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What Trump should know about Asean

Kavi Chongkittavorn |

The new United States President Donald Trump must be “fantastically” happy with a “wonderful” Asean because it is the only “great” regional organisation that has no military might and has not been at war. The problem is, he might not know about the grouping at all.Here is a six-point dossier on the 50-year old Asean and its top secrets.

First, Asean is not too weak and is not too strong as a regional organisation. It was established in 1967 out of a desire to prevent conflicts and wars and to promote peace and stability.

After three days of “sport-shirt” diplomacy in Bang Saen in August five decades ago, as former Philippine President Fidel Ramos described it, the foreign ministers from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore signed the Bangkok Declaration.This 752-word document, excluding their long names, has saved the region from the scourges of many potential wars.

Like the European Union, Asean should be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in the coming decade, given its long and impressive stretch of peace and stability. Well, the US has one less region to worry about.

Second, Asean members talk a lot among themselves. Outsiders often describe the regional grouping as a talk shop.
Indeed, it is. But that is nothing to be ashamed of. Those talks have not been in vain as they have effectively prevented wars and promoted cooperation.

There would be less talks in the future, meaning fewer meetings, if the current Asean chairmanship, the Philippines, has its way.  Manila wants to streamline Asean meetings. On an average day, at least two or three meetings are being held. That makes it approximately 1,200 annually.

Last year, Laos cut it down to less than 1,000 meetings. The Asean members discuss and consult a lot until they reach a consensus — very few organisations have that kind of perseverance.

It is an open secret that sometimes when Asean members agree they do so not because they thought it was the best solution but rather it was the lowest denominator that all members would accept. In Indonesia, it is called “mushiwara” or the art of bringing everybody together to make decisions by consensus rather than choosing winners and losers, which has helped Asean to survive without any “exit” from the 10-member grouping.

Asean seldom says “you are fired” because it prefers to say “you are hired” — to be inclusive and people-centered. Third, Asean has a long standing tradition – it does not promise what it cannot deliver. It is a bit different from Trump’s style of leadership. Say it out loud first and then follow-up on those promises.

In Asean, action speaks louder than words — that is the reason the regional grouping has so many action plans. For the Asean Vision 2025, a total of 571 action plans have been identified for the next 10 years. That explains why Asean goes slow before any decision is reached. They have to be sure all promises could be delivered. Failure is not an option. Quite often, outsiders do not understand the Asean way of handling challenges, whether they are disruptive or longstanding issues. In short, slow but sure is a preferred approach.

Fourth, Asean is not a military alliance akin to the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). So, Asean is not taking any advantage of the US and it is an important US strategic partnership – a pillar of the US rebalancing policy. It is not a military burden to the advance of American greatness nor poses any threat to the US. Asean uses non-violent means to resolve conflicts as well as its goodwill to connect major powers. Former secretary general of Asean, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, often described Asean as a fulcrum for all major powers to meet and get engaged.

Asean prefers security cooperation rather than forming military alliances. Many Asean-led security dialogue platforms are designed to increase mutual confidence and promote preventive measures. Now both foreign and defence ministers have their own ministerial level forums – the Asean Regional Forum and Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus – to meet annually with their dialogue partners. 

Fifth, Asean is good for Trump’s America, as it has created jobs both in blue or red states. The US trade with Asean has already created 500,000 jobs for American people.

Asean is the fourth largest trade of the US worth about US$226 billion in 2015. And the US companies are the biggest beneficiaries of the grouping’s prosperity and modern lifestyle. More and more US companies want to invest in Asean, not stay away. In 2014, they pumped in nearly US$25 billion.  With economies of new Asean members such as Vietnam and Myanmar growing, investment opportunity will augment even more.

As a group, Asean is Asia’s third-largest economy after China and Japan and the seventh-largest in the world with a combined GDP of US$2.4 trillion. By 2030, it could be the fourth largest in the world. 

Today, Asean has a total population of 646,352,702 persons and over 65 per cent are under 35 years old. Under the Obama administration, the US has been cleverly engaged in winning hearts and minds of the Asean youngsters. The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative is an inexpensive programme to promote the networking of people-to-people ties that will keep Asean-US ties in the hands of future generation.

Sixth, each year Asean hosts one of the world’s most important leader-only security forum, known as the East Asia Summit (EAS). Leaders from Asean and dialogue partners, including the US, China, Russia, Japan and India will go to the capital of the Asean chair to forge common positions on critical global issues such as epidemics, terrorism and climate change.

This forum has gradually become more dynamic and interactive, which could in the future transform into a new regional architecture. If Trump decides not to attend the EAS at the Clark Airbase (he can easily find an excuse given his calibre) during his first year of presidency, it would be a big loss to US security interests.  Other participants are eager as always to inject their ideas and energy into the emerging security framework. 

The writer is a former Assistant Group Editor of Nation Media Group, publisher of the English-language daily, The Nation. This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and senior writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.