home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

ASEAN's way forward: A Non-ASEAN perspective

Keynote Panel Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to Carlos P Romulo Foundation/CSIS/Stratbase ADR Institute Conference on ASEAN at Fifty: The Way Forward, Manila, 4 August 2017

ASEAN faces the future with two mighty geopolitical achievements to celebrate in its first fifty years. The first, as everyone acknowledges, is to have transformed a region of extraordinary cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, with a very long history of discord and deadly conflict, into a genuine community where, as now with the European Union, not only is war between any of its member states effectively unthinkable, but what might once have been very drawn out and acrimonious non-lethal disputes are now for the most part resolved without any tears at all.

ASEAN’s second great geopolitical achievement is to have played itself into the role of ‘strategic convenor’ – as Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appropriately labeled it at this year’s Shangri La dialogue – for the whole Asia-Pacific region, and indeed now whole Indo-Pacific. ASEAN’s aspirations for ‘centrality’ in the structure and operation of emerging regional economic and security dialogue and policymaking structures has not always been hugely appreciated by some in the region: it may indeed not make much rational sense to have all ten ASEAN states sitting at every major table when four or five would do. But it certainly makes political sense to go with that flow, as I discovered early on as Australia’s Foreign Minister working to build APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum, and as Kevin Rudd discovered more recently in relation to his calls for a new regional community which ended up, sensibly, as the expanded East Asian Summit.

None of this automatically means accepting a dominant ‘driving seat’ role for ASEAN: the other major non-ASEAN countries are bound to want their own turns at the wheel. But it is a matter of recognizing, as we all should, ASEAN’s geographical status at the hub of the entire region, the stabilising role it has played in its own traditionally volatile area, and the historic role it has played in encouraging wider regional cooperation.

Looking forward, from my outsider’s perspective, there are plenty of reasons for confidence that these big achievements can be sustained, given the abundance of natural resources and human talent in this region (and not least in this room). But it seems evident, nonetheless, that in sustaining these achievements and building further upon them, ASEAN faces several big challenges. The most obvious are those arising from the inexorable rise of China and the accompanying decline, at least in relative terms, of the United States, which together have already created a significant degree of uncertainty, anxiety and internal division.

Democracy and Human Rights. But before coming to those, I think it is necessary to acknowledge a third challenge, internal in character, but with serious external implications – and that is the evident deterioration in the quality of member state commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, values proudly proclaimed in the ASEAN Charter of 2007 even if they have not always been fully honoured in the observance. It has always been something of a tightrope act balancing ASEAN’s traditional, and understandable, desire to continue to give primacy to state sovereignty and non-interference against the need to address unacceptable violations of universally recognised civil and political rights. But I don’t think ASEAN members can be blind to the extent to which in recent times internal developments in so many states have really been putting at risk the ASEAN brand.

The ongoing retreat from democracy in Thailand, the resistance to accountable governance in Malaysia, the growing impact of intolerant Islamism in Indonesia, the failure by contrast to protect Muslims in Myanmar, and the extraordinary tearing up of the rule of law in the crusade against drug offenders here in the Philippines have all raised international alarm bells.

There are some larger regional consequences in all of this. ASEAN has tenaciously fought for its place as the geopolitical hinge between East and South Asia, and an important player in Asia-Pacific economic and security diplomacy. In doing so, it has had to over the years repeatedly finessed – and done so with reasonable success – issues like Cambodia’s authoritarian leadership, Myanmar's struggle with democratic transition, Vietnam's stubbornly anachronistic one-party state, and even impeccably incorruptible Singapore's regular misuse of defamation laws to neutralize political opponents.

But the question that ASEAN leaders must now ask themselves is just how much more tarnishing of the South East Asian brand, by how many of its members simultaneously, the region can afford while still fully realizing its aspirations for economic growth and political influence. It is always tempting to claim that what happens behind sovereign borders is nobody else's business. But that is no longer true in today's interconnected world. Some states may be big and powerful enough to get away with behaving otherwise, but winning respect for behaving well is a much stronger foundation for economic and political success.

China and the United States. There are two big and powerful states whose behaviour is very much causing concern in ASEAN at the moment, albeit in different ways: China for its new assertiveness in the region, and the United States for the way it is reacting to that – particularly now under the deeply underwhelming presidency of Donald Trump.

In China under Xi Jinping, with political authoritarianism resurgent domestically, Deng Xiao Ping’s injunction for the country to ‘hide its strength, bide its time and never take the lead’ internationally has now been completely abandoned. China is no longer prepared to be just rule taker, but determined to be a player globally. It does want strategic space in East Asia, and is no longer prepared to play second fiddle to US.

Economically there has been a clear determination to no longer accept China’s second-rank status in international financial institutions: with exhibit one being the creation, against intense US opposition, of the AIIB. Economic strength is being parlayed into geopolitical influence on a massive scale across the continent through the Belt and Road Initiative. And militarily, there has been a very significant modernization and expansion of China’s military capability, including into Indian Ocean – and not excluding nuclear weapons, where in the past China’s position has been moderate and minimalist.

