The ASEAN way

China’s assertiveness will test the unity of the South-East Asian club, but not to breaking-point


In August 1967 five countries formed the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand had little in common—indeed, Indonesia had until recently been waging an undeclared war against Malaysia in the jungles of Borneo; the acrimony from Singapore’s abrupt departure from Malaysia in 1965 was still fresh. Yet one existential threat brought them together: Soviet-backed communism exported from Vietnam.

Fifty years on ASEAN has doubled its membership to include Vietnam itself, along with Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar—a total population of 625m, bigger than the European Union. Growing prosperity and a rising middle class are things to celebrate. But in its anniversary year ASEAN will face a fresh existential challenge, threatening this time to blow it apart: being forced to choose sides in China’s growing great-power rivalry with America. Some will predict that the outcome will be ASEAN’s demise. Yet the regional club will find a way through, and even come out of the year stronger. Call it the “ASEAN way”.

Early in 2017 things will not look auspicious, with America's commitment to the region under President Donald Trump in doubt, and the politics of several members lurching backwards. In Thailand the junta that kicked out a democratic government in 2014 will dig in for the long haul. It will go after “red-shirt” democrats and those with a dislike for the crown prince, Vajiralongkorn, who is soon to ascend to the throne after the death in October of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, immersed in financial scandal, will crack down before a general election in 2018, if not sooner (see box on next page). And in the Philippines (which holds ASEANs rotating chair in 2017) under the irascible president, Rodrigo Duterte, a vigilante crusade against drug-dealers will threaten to suck society under.

Grim as the politics of these countries looks, make no mistake: ASEAN does not give a damn about the abuses themselves. The ASEAN way emphasises cohesion, order and civility among its members—and above all an agreement not to disagree. This is its prized consensus, which is reached by turning a blind eye to regimes’ behaviour: any other approach would lead to rupture. As for decision-making, consensus rules here too. It means moving at the speed of the slowest. On the one hand, ASEAN can commit, as it did in a charter a decade ago, to move towards “EU-style” integration; on the other, you can wait for a real common market until the cows come home.

But ASEAN would give a damn if China thought that the lurches towards authoritarianism in Thailand, ­Mal­aysia­ and the Philippines made those countries susceptible to Chinese blandishments in ways that risk dividing the club. At issue is the South China Sea, where China’s expansive claims overlap those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China’s territorial claims were dealt a legal blow in 2016 when an international court at The Hague ruled them to be inadmissable under the law of the sea. China rejected the ruling and has pressed weaker ASEAN members to do the same. As a result, ASEAN has struggled to find consensus on the issue. It has not helped that China looks to have “turned” Mr Duterte. It was his country that had brought The Hague case to court; soon after, though, the new president was praising China as the new power in the neighbourhood, while cursing America, the Philippines’ long-standing ally.

ASEAN has been here before. At a summit in Phnom Penh in 2012, China applied huge pressure through Cambodia, a quasi-client state, to block any criticism of it. As a result, ASEAN’s foreign ministers failed for the first time to agree on even the blandest joint statement. Given that post-summit communiqués are the outward form of the ASEAN consensus, diplomats say that it was a near-death experience they do not wish to repeat.

And so in the anniversary year a push will be made to coalesce around a new, firmer consensus not to let China rock the ASEAN boat. This time it won’t be left to flaccid foreign ministers; national leaders will get involved, starting with Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore. That city-state will co-opt Indonesia, ASEAN’s biggest country but under President Joko Widodo strangely unwilling to show regional leadership. Even Mr Duterte will confound sceptics by joining the initiative, because of fresh Chinese building on contested reefs in 2017 that will end the love-in with China (bear in mind too that Filipinos are the most pro-American people in the world).

That will leave only Hun Sen, Cambodia’s ageing strongman. At home he is a thug, and he allows Chinese cronies to plunder his country. But he is still susceptible to flattery, and in private other ASEAN leaders will tell him that his greatest moment is about to come in saving ASEAN. And so it will have its 50th-anniversary pageantry and celebrations. As for the summit that will follow, its joint communiqué will surprise China with its bluntness. But China will have to grin and bear it, or risk looking the party-pooper.

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