A new intellectual leader emerges in Asean

In the past, Singapore has been the uncontested intellectual leader of Asean… with the rise of democratic Indonesia, it has come up with many bold and liberal ideas of its own.
Kavi Chongkittavorn-Ann
The Island

The dramatic departure of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatomaya have effectively unplugged their nascent plans of constructing a new regional architecture. Asean, therefore, is the direct beneficiary of their downfall.

For nearly two years, the Asean leaders were dragged into debates unprepared and did several rounds of soul- searching. Member states found themselves united and at odds with one another examining national interests that has broader regional contexts. They ended up with a new mantra, known as “Asean centrality”.

Without the constant pushing of the two powerful dialogue countries, the question remains whether Asean should go slow or move forward full throttle to gain a consensus as early as possible on the new regional architecture. If the past is any judge, Asean tends to move quicker and consolidate faster with external pressure or crisis looming large.

Apparently, this time around a majority of Asean wants to proceed with the discussions, which were held already in quite comprehensive ways. But minor divergent views still need to be ironed out before a consensus can be reached. At the Asean ministerial meeting in Hanoi next week, the new regional architecture issue will top the agenda.

To do that, Asean has to bridge their perceptions over the role of major powers, organisational structures as well as formats that the grouping wishes to see them fit in. Without fanfare, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong presented the Asean plus eight plan at the last summit in Hanoi in April. The US and Russia will be invited to join the grouping’s major dialogue partners including China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. The Asean plus eight summit will take place when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders meeting occurs in an Asian country.

This format, Singapore believes, would enable a US President to attend an Asean-led summit. That has been the focus of the debate as Asean realises the importance of a US President attending. But a question can be raised, for instance, if South Korea hosts the Apec summit – Will the host provide the hospitality for all delegates from Cambodia, Laos and Burma? Certainly, this issue could be solved if they join Apec at the end of November, when the Apec leaders are scheduled to meet in Yokohama in Japan. Asean will certainly push hard for such a goal.

On the other hand, in mid-January this year, Indonesia floated the idea of expanding the East Asia Summit (EAS). This leaders’ forum, founded in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, discusses strategic and transnational issues. It is an existing Asean-led forum. The US and Russia would be invited to join. Russia has been consistent in being a member of the EAS, while the US has expressed interest but without any clear action. Recently, Canada and EU indicated a similar interest.

At the May meeting in Hoi An, Asean senior officials found it extremely difficult to choose either formula for the inclusion of the world’s two superpowers. The Asean chair, Vietnam, plus Indonesia and Laos prefer an expanded EAS. Singapore and Cambodia strongly back the Asean plus eight, along with potential support from the Philippines and Burma. Thailand, Brunei and Malaysia need additional information to come up with their positions. Of late, both Thailand and Malaysia are edging towards the proposed Indonesian plan.

When the foreign ministers meet in Hanoi in coming days, these positions would certainly shift and change. Meanwhile, strong posturing and lobbying are visible from Singapore and Indonesia over their preferred formulas. In fact, their differences are minimal. Quite a few Asean members fear that Asean will loose its influence and centrality in the newly proposed Asean plus eight. They prefer an expanded EAS with the US and Russia added on as it would help forge common views on global issues with the fulcrum in Asean. A consensus must be reached before a report with recommendations is ready to be made and submitted to Asean leaders at their summit in October.

In the past, Singapore has been the uncontested intellectual leader of Asean, providing new ideas related to economic and security matters to reinvent and make Asean relevant to the global community. The Asean Regional Forum and Asia Europe Meeting are such hallmarks. It used to be a given that Singapore’s ideas would eventually morph into Asean plans.

This time, however, there is a new regional environment with the rise of democratic Indonesia. The grouping’s biggest member has come up with many bold and liberal ideas of its own regarding Asean. It has played crucial roles in pushing for the drafting of an Asean charter and security community. Gone are the days when it used to be ridiculed as the grouping’s smallest denominator—nothing moves without Indonesia’s consent. Now the country has become the biggest demoninator that can inspire the rest of Asean. Jakarta’s growing confidence in its own democratic development has already transferred to its multilateral diplomacy towards Asean and major powers. Indonesian civil society groups have been the most active in Asean in pushing for people-oriented agenda including human rights and climate changes.

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa also stressed the importance of Asean in Indonesian foreign policy in his interview with the author at the end of last year. Indonesia’s switching the Asean chair with Brunei for next year was another example. The move aims to achieve twin objectives of regional and global leadership. With the Asean chair next year, Indonesia has ample time to devote all its energy to host the G-20 and Apec summits in 2013. To become a Brussels of the East is no longer far-fetched.

In the end, the role of potential intellectual leader in Asean as perceived by fellow Asean members would be a pivotal factor to swing their decisions on either option. Thailand will also use this benchmark as one of the criteria for its decision.


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