Mr Choi Shing Kwok
CEO and Director, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute
Mr Andreas Klein
Director, Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia,
Konrad Adenauer Stiftung
Ladies and Gentlemen
The question confronting us today – “Is ASEAN still relevant?” is not new and I suspect it will continue to be asked in the years to come. So do not view this question as an episode of existential angst, but view it as a perennial, evergreen question that confronts ASEAN. ASEAN is now 55 years old. I think to understand where it fits, we need to delve back into a little bit of world history.
First, I will bring you back to the Thirty Years’ War, which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This was a war in Germany, fought on religious lines, and in 30 years, if the accounts are to be believed, perhaps resulted in up to 30% of the German population being killed or injured. The Treaty of Westphalia basically created the concept of nation states and in particular, the concept of sovereign equality and respect for territory. This was a philosophy that was aimed at keeping the peace, and in particular, avoiding interference in internal matters, and particularly on the use of religion as an organising force of societies and the potential bloodshed that it can cause. So, keep that idea in mind.
Next historical concept – 1914, the beginning of the First World War. I have actually been spending quite a lot of sleepless nights wondering whether they were about to replicate certain narratives which prevailed at the beginning of the First World War. I think you will know that at the beginning of the First World War, in Europe, there were four empires. There was the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and of course, the Romanovs were in charge in Russia. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand Franz, who would have been the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne set off events, which nobody set out deliberately to start the First World War. Nevertheless, the political and strategic logic led to action, reaction and escalatory spiral. We had the First World War, with more than 14 million people dying. The First World War did not end with its end. There were consequences, apart from the destruction of these four empires. Perhaps the not-completely-satisfactory outcomes of the Treaty of Versailles. It in fact, set the stage for the Second World War – again beginning in Europe, and unfortunately, beginning in a sense in Germany, with the rise of Nazism, which in turn was a reaction in my view, to the uncompleted agenda of the First World War. In turn, those two world wars also set up anti-colonial movements which we saw in the Middle East. In Southeast Asia, particularly, we saw it in Vietnam. Therefore, after the end of the Second World War, the typical political polemic then was the Cold War, communism versus liberal economy. We saw wars in Korea and in Vietnam. But I would dare say in Vietnam, it was not just about communism versus liberal economics, it was actually part of the anti-colonial battle.
I have taken this detour in history, because it sets the context for why ASEAN was created 55 years ago. It gives us some philosophical and historical analogies for the question of what is happening in the world today. First, ASEAN came about in 1967, basically as a grouping of non-Communist Southeast Asian independent nations, which actually had a lot of unfinished business with each other. There were territorial disputes. Singapore had just become independent through ejection from Malaysia. Konfrontasi had just ended a couple of years before. Malaysia and the Philippines had, and arguably continued to have, overlapping claims, including even in the South China Sea, maybe at that point in time. But the organising principle for ASEAN in 1967 was we either hang together or we will hang separately.
Now, let us fast forward to today and what is the global geostrategic environment for ASEAN today, which has included the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar in the second phase? What is the geostrategic environment in which we find ourselves? I would say the first guiding force is the nature of the evolving relationship between the US and China. These are the two superpowers of our time, and obviously, their relationship is the most consequential, not only for the two of them, but for all of us. It affects all of us, especially so in Asia. Now, without getting into all the details, my view is that at the heart of the problem of their relationship, is the lack of strategic trust. And this colours, it shades, the way both the US and China view each other, engage each other, compete or maybe have a conflict. My worry about a scenario where you have two superpowers with a lack of strategic trust is that both sides, perhaps out of precaution, will view each other by assuming the worst of each other. If you think through the logic of that, it means there is a very high risk, in fact, high probability of an escalatory spiral, for whatever one or the other or both does. And that is even in the best of times – an escalatory spiral. We also witness increasingly the acceleration of a technological bifurcation. We also see the beginning of the splitting of global supply chains. Even worse, all these can very easily lead to miscalculation, mishaps, accidents, collisions in the air and sea, and unintended consequences. So you see how the stage is almost pre-set, if we are not careful, for a repeat of 1914. It will be a huge setback for both the US and China and the world, and especially for us in Southeast Asia, already grappling with the headwinds of the economic downturn, inflation, stagflation and still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. The US and China are both crucial partners for all of us in Southeast Asia. China is ASEAN’s top trading partner. The US remains our largest foreign direct investor by a long way. ASEAN established a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China last year, and we are similarly looking forward to elevating relations with the US at the ASEAN Summits next week. ASEAN Member States, including Singapore, want to maintain good relations with both Washington and Beijing. In our view, a more stable and constructive and peaceful configuration is for both the US and China to have overlapping circles of friends.
