ASEAN: Has the Association of South-East Asian Nations outlived its usefulness?

ASEAN: Has the Association of South-East Asian Nations outlived its usefulness?

ASEAN: Has the Association of South-East Asian Nations outlived its usefulness?

Updated 19 March 2018, 17:30 AEDT

As the European dream fractures, and Donald Trump further divides Americans, similar forces are at work in Asia, with the Association of South-East Asian Nations criticised as irrelevant on one hand, and a bulwark against big power dominance on the other, writes Stan Grant.

Fifty years ago the world was in the grip of big power rivalry — a nuclear arms race, espionage and the looming threat of global war.

Back then China was the sick man of Asia, a country that could not feed itself.

Democracy had not yet come to many Asian countries and the region was a battleground for the Cold War ideological contest between communism and capitalism.

This was the era that spawned ASEAN — the Association of South-East Asian Nations.

Fast forward and as South-East Asian leaders arrive in Sydney the world is experiencing Cold War redux — new fears of a nuclear arms race; poisoning of spies; expulsion of diplomats; Russian meddling in elections.

Asia has changed; it is an engine of global economic growth.

China, is no longer wracked by revolution and famine — it is a power that threatens to upend the world order.

We are living through what has been dubbed "the Asian century".

But Asia also straddles dangerous fault lines from the threat of North Korea; the uneasy nuclear stand-off between Pakistan and India; the deep historical enmity of China and Japan; and of course the potential military flashpoint of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

In South East Asia strongmen like the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte and Cambodia's Hun Sen are accused of trampling on human rights.

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi — once hailed a hero of Mandela-like pro-democracy figure — is now derided for standing by while the country's military has brutally cracked down on the Rohingya Muslim minority; something the United Nations has branded a scorched-earth policy.

South China Sea 'a severe test'

These are testing times, so what is the point of ASEAN?

Writing last year in the South China Morning Post, Singaporean Law Professor, Eugene K B Tan, asked if ASEAN still mattered.

He nominated the South China Sea as a "severe test of ASEAN's unity, purpose and resolve".

Professor Tan said it may well have outlived its usefulness as the world order seeks a "new equilibrium".

That equilibrium is a return of the leviathan: the nation state is back.

It is a blowback to the age of globalisation: free movement of people and goods, an end to borders.

It was the post-Cold War dream of a universal humanity founded on liberal democracy, pooling and sharing sovereignty.

The European Union is designed as the ultimate globalising project: a continent wracked by war brought together in an economic and political compact.

Now that European dream is fracturing: from BREXIT to the resurgence of the far right and the return of authoritarian populists, some are predicting the death of Europe.

Political scientist Ivan Krastev, in his recent book After Europe, says the EU "has always been an idea in search of a reality".

He says people feel they have lost control of their borders and their economies; anxiety rises as inequality grows; politicians have tapped into resentment against immigrants.

Mr Krastev says Europeans live with a "paralysing uncertainty", adding that "what was until now unthinkable — the disintegration of the union — begins to be perceived as inevitable."

Trump taking 'liberal' out of liberal hegemony

Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump has campaigned on the return of the nation state with his pledge to "make America great again": it is the essence of "America first".

We have seen it in his criticism of NATO, a retreat into economic protectionism and threats of unleashing a trade war. The old ethos of beggar thy neighbour is back.

The appeal of the nation is powerful, it draws on strong feelings of loyalty and patriotism as President Trump has said, it remains "the best vehicle for elevating the human condition".

American Political Scientist, Barry Rosen, writing in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs Journal, says the Trump presidency is a break with the past; retreating from the export of democracy and "abstaining from many multilateral trade agreements".

America, he says, still seeks a leading role in the world, but My Trump is "taking the liberal out of liberal hegemony".

This is the politics favoured by Putin's Russia and Xi Jinping's China.

Steven King, the author of Grave New World: The End of Globalisation; the return of History, has expressed deep concern about a world lacking global leadership.

He says it will make the challenges of the 21st century more difficult to cope with.

The global order is built on a foundation of multilateralism: bodies like the United Nations; the World Bank, International Monetary Fund; the World Trade Organisation.

It is knitted together with free trade deals and a range of regional bodies: the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC); East Asia Summit; BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).

ASEAN: Toothless and irrelevant?

And this weekend in Sydney, ASEAN.

The umbrella group of South-East Asian nations has been dismissed as toothless and irrelevant.

Its critics say it ducks the big questions and seeks consensus by compromise: its communiques seeking to say everything and nothing and offend no one.

But defenders of the South-East Asian alliance say it is often expected to be something it isn't. As Singaporean Ambassador-at-large, Bilahari Kausikian, once said like criticising a cow for not being a horse.

A strong ASEAN is crucial — a bulwark against big power dominance.

As Isaac Kifr, director of the National Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), reminded us recently, South-East Asia straddles the world's busiest trade route, it links the Indian and Pacific oceans.

The strategic geography he says, "explains the government's aspirations for closer Australia-ASEAN relations".

Mr Kifr points out there is also a compelling business argument; the ASEAN countries cover more than a half a billion people and their economies clock growth at nearly 5 per cent.

Now there are renewed calls for Australia to formally join ASEAN.

It has a long history of cooperation becoming the first dialogue partner 50 years ago.

Huong Le Thuy, also from ASPI, says Australia "has a longer institutional memory of the organisation than half its members".

Dr Le Thuy says Australia's support for multilateralism and liberal institutions is critical "in the wake of a power shift that has brought the role of international law in the global order into question".

A return of Cold War tactics; fear of conflict; the resurgence of the nation state — all of this hangs over this ASEAN meeting.

The spectre of China looms large. It's reach extends into many ASEAN countries. Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans this week called Cambodia a "wholly owned subsidiary of China".

There are many issues facing this ASEAN meeting; trade, security, terrorism, all affect the region.

The question of whether ASEAN is strong enough to criticise or challenge China is something that affects our world.

Matter of Fact with Stan Grant is on the ABC News Channel at 9pm, Monday to Thursday.