The Year of the Dragon: ASEAN's Existential Questions
January 19, 2012
ASEAN is positioned to become the foundation of regional economic and security frameworks that will provide the construct for nations’ grand strategy in the coming decades. Can it play this role and sustain its central position?
Achieving that goal presents a major challenge. ASEAN must step up its game by taking real steps toward realizing economic, political, and sociocultural integration. The challenge is to build on the effective effort at the East Asia Summit in Bali last November where ASEAN took the lead in tabling the most pressing regional and global issues, ranging from political reform in Myanmar to the nuclear threat of North Korea to resolving disputes in the South China Sea. Finally, it will have to cope with transnational issues such as nuclear proliferation, food and energy security, climate change, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
As ASEAN works to address the challenges of its regional role, member countries are undergoing nothing less than quiet revolution for the empowerment of voters. Citizens around the region are asserting themselves while governments scramble to reform and adapt. The process is a healthy one. Time magazine said 2011 was the Year of the Protester, but in Asia, it was the Year of the Voter.
In Southeast Asia, protesters did not have to use the violence seen in the Arab Spring. Regional governments are no longer the autocratic regimes of the Cold War era. They are moving to accommodate voters by competing with new ideas about political and economic reform. Opposition parties are seen less as security threats and more as competitors in a market for governance and economic models that will deliver the goods to an increasingly demanding customer—Asia’s fast-growing middle class.
Asia’s voters are more focused than those of the “Occupy” movements in the United States and Europe. ASEAN’s citizens are converting economic empowerment into political clout—a probable harbinger of things to come, most interestingly in China.
In addition, 2012 will present Southeast Asia’s litmus test for China, India, and the United States. Where do these powers stand and who do they want to be in the Asia Pacific?
Political bandwidth in China and the United States this year will focus on domestic political transitions. China will hold the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party and the United States will hold national elections selecting a president and new congress. These cycles are traditionally characterized by an intensive focus on domestic issues. But in the-Asia Pacific context, both major powers need to sustain a focus on regional economic and foreign policy and address the questions of what they want and who they want to be.
For India, whose 2012 elections will be at the state, not national, level, the same questions are relevant. Is India serious about becoming an Asia-Pacific power? To date, it has attended the meetings and gone through the motions, but it has yet to internalize and focus its engagement.
Who Does China Want to Be?
Southeast Asia’s primary concern about China is understanding what its massive neighbor wants and who it wants to be. Will the year of the dragon reveal a China guided by Deng Xiaoping’s caution to ask “what should China do?,” or a more aggressive and nationalist neighbor testing its newfound economic power by asserting sovereignty in disputed territories and asking “what can China do?”
China’s actions in the South China Sea and maritime northeast Asia have triggered age-old anxieties in Southeast Asia—even to the extent that countries once assumed fully under China’s influence such as Myanmar have charted new courses to assert sovereignty through political and economic reform. To be certain, China’s economic dynamism and global presence are vital to the region’s interests. Southeast Asia needs a strong China, but in the form of a confident neighbor willing to work with its neighbors in developing rules and guidelines within the new Asia-Pacific frameworks. By so doing, China will build trust and champion peace and prosperity.
Will the United States Focus and Follow Through?
The region’s concern about the United States is whether it will focus and follow through on its commitments to the Asia Pacific. In 2011, President Obama and his foreign policy and national security teams made a compelling case that the United States was pivoting toward Asia. He said the Asia-Pacific region will be the center point for new economic growth and security concerns in the first part of the twenty-first century. Asian allies and strategic partners were encouraged by those words and by the actions that backed them up—U.S. leadership in trade with the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the United States’ first attendance at the East Asia Summit, the announcement of new basing agreements in Australia, and a strong and consistent focus on resolving South China Sea disputes.
While 2011 was an impressive year for advancing U.S. goals and engagement in Asia, ASEAN and other partners in the region are anxious about whether the United States can sustain the new level of commitment it has staked out. Most Asian countries have sought a more robust U.S. presence in the region to help convince a rising China to engage in regional frameworks that will result in the collective development of rules around trade and security.
