THERE were two casualties, one big winner and plenty of strong words at the recent Asean and other summits in Bangkok.
The United States did itself no favours by sending low-level representation to the summits. Seven Asean states in response did not have their leaders attend meetings with the Americans. There were, thus, no leaders’ summit with the US whose president snubbed Asean’s big event which, in appearance at least, accorded the regional grouping the centrality it often claims.
By not giving Asean this recognition, which really does not cost much, the process of diminishing American engagement and weight in Southeast Asia continues on its downward slide.
An American initiative to arrest this — the geopolitical Indo-Pacific idea which was searching for its economic dimension — came to very little in the Bangkok conference around the summits.
It is also not likely Asean leaders will take up the invitation by President Donald Trump to visit him in Washington in three months’ time, a kind of mountain going to Muhammad, which the US president certainly is not.
Even if there were to be a new US President in the coming year, he or she would have a steep hill to climb to just make up for lost ground, let alone to return to the American position in the region before China’s rise.
The other casualty was India jumping out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) after some years of dragging its feet, which was one of the main causes of delay in getting the grouping established.
Essentially, India wanted to protect its markets against primarily Chinese goods. Made-in-India v Made-in-China. These situations are tricky, the desire to protect the domestic interest against the greater efficiency that would come from open competition.
The expressed hope that India would at some time in the future join the RCEP 15 is a forlorn one as the terms of entry then would be harsher than those it had sought to achieve before crashing out. It has been seven years since the RCEP, an Asean initiative, was first conceived in Phnom Penh, and now it will not wait for or on India.
All the years of negotiation by India might be seen to have been in bad faith. India’s efforts in recent times to get closer to Asean, particularly after past neglect, could be affected as Asean moves forward and closer with its five RCEP partners.
China, which has been steadfast in its economic relationship with Asean, gained the most among those who attended the summits. Beijing takes care of the symbolic gestures that matter to Asean year in and year out, even if on the substance on non-economic issues it can be resistant.
Thus, in the South China Sea it continues to take measures, including belligerent ones, to establish a fait accompli for its claim to almost all of that strategic waterway. Possession is nine points of the law.
With the code of conduct, the scrap it has thrown to Asean, China makes all the right noises as the code meanders its way through first reading to the next stage of negotiations, an ironic use of parliamentary nomenclature by a country based on the communist political system.
China understands how to manage Asean. Lock in the economic benefits. Arbitrage the divergent interests. Always turn up suitably, make the right gestures and utterances, acknowledge Asean centrality, even if China knows only too well it is just symbolic. Big winner.
Ultimately, it is Asean itself which must realise its strengths by implementing the so many blueprints and economic plans which by their numbers alone make it seem as if it has been done. There was a strong call to actually do it. Let’s see.
There was also a call for Asean to speak with one voice on major economic issues facing the world, especially on the trade war the US has declared against China, and violation of the rules-based world economic order.
Actually both on implementation and speaking with one voice, the Asean Business Advisory Council (Asean-BAC) is emerging as a useful driver and catalyst, something recognised in the Asean chairman’s statement at the end of its summit.
I had proposed use of the term “world economic peace” and more vigorous representation of united Asean views on economic matters with Asean economic ministers last September, and it seems to be gaining traction. But, again, we will have to see how Asean moves into action after using the words.
More importantly, implementation is necessary of economic integration measures, after the Asean Economic Community (AEC) was pronounced in 2015 and the Blueprint 2025 was adopted to make it a reality.
As chairman of Asean-BAC in 2015, I had lobbied for Asean-BAC to be recognised as the apex business organisation, which was acknowledged in the blueprint. Since then, Asean-BAC has been doing stellar work in coordinating and representing the views of so many other business councils from inside and outside the region, and in proposing cross-border Asean projects.
There are a few such projects such as what I had initiated now known as Asean Financial Inclusion Solutions (AFIS) and Thailand’s digital trade connectivity this year.
These “legacy” projects are real business initiatives which should obtain the support of Asean governments. Just as Asean leaders should also take heed of the many problems facing the business sector brought to its attention by Asean-BAC, and their proposed resolution for realisation of the AEC.
The writer,a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political affairs. He is also member of the Economic Action Council chaired by the prime minister
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times