The 'Asian century' is upon us, and Asean may well be its unsung hero

The 10-nation bloc will need to be more proactive to restabilise the continent, but is it up to the task?

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, hands over the Asean gavel to Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Asean Summit in Phnom Penh. EPA
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By the end of this week, world leaders will have gathered for the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; the G20 in Bali, Indonesia; and the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.

US President Joe Biden and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang were at the East Asia Summit, as were heads of government from South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, while other leaders, such as President Sheikh Mohamed, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, arrived for the G20 in Bali, where Mr Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a hotly anticipated meeting on Monday.

If that isn’t evidence that the much-touted “Asian century” is upon us, I don’t know what is. Except the “restoration” of the continent’s predominance – according to the late historian Angus Maddison, Asia produced more than half the world’s economic output for 18 of the past 20 centuries – wasn’t quite supposed to turn out like this. The White House is concerned that the regime in North Korea is going to resume nuclear tests. Tensions over Taiwan have increased so much that a major part of the Chinese authorities’ account of Mr Biden and Mr Xi’s sit-down concerned the island. “The current state of China-US relations is not in the fundamental interests of the two countries and peoples,” it noted, with unusual understatement.

The Japanese government wants to increase defence spending drastically, not something a country does if it expects tranquillity in the years to come. Maritime disputes in several of the region’s seas have hardened, and the risk of incidents escalating into greater conflict has heightened. Meanwhile, countries in the Asia Pacific have declared time and again that they do not wish to side with China or the US against the other. US officials insist they are not pressuring any to fall in line, while doing precisely that. “You often hear this talking point from Washington, ‘the United States isn’t forcing anyone to choose',” said Evan Feigenbaum of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at a recent panel discussion. "Try putting Huawei kit in your 5G backbone and see how the US feels about you not making a choice."

Asean has considerable convening power, but it has trouble taking proactive concrete steps

“Crisis after crisis is occurring,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the opening session of the G20 on Tuesday. “Rivalries continue to rise, wars occur, and the impact of various crises on food, energy and financial pressures is felt by the world, especially developing countries.”

The world’s stage may have moved to the East, but the Asia Pacific and the continent as a whole can hardly be said to be a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality, or "Zopfan" – and I use that term deliberately, as it was a concept agreed on by the foreign ministers of Asean in 1971. For while there may be no definitive answer on how to lower tensions and restabilise the region, one change that could be key would be if the 10-nation Asean took on a far more proactive role.

Both Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, as current chair of Asean, and Mr Biden referred to the importance of the bloc’s “centrality” last weekend, and the idea that the group is at the centre of the diplomatic architecture of the Asia Pacific is certainly warranted. Both the East Asia Summit and Apec grew out of Asean meetings, for instance. But with divisions threatening to turn into chasms, it often feels as though Asean is trying to paper over cracks. The nearly 700 million-strong association has considerable convening power, but with its emphasis on consensus and non-interference in states’ internal affairs, it has trouble taking proactive concrete steps, as its lack of success in resolving the crisis in Myanmar has shown. On the other hand, Asean fails to promote itself sufficiently and take proper credit for its achievements – both internally, such as its moves towards turning the group into a single market and production base, and externally, like the signing in 2020 of the world’s biggest trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is actually an Asean-led agreement, although you'd be forgiven for not knowing that.

Newish institutions such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, of the US, Australia, Japan and India, and Aukus – the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US – are firming up. The problem is, they're all on one side – clearly aimed at containing China, whatever official protestations are made to the contrary. Asean has the potential to assert itself far more strongly as a major non-aligned bloc in the region. Two members, Thailand and the Philippines, may be US treaty allies, but if they could sign up to Zopfan in 1971, there is no reason why Asean as a whole could not take a similar stance today.

Gaining a new strength of purpose might be a hard task. While the EU may be admired as a regional organisation, in South-East Asian countries there is no appetite for a similar sharing of sovereignty. As a start, the Asean Secretariat could, at least, be strengthened, so that the Secretary General no longer has to complain, as the former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan did, that in office he was “more secretary than general”. More candidates with the high-level political experience of the charismatic Mr Surin should be put forward for the role, so that the stature of Asean itself is enhanced. And awareness of the group and appreciation of its benefits need to be spread far beyond businessmen and policy analysts to the wider populace.

For the G20 communique may be expected to state that “today’s era must not be of war”, but the leaders will soon depart from Bali. A major group representing nearly 700 million people insisting loudly, frequently and in every discussion on non-alignment is badly needed to ensure that the "Asian century" gets back on the right path. Otherwise, the G20 statement could come to be seen as the “peace in our time” of the 21st century.

Published: November 16, 2022, 4:00 AM