregarded.

"ASEAN centrality" is not a magic incantation whose mere invocation makes all our dreams come true. Nor is it an objective reality that exists irrespective of perceptions. It is a political construct. If you do not recognize it, it does not exist.

For regional leaders and officials who are guided by the term, two questions arise: First, how does the concept serve the national interests of ASEAN member countries?

Second, as Southeast Asia lies at the intersection of the interests of many major powers, how does the concept serve the national interests of these greater powers?

To describe something as "central" means that it is of primary or dominant importance. ASEAN's fundamental and enduring purpose is to manage relations among its member states. The main mechanisms for managing relations, however, are necessarily bilateral -- not regional -- because one of ASEAN's key principles is noninterference. So, ASEAN is clearly not central in this sense.

Yet it is difficult to believe that the Southeast Asia of 2017 -- prosperous and generally at peace -- would exist without the framework of ASEAN.

The apparent contradiction cannot be resolved unless we recall the words of Singapore's first foreign minister, S. Rajaratnam, when the five original members founded ASEAN in 1967: "We must now think at two levels. We must think not only of our national interests but posit them against regional interests. That is a new way of thinking about our problems."

But Rajaratnam added that "regional existence means painful adjustments to those practices and thinking in our respective countries."

The fact that ASEAN is celebrating its 50th anniversary shows it has not done too badly at making those "painful and difficult adjustments."

ELUSIVE CONSENSUS That ASEAN does not always reach a consensus should not be surprising. Its 10 members are politically, economically and sociologically diverse and inevitably define national interests differently. More fundamentally, ASEAN has no supranational pretensions. It does not pretend to have a common foreign or security policy, or futilely deny the reality of nationalism. Instead, it harnesses nationalism in the cause of regionalism. National resilience enhances regional resilience, and vice versa.

Making use of nationalism is crucial because Southeast Asia occupies the strategic link between the Pacific and Indian oceans and cannot escape the competition of major powers.

Whatever their other differences, all nationalists value autonomy. ASEAN, by managing relations among its members, is a vehicle for preserving autonomy in the face of great-power machinations.

The record is again far from perfect. But without ASEAN, member states would have been far worse off and not have weathered all the tumultuous vicissitudes of the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet proxy conflict, insurgency and subversion.

How other powers regard the notion of ASEAN centrality varies from issue to issue. At the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers' meeting in Kunming, China, in June 2016, a senior Chinese official bluntly told ASEAN foreign ministers that when it came to the South China Sea issue, ASEAN was not central.

STRENGTH IN WEAKNESS This was an unusually direct example of a general attitude among outside powers. To the U.S. and the EU, for example, ASEAN was clearly not "central" to their approach toward Myanmar under military rule, although they were more polite in making their views known.

All the major powers profess respect for ASEAN centrality. Usually left unsaid, but always present, is the qualifier: so long as it suits their interests.

If the major powers consider ASEAN "central," it is not because of its strategic weight, but because of its relative strategic weakness. This weakness makes ASEAN an occasionally useful instrument to advance the national interests of the major powers while ensuring that it cannot block their most vital designs.

This is a harsh, but not unusual, reality. It is formalized in the veto powers of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. It is the reason the U.N. survived whereas its predecessor, the League of Nations, did not. It is the reason the major powers support ASEAN-created forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit. It is the reason they accept ASEAN-defined regional norms such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. In short, it is the reason why ASEAN is "central."

ASEAN suits the interests of the major powers. It would suit them even better if they could capture ASEAN as an instrument of their foreign policy. Some have indeed tried but failed, as shown in the cases of the South China Sea and Myanmar. The very diversity of the national interests of its member states makes ASEAN difficult to capture in its entirety. Paradoxically, the limitations to ASEAN centrality keeps ASEAN "central." That is to say, at least minimally autonomous.

Can ASEAN continue to remain "central" in this modest sense?

The post-Cold War regional environment has become more fluid as the U.S. and China grope toward a new modus vivendi. The U.S.-China balance will eventually become more symmetrical, but there is no sign that America will withdraw from Southeast Asia. The dynamism of these developments gives ASEAN the possibility of maneuvering to remain "central." Whether it will be clever and nimble enough to take advantage of the opportunities is another matter.

The greatest challenges are internal. The domestic political environments of several ASEAN members have become more complicated and thus so have their calculations of interests. With the organization's expansion, reaching consensus has become more difficult. The "ASEAN way" has become more rigid. Not every new member has internalized the need for balance between national and regional interests as the original members did.

Great power competition in Southeast Asia is as much psychological as material. The key point is that ASEAN centrality is not one thing, but many things. Centrality is a shape-shifting concept, capable of continual adaptation. ASEAN will lose "centrality" only if it loses confidence in its ability to make the painful and difficult adjustments that become more urgent by the day.

Bilahari Kausikan is a former permanent secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These are his personal views.

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