Political Humour of Driving ASEAN Carries Important Driving Lessons

By Phar Kim Beng

No one knows when the metaphor of ASEAN “driving the region” was first conceptualised. That however does not stop senior officials and policy makers alike from affirming its importance. For more than a decade, the policy statements of ASEAN Plus Three (APT), or ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) were strewn with it.

Since 2005, with the inauguration of the East Asian Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur there have been persistent talks of the significance of keeping ASEAN in the “driver’s seat” albeit with two conditions.

First, all summits, especially APT and EAS, must be held in Southeast Asia. Secondly, they must be chaired by ASEAN. These are the formal conditions. Informally, there is a third: larger neighbours must pay heed to the idea even if they were merely rendering lip service. Lastly, they must ignore any new idea proposed by external powers like Australia such as the Asia Pacific Community (APC) to transform the regional architecture.

So far, all conditions have been complied with, which explains the relative peace in the region, as ASEAN goes about promoting ASEAN Economic Community, ASEAN Security Community and ASEAN Socio Cultural Community by 2015.

Indeed, countries like China, Japan, and South Korea have time and again acknowledged the importance of ASEAN remaining in the driving seat of region-building. Australia’s APC has also been made moribund due to the lack of interest shown to it by all three countries in Northeast Asia; which in turn doused the interest of the United States too.

Yet, in spite of what is said, there is no guarantee that they can respect it in full, or, indefinitely. This is because for the first time in history, the region has great powers being shepherded by smaller ones in ASEAN. Former mentor minister Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore has called ASEAN Plus 3 a “diplomatic oddity,” for instance. He once candidly affirmed that it should be: “Three Plus ASEAN” A realist admission of the power politics at play.

Furthermore, the hold of ASEAN on the great powers may be tenuous granted their nature to respond to their national interest first; especially when some of the issues they faced have a nuclear dimension. North Korea’s nuclear capability is a constant source of concern to all three since 1994.

Indeed, if ASEAN is not careful, things may already be changing. Since 2008, for example, all three countries have begun meeting among themselves. In 2009, they have also set up a rudimentary Northeast Asian Secretariat to take stock of their burgeoning relations. More over, even if ASEAN or all other summits were held in the capitals of Southeast Asia, there remains no telling that the regional organisation can control the agenda.

Take the South China Sea, for example. China is against any attempt to import the South China Sea issue into any ASEAN or ASEAN related summit, insisting that this is a quarrel between China and separate member states of ASEAN – not the regional body as a whole. ASEAN has generally toed this line.

Not surprisingly, due largely to the incredulity about ASEAN’s ability to stand up to the rise of China and India especially – in addition to other great powers now massing in the region – a slew of dark humour has emerged.

According to Donald Emmerson, who is based at Stanford University, there has been a profusion of driving-related jokes made at ASEAN’s expense: “Just what is being driven: a BMW or a clapped-out tuk-tuk ?”; “how many miles per gallon does it do?”, “what is the destination?”, “how fast are we going?”, “do you have a licence?”, “are you a drunk driver?”, “what do the passengers think?”, “are they saying ‘speed up’ or ‘slow down’?”, “are they back-seat drivers?”

Aware of the plethora of jokes, and questions, policy makers in the region have since emphasised the ‘centrality’ of ASEAN. This, however, is an aesthetic rather than a substantive change. Pound-for-pound, the military, economic and financial profile of ASEAN remains modest, if compared to their neighbours in Northeast Asia.

As Lee Jones of Queen Mary University has written: “Great power relations are characterised by a mixture of uncertainty, mutual suspicion, long-range jostling for position, a desire for cooperation to advance vital security and economic interests, a widely-shared desire to somehow manage the rise of China, and China’s wish to disprove the China threat theory. This context creates the space for the kind of forum ASEAN wishes to offer—and not so much beyond this.”(1)

Indeed, political humour has their place in policy making. It serves to warn one of the perils ahead. What ASEAN desires – the ability to build a region that can allow all sides to embrace open regionalism – must not be confused with the institutional and political limits of ASEAN. As Zygman Bauman, a British political sociologist once affirmed: “Desires desire desires.” The strength of ASEAN lies in its ability to handle serious developmental issues, and income gaps in their respective societies since the 1960s. And, this was achieved based on the export model, with the United States as a key market.

Now that the United States and European Union are economically listing, the member states of ASEAN must solve their internal problems by generating their own growth. They could start by eliminating corruption or other such deficiencies that can hold the countries to ransom. Only when the internal politics of the member states are accountable, and transparent, would they be able to progressively influence the agenda of the larger neighbours in the Northeast Asia.

China opened up in 1980s, for example, because of what the late Paramount Leader Deng Xiao Peng saw in Malaysia, and Singapore. If the small countries can solve their social economic problems through openness, Deng reasoned, China could do the same too. And, they did. The thrust and power of ASEAN, therefore, lies within too, if they want to drive the region forward.

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