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Making the most of Obama’s awkward ASEAN summit

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Barron's Asia

As economic groupings go, ASEAN defines dysfunction. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a disparate collection of 10 places with little more in common than longitudinal and latitudinal lines on a map. Gathering democrats, communists, authoritarians and a sultanate, it purports to speak with a unified voice for a population of 625 million and a region of vast resources.

In reality, it’s the geopolitical equivalent of a broken family’s occasional reunions where everything’s left unsaid behind forced smiles and all eyes are on the clock — and the door. As Phnom Penh-based writer Caitlin McCaffrie put it: “ASEAN is a strange beast. In many ways it represents not so much a coming together of like-minded states but an alliance of necessity formed to counterbalance the larger regional powers of China and India.” And like all fragmented families, she adds, it “remains stubbornly divided.”

Human rights abuses tarnish several ASEAN members, while the democratic principles Americans claim to hold so dear often die a slow and public death. Yet this is the crowd President Barack Obama invited to the United States this week for a summit, and a terribly awkward one at that.

Broad brushes are of little utility when analyzing Asia’s only real economic and political bloc. Among its members are nascent democratic and economic success stories (Indonesia, the Philippines and, one can hope, Myanmar). Wealthy Singapore, meanwhile, is tiptoeing toward a more representative political system (albeit slowly). The same can’t be said of Malaysia, where scandal-plagued Najib Razak is trampling civil liberties to retain power.

It most certainly can’t be said of Thailand, where a military junta that grabbed power in May 2014 is making things up as it goes along — no elections in sight. Thais may look askance at America embracing their “prime minister,” Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, on U.S. soil. How about Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving and arguably most controversial leader. By extending an official invitation to Hun Sen (his first), Obama risks legitimizing his ruthless 31-year reign.

Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong can use his Obama photo-ops to buttress support for his communist government. Ditto for Vietnam’s Nguyen Phu Trong, who last month clung to power rather than welcome a younger, more reform-minded leader. In 2014, Hassanal Bolkiah’s Brunei became the first East Asian nation to adopt Shariah law.

Granted, this is realpolitik on Obama’s part. As China’s global ambitions swell along with its naval presence, ASEAN is a useful bulwark. ASEAN, meanwhile, wants Obama’s “pivot” to Asia to offer more carrots and sticks to match the rhetoric. But friends should be brutally honest with each other. If Obama is going to break bread with a who’s-who of unelected, or questionably-elected, Asian leaders in Sunnylands, California on Monday and Tuesday, he should ask for a few things in return.

One, ASEAN must get its act together. The hope behind Obama’s confab is that the grouping can influence the trajectory of trade, relations and political cohesion in Southeast Asia. That itself is a reach, of course. The European Union, and that region’s single currency, was only possible because of postwar cultural and aspirational commonalities. But isn’t 49 years enough time for ASEAN to craft a plausible common mission statement?

Yes, on Jan. 1, ASEAN took a significant step toward economic integration. What good is that, though, when it has no real response to Beijing’s epic — and highly questionable — claim to ownership of the South China Sea? Or North Korea’s increasing provocations? And what about the 1997-like crisis specter hovering over markets from Ho Chi Minh City to Jakarta? ASEAN summits have, let’s face it, devolved into hollow photo-ops in brightly colored shirts, with vague communiques and milquetoast agreements in place of substance. Obama might want to call ASEAN on it.

Two, transparency is your friend. ASEAN will only be as strong — and useful to Western leaders — as its weakest links. Becoming stronger means all 10 members owning and addressing internal cracks. Singapore aces Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index (ranked 8th). But the next ASEAN member, Malaysia, ranks 54th behind Slovakia and Saudi Arabia. Thailand ranks 76th, while success cases Indonesia (88th) and Philippines (95th) are both far behind Egypt, Albania and Colombia.

At the root of Asia’s corruption problem are powerful vested interests — land-owning families, military leaders and entrepreneurial government officials. These interests stand in the way of ASEAN eliminating trade barriers, harmonizing tax and labor laws and linking financial markets. That means ASEAN members still compete more than they cooperate and it holds the region back. Here, of course, ASEAN can push back at Obama’s opaque Trans-Pacific Partnership. Negotiated in secret, TPP hardly meets the standards of openness the U.S. preaches in Asia.

Three, encourage the weak links to learn from the stronger ones. Singapore demonstrates the importance of credible institutions, attracting top talent and paying public servants well. But ASEAN features two reform stories that could strengthen the group institutionally and offer others vital pointers. Both the Philippines and Indonesia graduated to investment-grade status in recent years. Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s good-governance push offers timely lessons, as do efforts by Indonesia’s Joko Widodo to cut red tape, increase government efficiency and attract more foreign investment.

ASEAN could benefit from a more formalized peer-review process — greater sharing of data, increased discussion of economic weakness, more brainstorming about strengthening weak links. A lack of trust and tools to ensure accountability within ASEAN undermine Asia’s economic and political potential. Obama may want to broach this issue. That is, if there’s time between photo-ops and communiques that for half a century now have amounted to little.

William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com

  • Liars N. Fools

    I like ASEAN, and have had peripheral involvement with some of the academic seminars devoted to the organization over the decades. The beauty — and the “defect” — of the organization is the fabled consensus which both creates a sort of cohesion by habit over the years (particularly in the expansion from six to ten well after the end of the Indochina war) and consigns the organization to not quite least common denominator thinking. War has been prevented for decades now, and that is no small achievement, and ASEAN plus three (China, Japan, and Korea) and the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) have been part of institutional growth even if not exercises of decisive influence.
    I appreciate that Obama, the self-described first Pacific President, wants to develop a lasting tie with ASEAN that is a notch above what it has been. But the realities are that our ties are much more a combination of our separate bilateral relations with ASEAN countries and not as an institution. We can create offices that connect to ASEAN, but ASEAN itself remains a purposely weak institution in order to promote inclusion while our instinct is to promote inclusion of some for the purposes of excluding others, notably China. We should not forget that the inclusionist philosophy of ASEAN is such that even North Korea is invited as an observer to the ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial from time to time (Colin Powell even met with a North Korean foreign minister at one ARF ministerial).
    So let us indeed applaud this summit, but let us not dwell in the illusion that the legacy of the pivot is so mythically strong.

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