For a much more amorphous organization than the EU, with no institutional governance bodies, the meetings of the heads of the member states are the only tool for making and adopting decisions. Therefore, in recent years, ASEAN has been holding its summits twice a year, with this year’s second summit to be held in November at the same venue in the Philippines.
Prevailing expert assessments of the results of the Association’s activities, founded 50 years ago, are of a restrainedly skeptical nature. This is due to both internal and external reasons.
The first includes a variety of fundamental differences existing among the member states, especially in the socio-economic field. For example, the average income of a resident of Singapore is 5 times higher than that of Malaysia and 10-20 times higher than the income of residents of all other ASEAN countries.
These differences initially excluded the possibility of creating institutions and governing structures present in the EU as part of the Association. The format of decision-making is labelled by the specific term ‘ASEAN Way’, which has an interpretation that opens up space for imagination. The basic component of the ‘ASEAN Way’ is apparently the exclusion of any pressure on a partner and full consensus in the course of adopting the decision.
The weakness of the Association predetermines its low foreign political capacity, even in its own geographical region, which also turns out to be in the focus of the interests of the major world players. The Southeast sub-region, which includes the South China Sea, constitutes half of the modern ‘Balkans’ of the emerging global political space, that is, a zone where the interests of the leading powers are superimposed in a particularly sensitive way.
At this point, it is important to recall that until the end of last year, much of the mainstream global media for a good time ran with headlines on stories pertaining to the events developing in South-East Asia and the notorious South China Sea. Further, near the end of last year, names and descriptions like the ‘Korean Peninsula’ (used to denote the other half of the modern ‘Balkans’) and ‘North-Korean nuclear missile program’ started replacing the first two.
At the same time, to date, the military and political problems surrounding the situation in Southeast Asia and South Korea have by no means receded into the background. The truth is that, just for a while, they have been under the shadow of a sharp increase in tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
In the context of increasing rivalry among the leading global powers for their influence on the Southeast Asian countries, the latter adhere to the (only possible) strategy of balance. This is especially noticeable in that part of the Joint Statement on the Results of the 30th ASEAN Summit, that deals in the situation in the South China Sea and on the Korean peninsula.
The relevant paragraphs of this document are formulated in such a way that neither the US nor China is engrossed in the feeling that the Association gives preference to the position of one of the two main political and economic partners of ASEAN on issues of topical and relevant politics, which are extremely important for each of them.
In particular, the paragraph dealing in the situation on the Korean peninsula contains an appeal to Pyongyang to “immediately fulfill all obligations resulting from the relevant resolutions” of the UN Security Council, as the US insists.
However, at the same time, all parties are called upon to observe “restraint in the interests of preserving peace, security and stability in the region and the world as a whole.” This is one of the main theses of the position of China on the problem of growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The same politically correct eclecticism in relation to the United States and China is also demonstrated when characterizing an equally difficult situation in the South China Sea. On the one hand, fears are stated (although their causes are not explained), manifested by “some” countries of the subregion.
At the same time, the long-discussed ‘Code of Conduct’ with unplanned contacts at sea and ships and aircraft of the parties in the South China Sea was signed last September between China and ASEAN.
The decision of the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) of June 12, 2016, which was met with sharp criticism in China, was also not mentioned in the Statement.
The eclecticism mentioned above has recently been clearly manifested in the rhetoric and behavior of the President of the Philippines, R. Duterte, that is, an ASEAN member state, on the complaint of the former leadership of which (for “Chinese violations” in the South China Sea) the PCA also worked.
We note here that out of all the anti-American rhetoric of the Philippine president in summer of last year, today, there is almost nothing left, and he himself has started to do what the leader of a third-world country, which is in the force field created by the leading world powers, should do. Namely – to maneuver in this field, trying not to strongly irritate the sources of power lines and trying to even extract certain benefits for themselves.
On May 1, that is, the day after the ASEAN summit, R. Duterte held a telephone conversation with President D. Trump during which he received an invitation to visit the United States. On the same day, the Philippine president visited the flagship of the Chinese ship group, who went on a six-month foreign tour.
Earlier, we discussed information about the upcoming long-term foreign campaign of the Izumo light aircraft carrier belonging to the Japanese Navy, that is, the third leading regional power also showing increased interest in Southeast Asia. It was reported that R. Duterte may appear on the deck of this ship after his call to the Philippine port.
The forced “flexibility” of the conduct of Southeast Asian countries even in their own subregion shows that the permanent records in the basic and current ASEAN documents on the desire to turn the Association into an independent world player are poorly substantiated declarations.
Such claims are mainly based on such integral indicators of all ten ASEAN members as population (about 600 million people), annual GDP (about 2.5 trillion dollars – the seventh place in the world) and average economic growth (about 5% per year).
However, in themselves, these impressive figures do not allow us to draw any conclusions on the role of the Association in the economic activities of the participating countries. Moreover, the constantly low level of the share of domestic trade in goods and services (about 24% in total) makes one doubt the significance of this role. The last indicator rather shows declarative nature of statements about the need to increase the level of integration of the Association.
Three-quarters of the trade volume of ASEAN is achieved through connections with the world’s leading players, that is, China, the United States, Japan and the EU. They are also the main investors in the largest transnational projects in the field of transport infrastructure development, and in the conservation and development of the resources of the Mekong River.
In general, all of the above is indicative of an adequate assessment by the countries of the Association of the risks caused by the comprehensive competition of global powers in Southeast Asia, as well as the ability to derive personal benefits from this situation.
Of course, under conditions of a sharp aggravation of the situation in the subregion, these risks can turn into dangerous threats. Nevertheless, the development of the ‘Great Political Game’ is beyond the competence of ‘small players’, that is, members of ASEAN.
In the meantime, we will repeat, they are conducting business skillfully. The last summit of the member states of the Association is a confirmation of this.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’.