Wednesday, May 28, 2014

ASEAN Forms Defense Industry Collaboration Consultative Group

According to IHS Jane's Defence Industry, ASEAN Defense Ministers agreed to increase ASEAN defense industry cooperation:

In a joint declaration, regional defence ministers agreed to adopt the terms of reference for an "ASEAN defence industry collaboration consultative group" that will draw up a range of related activities for discussion and approval during the 9 th ADMM in Malaysia in 2015.  The consultative group will propose a framework of activities related to education and training, an outline of feasible areas of industrial collaboration, and suggest measures to overcome continuing concerns in the region about the ownership and funding of collaborative projects as well as the transfer of technologies and intellectual property between ASEAN member states.

This is another positive step for ASEAN and hopefully we'll see a definitive course of action next year. I have more on ASEAN defense cooperation at an earlier post here

Saturday, May 24, 2014

How "the ASEAN Way" Is Needed to Build Confidence in ASEAN Institutions

The past few weeks have brought “the ASEAN way” of non-interference in ASEAN members’ domestic affairs into conflict with the more interventionist approach frequently found in Western countries.  We also have seen ASEAN voice its concern over China’s activities in the South China Sea, supported by many in those same Western countries. What is not apparent to the casual observer is how “the ASEAN way” is necessary to firm up ASEAN solidarity, which in turn augments ASEAN’s resolve in dealing with the South China Sea issue as well as other regional issues.

This week, of course, the Thai military took over the Thai government in a coup d’etat.  While ASEAN and its members limited their comments to a support for a return to a normal government and for stability, they refrained from expressing opinion on how this should occur. That is “the ASEAN way.”

(This might change if the Thai situation deteriorates into separatism.  If that spectre were to arise, ASEAN should consider making a definitive statement that a region that leaves an ASEAN member is not automatically a party to the various ASEAN agreements, particularly the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Economic Community agreements.  This is akin to EU Commission President  Jose Manuel Barosso’s recent statement regarding an independent Scotland).

Notably, Cambodia, whose prime minister Hun Sen is close to the Shinawatras and thus is one ASEAN member who might be inclined to voice opposition to the military coup, has remained relatively quiet on the issue. This probably reflects Hun Sen’s own domestic political difficulties and a wish not to draw too much attention to them.

Western countries took a more vocal approach and openly called for a return to a democratic government.  As required by its statutes, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Thailand, but attempted to limit them so as to maintain some diplomatic flexibility.  Other governments will similarly attempt a nuanced approach.

However, in dealing with another ASEAN member, Brunei, there is not as much nuance.  Many in the United States and elsewhere are calling for boycotts of Brunei and Brunei-owned institutions in protest of Brunei’s imposing sharia law.  ASEAN, on the other hand, has remained relatively quiet on the issue, again following “the ASEAN way.”

Those seeking a more vocal regional opinion on such issues are often critical of “the ASEAN way”.  Yet it is important to recognize that ASEAN encompasses a wide variety of governments, ranging from democracies of varying openness to communist one-party states to an absolute monarchy to, for now, a military junta.  Expecting such countries to adopt a liberal Western democratic system (or its values) overnight is not realistic, and given examples elsewhere and even within ASEAN itself, forcing such a result is not advisable. 

Rather, “the ASEAN way” may be a plodding and inconsistent approach, much as it is with the ASEAN Economic Community, but it can lead to positive results if properly understood and supported. Years of economic sanctions against the Myanmar regime alone did not lead to political reform, but combined with the constant, steady influence of ASEAN, they did convince the country to implement political and economic reform (hopefully fully). 

Furthermore, “the ASEAN way” promotes confidence in regionalism, as ASEAN members become more comfortable in ASEAN and the ASEAN institutions without fearing that they will intervene in their political affairs. In contrast, Mercosur temporarily suspended Paraguay due to its domestic political situation; that regional body is much less successful and even has competing regional organizations in South America.

Without having confidence in its institutions, ASEAN will be less willing to work on a regional basis on economic development, environmental issues, and yes, security issues like the South China Sea dispute with China. This is why informed observers in the West are less vocal on the Brunei sharia issue and call for more flexibility in dealing with the Thai military junta.  That does not mean those calling for changes in ASEAN countries are wrong; rather, they need to understand the larger historical and cultural picture involved, and temper both their expectations and their objectives.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Wrap-up of the Spring 2014 ASEAN Summit

The 24th ASEAN Summit was held in Naypyidaw this past weekend.  To the casual observer (and most of the mainstream media), perhaps not much happened beyond the usual press releases and handholding ceremonies (including a relatively bland statement on supporting the ASEAN Economic Community’s (AEC) implementation). That would be a wrong assessment.

First, the major accomplishment is that the ASEAN Summit was held without much of a hitch.  Considering the great apprehension when Myanmar was named ASEAN chair for 2014 regarding its political situation, that is quite something.  I say this with regard to both the procedural and substantive conduct of the ASEAN Summit.   

On the former, the Myanmar government did show that it can pull off a major regional event and gives confidence that it can repeat the task when the ASEAN dialogue partners come for the fall 2014 summit.  With the recent court-ordered departure of former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, it would appear that Myanmar is more politically stable than Thailand at the moment (although the real test is whether we will be able to say the same thing during next year’s runup to the Myanmar elections). 

On the latter, fears that a Myanmar chairmanship would turn into a repeat of the 2012 Cambodian chairmanship have been largely dissipated.  Although perhaps Vietnam and the Philippines did not get as strong a reaction on the South China Sea issue, neither did we have the complete breakdown on the issue that occurred at the 2012 Phnom Penh summit. This attests to Myanmar’s different outlook on relations with China as well as to the difference between Cambodia’s and Myanmar’s approaches to the ASEAN chairmanship.

Second, Malaysia reiterated its push for reform of the ASEAN institutions.  As discussed in the previous post, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak has proposed changing the financial structure for the ASEAN Secretariat and other proposals, which he tabled with the other ASEAN leaders during the Naypyidaw summit.  With Malaysia taking over as ASEAN chair in 2015, Malaysia’s active support of ASEAN institutions is a promising development for ASEAN. The timing is also good, as the ASEAN Charter is due for a review and the impending December 31, 2015, ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) implementation deadline looks set to be only partially met, meaning that post-2015 AEC efforts will need additional ASEAN institutional support that the current setup does not currently offer.  Hopefully, this effort will go further and incorporate the institutional reforms proposed by former ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan as well as improving dispute resolution in ASEAN.