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Thitinan Pongsudhirak: ASEAN's lackluster leadership undermines Asian cohesion

Southeast Asia's haze crisis is symptomatic of the weakness of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a time when the 10-country grouping most needs cohesion. As ASEAN becomes riven by intramural tensions, domestic political volatility, lackluster leadership and overshadowing great-power rivalry, its role as Asia's honest broker and institutional bridge for regional peace and stability is being compromised, raising the stakes for the recent trilateral summit between China, Japan and South Korea in Seoul.

     For parts of Southeast Asia, the haze challenge is a seasonal nuisance, triggered by forest dwellers on the Indonesian island of Sumatra clearing land for palm oil, which fetches handsome prices in major markets such as China and India. While the farmers' slash-and-burn approach is a cheaper method of forest clearance than excavation, the pollution caused by smoke drifting across the Straits of Malacca has long upset Singapore and Malaysia, where it causes serious air quality problems.

     This year, the problem has spread to southern Thailand, extending the environmental damage and adding to the social and economic toll caused by canceled flights and closed schools. As in past years, Singapore has complained loudly, but has been largely ignored in Jakarta, where its protests appear to be regarded as products of a pampered population living in a nanny-state. Malaysia and Thailand have been less voluble, but Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok want to address the issue at the regional level, particularly through a decade-old ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Yet no collective action has been taken so far. It appears that, as in past years, the haze will subside only when rain and shifting wind directions combine with a slowdown in Sumatran forest clearance to reduce the nuisance.

United, and limited

The failure of ASEAN's agreement to curb haze pollution is a sober reminder of the organization's institutional limitations. Its much-vaunted ASEAN Community is supposed to take effect by the end of 2015, with a triple focus on political and security issues, economic integration and sociocultural cooperation. Yet the proposed community resonates much more on paper and in political rhetoric more than on the ground. This is partly because Malaysia, this year's country chair of ASEAN, is hobbled by visceral domestic political polarization and salacious corruption allegations involving Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose power clique and crony interests are at odds with those of Mahathir Mohammed, the most influential of his predecessors.

     ASEAN provides an outlet for Najib to display regional statesmanship in a way that might shore up his local standing, but the beleaguered prime minister lacks the focus and resolve to propel ASEAN forward in this pivotal year. ASEAN's leadership shortcomings are compounded by the bureaucratic blandness of Le Luong Minh, its Vietnamese secretary-general, in stark contrast to the charisma and pulling power of Surin Pitsuwan, his influential predecessor, who carved out a role as ASEAN's global spokesman and international interlocutor. ASEAN's institutions are unlikely to emerge from the doldrums in the near term, notwithstanding the celebratory hoopla that will surround the formal launch of the ASEAN Economic Community. The lack of institutional drive is unlikely to be rectified by the upcoming handover of the country chairmanship to capacity-stretched Laos.

     Other large ASEAN countries seem either unable or unwilling to offer a lead. Indonesia, a traditional leader in ASEAN because of its overwhelming size, appears to have lost much of its interest. On the few occasions when he shifts his attention from pressing domestic issues, Indonesian President Joko Widodo seems to prefer using other platforms to pursue Jakarta's interests, such as the Group of 20 nations. Thailand, under a military government ahead of a once-in-a-lifetime royal succession, is in a navel-gazing holding pattern. Myanmar's planned elections on Nov. 8 are fraught with uncertainty, and the country is likely to be mired in controversy after the vote, facing a potential rollback of the spectacular reform drive that began four years ago. Brunei is too small to be significant, and Singapore too affluent and too smart to allow itself to become bogged down by ASEAN's constraints.

Bad timing?

ASEAN's trials and tribulations are not new. The organization has weathered rough waters before, including a region-wide financial crisis in the late 1990s, internal ethno-nationalist insurgencies and jihadist terrorism. But the timing of ASEAN's current bout of domestic introspection and inert leadership is poor. From conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea to the launch of the ASEAN Community and regional great-power rivalries, Southeast Asia faces monumental challenges. It is imperative that ASEAN plays an instrumental role in resolving these issues. Yet the organization is taking little or no part in determining the course of events.

     This is a pity. Asia's time has come, but its prospects are being imperiled by the destructive logic of security dilemmas. Chronic resentment over divergent perceptions of history between Japan on the one hand and China and South Korea on the other is undergirded by opportunism and nationalism. All this portends ill for Asia's rise. The continent is supposed to be the epicenter of global action, but it is rife with tension and conflict in myriad directions.

     Since ASEAN is unable to provide an effective stage for the strategic dialogue and understanding required to mitigate Asia's conflicts, the continent's future must rely on the goodwill and hard work of the main conflicting parties -- principally Beijing and Tokyo. The two countries' leaders have not met head-to-head in a three-way Northeast Asian dialogue since May 2012, but have just reconvened under South Korea's auspices. This could restart (or maybe reboot) a trilateral process beyond 2015 that could provide Asia with an alternative platform it so badly needs. Unless China and Japan can come together to reduce tension and open avenues for discussion and the pursuit of mutual interests, Asia's forecast global pre-eminence over the coming decades will be marked not by promise and prosperity but by fear and destruction.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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