Southeast Asia is legitimately concerned about the United States’ financial capability to sustain and expand its presence and questions whether the political focus can be sustained in an election year. The natural inclination of politicians in an election year is to focus almost exclusively on issues that will get them reelected. Foreign policy, trade, and national security issues rarely rank high on that list. Sadly, campaign professionals assiduously steer their candidates away from those topics.
This will present a real challenge for the Obama White House to remain focused and follow through on its commitments to Asian engagement. This White House has already demonstrated its sensitivity to foreign travel and potentially alienating its labor base with trade agreements. Alarming new levels of partisanship coupled with brinksmanship on budgetary issues in Congress will present additional threats to sustaining the U.S. commitment.
If the United States falters so early on in its self-proclaimed new focus on Asia, allies and partners in the region will be forced to ask questions and explore hedging strategies that could undermine the vast potential for new security partnerships, growing trade and investment, and strengthening regional architecture.
When Will India Assert its Asia-Pacific Credentials?
India shares land and maritime borders with China and Southeast Asia. Like China, it has deep affinities with Southeast Asia through history, governance, language, religion, and culture. It is a party to nascent regional architecture including free trade agreements with ASEAN as well as other Asia-Pacific countries and membership in the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, and the ASEAN Regional Forum.
However, India remains the most internally focused of the big three powers engaged in Asia-Pacific regional frameworks. Southeast Asia wants to know when India will assert its regional credentials and is searching for the factors that will motivate India to advance its effort to integrate and participate more intensely. Of these factors, the two most viable are, first, an Indian private sector seeking to diversify from stifling corruption and the efficiency-slaking regulatory maze at home and, second, a military increasingly aware of security concerns in the Indian Ocean.
India should play a stronger leadership role in Asia-Pacific regional architecture. In that context, supporting political and economic reform in Myanmar would be an ideal entrée. India’s nationalist leaders Gandhi and Nehru played a critical inspirational role for Myanmar’s independence movement (then called the Union of Burma). India has economic, political, security, and social interests in seeing a stable and prosperous Myanmar develop on its eastern border. A peaceful Myanmar with a balanced foreign policy is in India’s interests. So is a Myanmar engaged in economic initiatives linking mainland Southeast Asia, China, and India through roads, rail, and maritime cooperation. Finally, a stable and reformed Myanmar will strengthen ASEAN as a solid foundation for developing regional economic and security cooperation, which should be a core national security concern for India.
Myanmar: The Breakthrough Opportunity of 2012
The biggest opportunity for Southeast Asia in 2012 is the chance for Myanmar to emerge from the darkness of five decades of repression and self-imposed isolation from the global community. Myanmar’s progress is important to Southeast Asia because the grouping has been dragging the draconian regime around like a ball and chain since it joined in 1997.
Substantial actions have backed up the rhetoric of the government, including the release of many political prisoners, the reform of laws limiting use of the Internet, and the easing of restrictions on the media and free association. In addition, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest, and she and her party are allowed to run in by-elections planned for early 2012.
Myanmar’s reforms offer Asia-Pacific countries a substantial opportunity to strengthen ASEAN as a foundation for building new regional trade and security architecture. That will encourage China to come to the table and work with other countries to establish rules governing trade and security, promote regional peace and prosperity, and cooperate on areas of concern such as the South China Sea.
Political reform in Myanmar is indicative of the trend of continued empowerment for people and voters across Southeast Asia. Should this trend hold, regional governments will be compelled to accelerate campaigns against corruption, advance political and economic reforms, and strengthen institutions. These steps augur well for a just and sustainable governance infrastructure in Southeast Asia. Over the coming decade, this trend toward empowerment and good governance may have more impact on China than Chinese economic momentum has on Southeast Asia.
The year of the dragon presents Southeast Asia and its partners with important questions. As those queries are answered, the region will make important decisions about the direction of emerging political, economic, and security norms. A strengthened ASEAN is in the interests of all countries in the Asia Pacific. The coming year will reveal who understands this strategic thrust and who is willing to invest in achieving that goal.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.