Asean – In or out? No way… not yet?

27 August, 2016
As appeared in TheStar.com.my

WHILE the close British decision to get out of the European Union (EU) – Brexit – was made in a referendum over two months ago, there is still the feeling in the country: “What have we done?”

Where do we go? How do we get there?

Questions that should have been asked at the referendum, rather than after it. But there you are. When raw emotion and shallow argument reign, profound decisions are made without proper reflection or preparation.

Since then the question has also been raised in our neck of the woods, whether or not such a thing could occur in Asean. It won’t, but then again it may.

First of all, let’s be clear. It is not likely there will ever be such a surplus of democracy in Asean, whether among individual member states or as a group, that there could be an “In or Out” referendum, such as on the EU, that has resulted in Brexit.

Such democracy as there is in Asean is a pale reflection of the European model. Perhaps five Asean states, at a pinch, could be called democracies. They are, at most, mixed democracies, with varying control-freak tendencies. In one of them, there is new leadership, with Trump-like populism, perhaps a precursor of what a President Donald Trump would be like in America – a loose cannon.

Perhaps in that member state – the Philippines – there could be a Phixit referendum in a state of pique although, as shown in the handling of the July 12 arbitral tribunal award on the South China Sea dispute against China, there can be underlying realism after hyperbolic madness, like riding a water scooter into the Chinese navy.

Then again, President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent threat to leave the United Nations after heavy criticism of extrajudicial killings in the drug war, points to some uncertainty over what the Philippines under Duterte might do.

One Asean state is an absolute monarchy. Two are communist states and another a dictatorial democracy, if that is not a contradiction in terms. Making an imperfect ten is a state – through a referendum no less – which is set to become a militarily managed democracy, as the referendum indeed was.

The upshot is there will not be in Asean a “In or Out” referendum of the British kind – free, open and all too easy.

With none of the regimes in Asean is there likely be such a reckless gamble as to leave an existential decision with the people. Not that there is everywhere in Asean always a high degree of leadership responsibility.

It is just that the people are not invited to make too many decisions once Governments are in power. So, from very different starting points, Asean will not be so people-centric as to give its citizens such a choice.

Britain – specifically David Cameron – screwed up. There was a rather careless Oxford Union debate approach by him in the referendum campaign. This was quite irresponsible when Brexit is a highly complicated matter. Even Brexiteers – like Boris Johnson – looked numb on the morning after the night before, like theirs was a Pyrrhic victory.

Some experts are now saying divorcing the EU may take 10 years. Britain will have to negotiate at least six major deals to re-establish its place in the world after Brexit.

For instance, among the six deals, Britain has to regain full membership of the WTO, not necessarily a straightforward thing, where the EU is the representative body.

While the Asean association is no way as close and intricate as the EU’s and, in the instance of the WTO, Asean countries are individual members of the trade organisation, the important point is the need to think through any decision to break away from any association or organisation.

It is not a simple in or out matter to be decided on the basis of emotion alone. There are a lot of knotty issues, especially relating to the economy, trade and free trade agreements (FTAs). There can be unintended consequences.

With respect to Asean, it will not be lost on member states that there is no need to make any grand gesture of walking out, or threatening to do so, especially as commitment to Asean’s so-called rules-based regime is not so onerous anyway. So why rock the boat when there is promise of great potential benefit and any present problems can be treated in a let sleeping dogs lie fashion?

We have noted also the wide divergence in the political models in the EU and Asean. Indeed Asean may think its democratic deficit is a blessing in disguise.

Such parsimony however should not be represented as wisdom among Asean leaders. Cynicism and realism are two different things that might yet come out of the Asean bag. If leadership and wisdom are required, for instance, to hold the association together against present and future challenges, Asean leaders could equally blunder.

The most critical test of Asean unity today is over what position to take on Beijing’s South China Sea claims and assertive behaviour. Again and again Asean – including its four South China Sea claimant states – fails to take a collective stand as China, through land reclamation and militarisation, as well as naval support of its fishing fleets, achieves de facto control over almost all of the disputed atolls and waters.

The arbitral tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruling on July 12, that there is no basis in international law for most of China’s assertions and actions, has only accentuated the division rather than help form a common front. The cracks have become clearer.

Yet China is able to entice Asean Member States with possibilities, over which it would be up to Asean to keep united or not. On August 17, China Daily reported there is agreement to negotiate the code of conduct in the South China Sea by mid-2017. There is also a deal in the making on a code of unplanned encounters at sea (CUES).

All this to go to the Asean-China summit just two weeks away. All very good news indeed.

On the other hand, Singapore – the Asean coordinator of relations with China until 2018 when the island republic takes the chair of Asean – has been receiving some stick on Chinese social media, with Global Times castigating it as the “little red dot.”

Like with all Asean countries, but more so with Singapore, the tricky test is how to navigate the Sino-US rivalry in South-East Asia. China can blow hot and cold, and keep Asean states responding every which way.

At the heart of this lack of unity is not just that not all Asean members are claimant states in the South Chine Sea, but rather more so their economic dependence on China. All Asean states have significant interest in the economic relationship with the rising giant that has grown tremendously in the last couple of decades which, to a greater or lesser extent, they do not wish to disturb. Indeed which they wish, with many Chinese blandishments, to see grow.

A couple of Asean member states depend on China for their economic life. They will never cross Beijing.

There is a soft middle who are careful not to antagonise China even if they feel they are being dragged to the limit. Only one among them appears to have drawn a line in the sand and is clear on the equal sovereign rights of all states big or small. And then there is a sharp and hard outer edge comprising two Asean members although the hardest, now with new leadership, is softening its stand.

Asean, in other words, is totally disunited over the South China Sea and China’s absolute claim to it. It needs to show unity to negotiate effectively with China but different economic and national interests are pulling it apart.

On a more general plane, while the EU has been wedded to principles – like the free movement of people – Asean has always been flexible and diverse about these things.

With immigration and the deluge of refugees caused by principled commitment being identified as the prime reason leading to Brexit, Asean may feel it has bragging rights with its flexible and realistic approach to integration and human rights issues.

But there is no cause for celebration in Asean. Certainly, in respect of not taking a principled stand on China’s assertive sovereign – and suzerain – claims in the South China Sea, the future could come to haunt Asean in some unintended ways.

Even if the calculation is that China’s regional dominance is inevitable, the nature of Asean state relationship with Beijing is still something that can be fashioned short of total subservience.

Full capitulation now will guarantee a future as vassal states.

There is value in principles. There are options that can be exercised.

In the very first year of the so-called Asean community, the path to greater integration, including in the Asianholic economic field, could get even slower as divergence on the South China Sea issue sours political relationships among member states.

There are also dangers of total dependence on economic expansion without sufficient attention being given to the social issues of growth.

Social services, better distribution of income and wealth are critical if Asean countries are not to be confronted by the ferment and discord of economic denial – which could then so easily be attributed to Asean integration rather than to bad and unjust national governance.

More than immigration, which was the symptom, the underlying cause of the Brexit vote was the anger of the social underclass denied economic justice, who attributed their condition to foreigners. Narrow and nationalistic jingoism is something politically easy to whip up when there is such anger. It is not something Asean should not anticipate.

So beneath the tranquillity of the Asean way, the smiles and linking of arms are many issues that cannot always be kept there. They should be addressed.

They could cause discord, disunity and tumult. If not exactly the break-up of Asean, they could make Asean meaningless and lead to the regional organisation not being taken seriously.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.