Much of this is no more than can and should be expected of a rapidly economically rising, hugely trade-dependent regional superpower, wanting to flap its wings and reassert some of its historical greatness after two centuries or more of wounded pride. But more disconcertingly, expansionist territorial claims have been pursued, most notably of course in the South China Sea, with the continuing creeping militarisation of the reef installations in the Spratlys.

Beijing is still overwhelmingly preoccupied with internal stability, and has shown no sign of wanting to precipitate violent conflict anywhere (with the possible exception of its border claims against India in the Himalayas, which situation is again back on a knife-edge). But it has become very clear that it will push the envelope of regional hegemony just as far as it can comfortably go, and would certainly like to recreate the kind of tributary state relationships that it enjoyed in earlier centuries with so much of South East Asia. The pressure it put on Vietnam to back down on its Repsol oil drilling program in the South China Sea last month is just the latest example of what ASEAN countries can expect.

The critical question in the mind of just about everyone in the wider region – not just in South East Asia, but in North East Asia and South Asia, and for Australia and the Pacific countries as well – is how the United States will react to China’s rise and new assertiveness. Until very recently US military dominance of the whole region was complete and unequivocal. US allies – Japan, South Korea and Australia – and partners like Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines have been direct beneficiaries of US extended deterrence (or extended nuclear deterrence, for what that’s worth), but every country in the region has undoubtedly, at least since the Vietnam War years, benefited from the strategic stability associated with US dominance, as well as from the rules-based liberal international economic order which was so much the product of US global leadership.

The Obama administration responded to China’s resurgence by remaining very overtly committed, at least in its public rhetoric, to the US staying number one, never more obviously than in May 2016 when, in the context of TPP, President Obama said ‘America should write the rules’ on Asia Pacific trade. But also in announcing the ‘pivot’ of military resources and attention to the Asia Pacific. Administration members like Kurt Campbell have continued to insist that this was just about broader engagement with Asia, and cooperatively shaping a 21st century order in the region for everyone’s benefit. But it is the case that, on this and much else, official American public discourse has sounded much more provocative and confronting to Chinese ears, with constant repetition of what I call the ‘DLP’ words: maintaining the dominance, or leadership or primacy of the US in East Asia.

I, for one, and I suspect many in the region, would have been much more comfortable during this period had we been hearing from US policymakers words much more like those I heard from Bill Clinton at a private gathering in 2002 shortly after he had left the presidency (unfortunately never repeated by him publicly with anything like this clarity:

America has two choices about how to use the unrivalled economic and military power we now have. One is to use it to try to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. But the other is to use that power to create a world in which we are comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.

With now the Trump administration, if we could all believe that the US was genuinely moving towards that second choice, there might be much to admire in its international policy. But the better explanation of its behaviour toward China and the region so far is that – with perhaps the sole exception of Defence Secretary Mattis – this is an administration that has no real idea what it is doing. Trump himself has made it abundantly clear that he is about postures not policies – impulse and instinct unhampered by anything resembling knowledge or mature judgment.

So far we have seen in his approach to China a mixture of provocation followed by retreat (his phone call with the Taiwanese president and initial unwillingness to accept the One China policy), and conciliation (when he was looking for action against North Korea) mixed with aggression – threats of ‘trade war’ and ‘we will block access to South China Sea installation’. And Secretary of State Tillerson, unhindered by having around him, in what has been described as the ‘Foggy Bottom ghost ship’, seasoned State Department professionals who might know something about the subject matter he is addressing, has not been any more convincing.

Some have found comfort in President Trump at least being willing to make time to see South East Asian leaders, and I for one think that his adminstration’s recent decision to re-engage in Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea is the right call. Making clear an absolute unwillingness to accept China’s claims of sovereignty over the reefs and islets on which it has been building installations is the right kind of pushback, and does not I think run any great risk of generating a wider confrontation. True, any such naval or airborne operation runs real risks of local incidents occurring, which history has shown can escalate out of control, but it is hard to believe that China would see any advantage at all in allowing any such wider escalation to occur.

But overall, it is hard to retain any kind of confidence that the US, under its present leadership, will be a positive and stabilizing influence in this region or anywhere else. Anyone betting on the Trump administration delivering consistent, coherent, constructive and decent outcomes over the next four years is making a very big gamble indeed. It may be that the US position will be reversed in a few years, or even a few months, as cooler and wiser heads prevail. But following, as this does, years of the US political system being unable to deliver on treaty commitments the executive government has made, and a raft of other indications from the Trump administration that it has nothing but distaste for multilateral institutions and programs more generally, I think there is every chance that 1 June 2017 – the day that the US walked away from the Paris Climate Agreement, with China and the EU rapidly then moving to assert their total commitment to it – will be seen, not just by today’s bloggers and leader-writers, but the historians of the future, as the day that the US abdicated the global leadership role it has played since 1945, beginning with the creation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, in the pursuit and institutionalization of global public goods. The US leaves very big shoes to fill, and there is understandable anxiety about who will be doing so.

