Sculpture ‘Unity’ by Indonesian artist But Muchtar in 1981, in the ASEAN Sculpture Garden at Fort Canning Park, Singapore. Wikimedia Commons
Wishes, unfortunately, don’t always come true. Since the implosion of the Soviet Union, countries in the region have succeeded in pushing the idea of Southeast Asia in the driver’s seat for most international developments in Asia. In the near future, however, Southeast Asians may start losing control over the vehicle that is Asian regionalism, as the United States and China take over levers of international governance that serve their interests. In 2018, the United States stopped holding back from China as it starts a last-ditch trade war and enlisted like-minded friends to counter Chinese intelligence gathering efforts. If this trend continues, any unease about having to choose sides will be a moot point: Southeast Asia will simply have to.
While no country wants to have its hands forced to choose between the United States and China, countries in Southeast Asia haven’t done nearly enough to shore up their political independence by pulling together. Problems related to the dams along the Mekong and overlapping claims in the South China Sea became a source of friction inside the region, as opposed to a means to show regional solidarity. Not only have Southeast Asian countries failed to resolve the problems and claims among themselves, other ASEAN members that have no direct interest kept their distance. In effect, the Mekong dams remain problematic for just mainland Southeast Asia while the South China Sea claims bedevil only countries in maritime Southeast Asia.
Philippine senior statesman Albert del Rosario highlights these contradictions in his recent accounting of coming challenges for the Philippines and Southeast Asia, which we present as the first article of Spotlight’s final issue of 2018. Safeguarding political independence, ensuring inclusive economic growth, and enabling citizens’ prosperity inside and outside their homelands are all goals that Southeast Asian countries prioritize. Yet, ASEAN as Southeast Asia’s only grouping that truly encompasses the region is given no leeway as a platform to achieve these goals. With the political will to empower ASEAN lacking, it is as if Southeast Asia chooses to fight with one hand tied behind its back.
It may already be too late to change course for Southeast Asia, however. Faced with the prospect of a resurgent Russia at the gate, revitalized Germans in their midst, and Americans having second thoughts, the Europeans had it right to pursue decades-long ‘deepening’ as a self-strengthening step to safeguard political independence. Writing in our second Spotlight article, Malaysia-based Crops for the Future Research Centre CEO Sayed Azam-Ali argues that ASEAN can learn one precious lesson from the EU: how to address common challenges that span political and historical boundaries. The inclusion of Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam into ASEAN was the rounding out of ASEAN’s ‘widening’, but there may now not be enough time for ASEAN to ‘deepen’.
Is each country in Southeast Asia sure that it can adroitly manage the no-longer-theoretical US-China rivalry on its own? Or is the decision not to empower ASEAN a function of a lack of grand vision and elite fear of creating a competing, region-wide competitor for power? The United States and China will not wait for Southeast Asians; Southeast Asia will do well to think over what Benjamin Franklin once wrote about his rebellion against the great power of his day: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”