ASEAN for a post-Western world

By John Pang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, September 15, 2022
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Photo shows a China-Vietnam-Laos freight train loaded with agricultural products at Nanning International Railway Port in Nanning, capital of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, May 13, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

We are amid a great transition that challenges our deepest assumptions. The world economy is decoupling as the West tries to isolate two of the world's largest political communities. The global system is said to be reverting to multipolarity.

Multipolarity alone is not new. Before World War II it existed between European empires. What is new, and terrifying to certain quarters, welcomed in others, isn't the end of unipolarity per se, but of hierarchy, between "the West" (that has never been more unipolarly dominated by one of its number), and the 80 percent of the world's population subjugated over centuries within a racial hierarchy supposedly ordained by nature. That hierarchy was not toppled by the fall of European empires. After the war it was consolidated under the new management of the United States. It is the end of the 400-year arc of Western domination, of the world order it created and the globalization it brought about, that seems like a reversal of the cosmic order. This is why the West has lost its mind over China, and why the U.S., once the preserver of the status quo in Asia, has become its chief disruptor.

What does the rise of a post-Western world mean for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)? How does it preserve its vaunted freedom of action and neutrality as the ground beneath it shifts and it is pressed to take sides? How is it to orient itself? It needs to take a stand on the coming world order and help build it.

From Bandung to ASEAN and back

ASEAN was founded in 1967 to articulate a collective voice for Southeast Asian countries against being dragged into the Cold War. Its commitments to non-interference, respect for territorial sovereignty and peaceful coexistence derive from the Afro-Asian movement of the Bandung Conference of 1955, whose principles to this day inform the foreign policy of the 29 states that attended, representing half the population of the world. One of Bandung's priorities was to lay a foundation for the peaceful incorporation of the newly founded People's Republic of China into world order amid U.S. hostility to its very existence.

The problem of peace and independence for ASEAN has been from the start indivisible from the question of China's place in world order.

Malaysia, for example, moved early to back the restoration of the People's Republic of China's lawful seat in the UN. In the teeth of the U.S. embargo and two months before Henry Kissinger's secret visit to Beijing in July 1971, a Malaysian special envoy, Tengku Razaleigh, met quietly with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to restore direct trade and set up the meeting between Malaysian Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein and Chairman Mao Zedong to restore full diplomatic relations.

Southeast Asians were pioneer investors in China after its reform and opening up started in the late 1970s. As China prospered, Southeast Asia became the proving ground for its peaceful rise. China played a key stabilizing role in East Asia with the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, when it prevented an even greater disaster for the region by resisting the devaluation of the yuan.

Since China became a full dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1996, it has strengthened ASEAN centrality by conducting its regional diplomacy through institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN+1 (China), ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and the Republic of Korea), and the East Asia Summit. The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, first proposed by Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in 2000, was realized in 2010. China backs the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an initiative started by ASEAN, that has established the world's largest free trade area. China-ASEAN cooperation has been a pillar of regional and global stability and prosperity.

Meanwhile trade has soared. China's trade volume with ASEAN now exceeds that with the EU or the U.S., a remarkable statistic for a developing region. Today they are each other's largest trading partners, with trade volume approaching $1 trillion a year.

No neutrality over world order

China-ASEAN cooperation and region-building is the basis of what Southeast Asians came to expect would be an "Asian Century," a return to Asian prosperity. Peacefully integrating the vast market and productive forces of China, however, turns out to require a decolonization of world order that the West has decided it cannot live with. If the West's anti-China crusade has its way, there will be no fair multipolar order, no "Asian Century," and no "Rise of the Rest." On this ASEAN cannot be neutral.

Today, therefore, as at Bandung in 1955, Southeast Asian countries need to play an active role in building multilateral institutions, connections and solidarities that create an alternative to the weaponized institutions and military alliances of the West.

When ASEAN was founded, it was enough to stay clear of the Cold War. Today, while remaining neutral by avoiding military entanglements, ASEAN cannot be neutral on the shape of the world we want to live in, and the relationships necessary to sustain it.

The West is in a generalized crisis leading to a downward spiral. A post-Western world order, if humanity survives the present, is inevitable. The sovereignty, security and prosperity of ASEAN countries is assured only in actively working for a peaceful transition to that order. It is not found in trying to triangulate between the West and its midnight terrors.

There is great enthusiasm around the world for this change. The return of old dynamisms spanning Eurasia and Africa is foreshadowed in efforts such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS and a Group of 20 that can ignore the moral theater of its Group of Seven participants. The sovereignty and agency of ASEAN countries must be secured in the fray of diplomacy and region-building within East Asia and across these institutions.

It was always absurd to expect Southeast Asians to participate in the suppression of China, its neighbor and trading partner of 2,000 years, with whose destiny it is joined. On this we cannot be neutral. We must therefore develop clear notions of who we are, where we stand, and what we are to do within this great transition to a post-Western world order. From this we may figure out how to remain the open crossroads of Asia through a turbulent time, and how, perhaps one day, to socialize the West into a civilized relationship with the non-Western world. 

The author is a former Malaysian government official and was founding CEO of the CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

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