ASEAN’s Response? Navigating between the two superpowers in this environment creates very real issues for ASEAN, as it does for Australia. None of us want to be forced to choose between what for all of us is our huge economic partner, and what for most of us has been our longstanding security guarantor. None of us want to be pushed around by either China or the US to the extent that we lose our independence or prejudice our national interests, but none of us want to put at risk our relationships with either of them.

I have suggested in recent months in the Australian context – and I want to suggest in a moment that this might have some direct application to ASEAN – that the appropriate way forward for us in the present environment, in crude bumper-sticker terms, is ‘More Self-Reliance; More Asia; Less United States’. Lest I be misunderstood by US colleagues, what I mean by ‘less US’ is not in any way walking away from the alliance, which is part of our national DNA and has served both our countries remarkably well, but being less reflexively willing than we have been in recent decades to follow the US lead wherever the vagaries of its international policies take it. ‘Whither thou goest there I goest’ might be good Christian theology, but it is not great foreign policy for a country that values its independence and wants international respect.

What I mean by ‘more Asia’ in an Australian context is not only further consolidating our longstanding relationships with Japan and South Korea, and further developing our relationship with India, but above all consolidating and significantly strengthening our relationship with our friends and neighbours here in South East Asia. With the particular uncertainties now evident about the future course of behaviour of both the United States and China, it has never been more important that all the other countries of the region work together to build more collective strength, both economically and politically. It is probably premature, on both sides, to be talking about actual Australian membership of ASEAN, and of course any such expansion of the organization is entirely a matter for its own current members. But it would be in both our interests for the strong bonds between us to be very much stronger still, and I hope that – perhaps in the context of next year’s scheduled ASEAN-Australia Summit—we can start exploring the possibility at least of some form of associate membership.

Leaving aside any additional strength that Australia might bring to the ASEAN collective, the main point I want to leave you with is the inherent strength of all middle powers in the international community when we act cooperatively – and that it would be very much in ASEAN’s interest to think of itself more self-consciously as a grouping largely comprised of such powers, who are capable collectively of punching well above their individual weight.

‘Middle powers’ are best described as those states which are not economically or militarily big or strong enough, either in their own regions or the wider world, to impose their policy preferences on anyone else – but which are nonetheless sufficiently capable, credible and motivated to be able to make an impact on international relations. The characteristic motivation of middle power diplomacy is belief in the utility, and necessity, of acting cooperatively with others in addressing international challenges, and its characteristic method is coalition building with ‘like-minded’ others.

The familiar contributions middle powers, so acting, can make to better international relations include agenda setting (including for example in the East Asian Summit, which has all the ingredients to become the preeminent regional dialogue and policy-making body), bridge-building especially between developed and developing countries, and building critical masses of support for global or regional public goods. But it is also possible to envisage strong combinations of middle powers acting collectively as a counterweight to much bigger powers unacceptably throwing their weight around.

If ASEAN could better harness its collective middle-power energy and capacity it could be a more influential and effective regional security player than it now is, in particular pushing back in the South China Sea against China’s increasingly assertive encroachment: a united front of middle powers might be more effective in resisting this than relying on the United States. ASEAN should not underestimate its individual and collective military capability, in particular that of Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and would send a very important message to China if it were prepared to mount regular combined FONOPs in contested waters: China would need to think long and hard about any show of retaliatory violence in this context.

There may also be less potentially confrontational ways of giving clear messages to China that the region is not prepared to lapse into tributary-state mode. For example there would seem to be considerable scope for maritime cooperation on search and rescue (MSAR) and humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations – including involving the US, Australia, India, Japan alongside ASEAN members – which would promote greater interaction between armed forces without triggering so many political sensitivities.

Fully realizing ASEAN’s collective middle power potential, whatever form it takes, in responding to external pressures of course depends on having essentially a united political front, and in this respect ASEAN does continue to face real challenges. Part of the problem is so many members going thei own way in recent times on democracy and human rights issues, which may make it harder to build and project a common external front. But there has also been an obvious issue with the existing consensus rule making it possible for China to sow divisions through exercising its influence over members like Cambodia and Laos. It may be that if ASEAN is to act as a collective counterweight to China – and at the same time not become increasingly dependent on a perhaps increasingly erratic United States – it will have to modify that consensus rule, even perhaps to the extent of becoming a two-or-more speed organization as the EU now effectively is.

It is obviously hard to contemplate changing in any way the quiet, consensual, cautious culture that has characterized ASEAN, and overall served it very well, in its first fifty years. But in the world and region as it is, and is becoming, nothing is static and nothing is certain, and it hard to believe that in the next few years business as usual will be an option for any of us.