Can ASEAN Still Learn from the European Union?

By Phar Kim Beng

Can ASEAN Still Learn from the European Union?

It is clear that the European Union is still mired in various fiscal and financial difficulties while ASEAN and East Asia are not. There is no reason for hubris, however, because perturbations in the EU affect other regions.

It used to be fashionable in the early 1990s, immediately after the end of Cold War to claim that East Asia is different from Europe. Several reasons were offered. First, Europe was a lot more homogenous than Asia. Second, Europe preferred legalism to institution-building, whereas Asians preferred non-binding agreements, encapsulated as “the ASEAN Way”. Finally, Europe has a centralized system of decision making in Brussels; whereas Asians make do with consensus.On this basis, it was affirmed that any post-Cold War diplomacy attempted in East Asia, could not be the same with Europe at all. Asian analysts who believe in this bifurcation emphasized various shades of differences, too, albeit in the language of Asian diplomacy.

To begin with, instead of having confidence building, which is a concept built on mutual transparency and open verification of armaments, there was to be more trust building, claimed Jawhar Hassan at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) in Malaysia. ISIS was of course a think tank close to the Malaysian government. Political propriety and correctness were of the most important order; although the distinction between confidence and trust building was never made. Secondly, rather than an ultimate Asian (Economic) Union, it was agreed by the Senior Officials in ASEAN that that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) be the lead for an enlarged free trade agreement by 2015.

Both gestures affirmed matter-a-factly that Asia would always be different from Europe. To an extent, the intellectuals and policy makers in East Asia have a point about its difference with Europe. Since East Asia was essentially made from the mould of decolonization. Nationalism, sovereignty, and independence matter a lot more to Southeast Asia, than a Europe that had already saw through the futility of wars and conflicts fought exclusively on ideology and sovereignty, as marked by World War I and World War II.

Indeed, one might even say that the Congress of Vienna was a precursor to European Union (EU) since it involved five different countries or empires working together to prevent the exuberant proliferation of nationalism that emerged from the French Revolution. Alas, the tendency to exaggerate the difference between the East and West put paid to good statecraft too.

When the Cold War ended, for example, Australia proposed the formation of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Asia (CSCA), modelled on something similar in Europe. Yet, afraid that ASEAN would be supplanted and replaced by CSCA, Australia’s initiative was not accepted. This drew ex Foreign Minister Gareth Evans of Australia to lament: “While EU may be different from Asia, exemplary habits of cooperation can still be attempted, and learned”. Evans was right.

In turn, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was convened in 1994, where the countries agreed to focus on confidence building, preventive diplomacy, maritime cooperation, and peacekeeping – essentially the same issues that CSCA would have attempted anyway. In other words, Asia was learning from Europe, without admitting it. However, with various members of EU in various forms of fiscal, financial and economic difficulties now, one must wonder if the tendency to improvise from Europe has since been lost. For instance, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the Secretary General of ASEAN, has stopped saying that the EU can be an inspiration to ASEAN.

There are efforts by the financial and banking institutions in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and South Korea to use the credit rating system provided by Dagong, rather than Fitch, Moody’s and Standard and Poor.Indeed, Dagong created a list of the ten countries deemed financially safe for further lending and investment by the international community. They included such entities like China, Saudi Arabia, and even Nigeria; ostensibly because these countries have vast reserves or resources with low ratio of indebted-ness.

Even if EU is not drawn upon as a model of integration now, there are three lessons in EU that neither ASEAN nor East Asia at large should ignore.

First, the current troubles of EU go right down to the root of subsidy. When Greece is in difficulty, to what extent should wealthier member states like Germany and France come to its aid? This is a principle that is still ignored in ASEAN and East Asia. The Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) affirmed that the funds pooled by the respective countries could only be used with the consent of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).Although with IMF in the equation, the risk of moral hazard is removed from ASEAN. It also weakens the meaning of regional solidarity – when attempts to help a fellow member state have to be done in collaboration with IMF. And, we all know that IMF is traditionally presided over by a European.

Secondly, the EU has at its heart a constitution, based on the Treaty of Lisbon that seeks to regularise the roles and regulations of the entire Euro Zone.The legal systems in ASEAN, largely due to colonialism, is still diverse and disparate; which in turn undermine the policy makers’ attempt to create a common dispute mechanism, which can do much, to facilitate better trade and services.

Thirdly, the EU at least seeks to have a common defence and security foreign policy. It is not just based on the practice of being a “good neighbour”.Europe can respond to regional events abroad with some degree of uniformity, such as taking a common stance against terrorism or state sanctioned violence in the Arab Spring. One must note how EU has stood up against Syria, for example, while ASEAN has yet to condemn the violence there.Such gestures improved the standing of EU, even as it is wallowing in fiscal and economic crisis.

Although the Bali Concord III concluded on 19 November 2011 is supposed to consolidate the foreign policy positions of the member states of ASEAN in the international setting, ASEAN and East Asia have not taken global affairs to heart, except to stress the importance of economic growth and cooperation time and again. At the APEC Summit in November 2011 in Honolulu, Hawaii, leaders of ASEAN and APEC spoke of the importance of not allowing economic troubles in Europe to infect the rest of the international trading system.To the degree ASEAN and East Asia have an economic fetish, they will never be able to exploit the more useful aspects of other statecraft. East Asia and ASEAN, for example, could have urged the world to look into grievances of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Surely, ASEAN still has a lot to learn from the EU. The EU was never only about economic cooperation. Learning from the EU means going into economic and non-economic aspects of the former’s regional cooperation, without which a region would not have cohered.

If ASEAN is truly keen on the widest spectrum of regional cooperation – as the search for one vision, one identity and one community must necessarily entail – it must take the EU as a fine inspiration regardless of the difficulties with which the EU may face.France and Germany, for example, may be slow to react to the problems faced by Greece. But they still insist that European integration must proceed apace. Crisis has ironically strengthened its resolve, not weakened it.

In the years ahead, there will be many more regional and global crisis that will affect ASEAN and East Asia. In spite of these events, the member states must learn to make their foreign policy views more coherent, and comprehensive, as Bali Concord III desires.

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