Don’t Count ASEAN Out

By Ernie Bower

[Editor’s Note: In the post below, CSIS Southeast Asia Program director Ernie Bower responds to Hugh White’s blog post over at The Interpreter on ASEAN’s recent meetings at Phnom Penh, which references his earlier commentary published for the CSIS Southeast Asia program here. cogitASIA has also linked in a previous post to Carl Thayer’s ‘behind the scenes’ account of the meetings written for AsiaTimesOnline here.]

Sincere thanks to our creative and thoughtful brethren at the Lowy Institute in Sydney for penning and posting thoughts and responses to my commentary on China revealing its hand favoring a weakened ASEAN at the Phnom Penh meetings a fortnight ago.

Hugh White’s blog post is wholesome until he ascribes Washington’s motives as “trying to use ASEAN to erode Beijing’s influence in Asia by exacerbating China’s self-inflicted problems with its Southeast Asian neighbors.”  This is plainly not true.

Washington’s objective isn’t eroding Beijing’s influence in Asia.  That is a losing proposition no matter how you cut it, and despite Hugh’s lack of faith in US strategy, the bench here is just not that thin.  In fact, the plan is to encourage a strong ASEAN – this will take time, investment and patience all around – as a foundation for regional frameworks that convince China that it is not in its best interests to use its growing economic power to coerce smaller countries in disputes involving sovereign territory and related issues.

The country that took the worst hit in Phnom Penh was clearly China.  Everyone in the region wants a fast growing China that will continue to boost trade and investment numbers and help propel Asia further into the forefront of global expansion.  But the limits of that growth could eventually be defined by China’s treatment of its neighbors and how is answers the question on everyone’s mind: “What does China want to be?”

Being miserably pessimistic about ASEAN is a hackneyed position.  There is something important going on in ASEAN, and that can be demonstrated by Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa’s pan ASEAN mission after the Phnom Penh debacle.  The region knows it must work together to compete with China and India, and by playing such a rough hand in Cambodia, China has again triggered the natural ASEAN anti-bodies to an aggressive and very large neighbor.

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.


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