This concept of overlapping circles of friends bears elaboration. If you think about Europe after the Second World War, the question is, where was that line? There was an Iron Curtain, but when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the question of where is that line actually did not go away. At the risk of gross oversimplification, even the war in Ukraine now is another example of that question – where is that dividing line in Europe? In particular, what is Russia’s strategic position in Europe? Or another way of expressing it (is) what is the strategic architecture for Europe? In Asia, given what we have gone through in the last century – anti-colonial recovery, proxy wars during the Cold War, I hope you all understand that we are not interested in dividing lines in Asia. And that is why we offer the concept of overlapping circles of friends, and why we tell both the Americans and the Chinese do not make us choose. We will refuse to choose.
Speaking of Russia brings me to my second point. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a direct, frontal assault on the rules-based multilateral system which emerged post-Second World War, and has been a recipe for peace, coexistence, and prosperity. The invasion of Ukraine is also a direct affront to the fundamental principles of the UN Charter and international law. Consequently, in the case of Singapore – a tiny city-state with a very short history, we had to take a strong stand on the basis of principles. Because this invasion represents a threat to the heart of the UN Charter and a brutal frontal assault on the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity and political independence, we had to take a stand. Not take a side, but take a stand, on the basis that there were principles which needed to be defended.
There are in fact, salutary lessons for ASEAN. First, we can never take sovereignty and independence for granted. If you bear in mind the diversity of the ten member states of ASEAN, we must continue to uphold the sovereign equality of all states. Second, we need to pursue a model of regional integration where we can all integrate amongst the ten of us and construct positive relations with all – the super powers and middle powers – around us, and do so on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit.
The third immediate challenge is the question of Myanmar. Myanmar, in fact, was one of the leading nations in Southeast Asia, if you go back seventy-five years or eighty years. (With) the quality of the education, the quality of the people, the enormous natural resources, it was, and in fact, should have been, ahead of the pack. But Myanmar unfortunately, never quite achieved national unity (and) never quite bridged the differences between the variety of ethnic groups. What is happening now is not just a replay of the ethnic armed conflict. What is happening today is a fight for the heart of the Bamar majority, between the Tatmadaw on one hand and the National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the election in 2020. So this is qualitatively and strategically different. Now, unfortunately, we continue to see escalation of violence, we continue to see the situation in Myanmar worsening. Three things that we have been hoping for have not happened. First, violence has not stopped. Second, there has been no release of the key leaders of the civilian leadership – President Win Myint and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Third, and obviously, there has been no dialogue between the key leaders at the heart of the Bamar majority. How long will this take? If you look at Burmese history, they (the Tatmadaw) in fact have a very high tolerance for pain, very high tolerance for isolation. I have been saying – whilst, I hope I am wrong – that this could take decades to resolve. Nevertheless, so long as Myanmar continues to be tortured by its internal conflict, it remains a key point of danger and a challenge to ASEAN’s ability to get on with the agenda of confronting the future.
Singapore remains strongly committed to supporting ASEAN to assist Myanmar in a constructive way. The nine ASEAN Foreign Ministers met in Jakarta last week to discuss this issue. It is a difficult conversation. We are still considering what further steps we can take collectively as ASEAN – to take steps which will be constructive and helpful, and not just performative. Our priority remains to alleviate the suffering of the people of Myanmar. I am afraid it is time for ASEAN to make some difficult decisions. So let us see what happens over the next two weeks.
Having gone through this tour of history, this description of the strategic alignment and architecture of the world since the Second World War, and some of the fear in present regional challenges for ASEAN, let me come back to the question you posed today on ASEAN’s relevance. We believe ASEAN remains relevant. It remains relevant as an open platform for external partners to engage our region on our own basis, not as proxies, not as vassals, not as colonies, but on our own merits. ASEAN continues to have convening power. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August saw the participation of Foreign Ministers from all of ASEAN’s partners, including Russia, China, the US. I expect to see Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba at the ASEAN Summits next week. This shows that the ASEAN-led open, inclusive, rules based regional architecture is still relevant and still allows us to play an important role in fostering dialogue within our region and beyond our region.
ASEAN continues also to demonstrate value and relevance to all our external partners. Last year, we welcomed the United Kingdom as ASEAN’s first new Dialogue Partner in 30 years. We announced two new Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships with Australia and China. This year, apart from the US, we are also looking to upgrade our relationship with India at the upcoming Summits. ASEAN also signed the world’s first block-to-block Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement with the EU last month.
ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit, continue to bring together all the major powers in our region for dialogue on strategic, political and economic issues. We should continue to capitalise on ASEAN’s convening power, and seize the opportunities to strengthen our ties beyond our region. Therefore, our relevance, our credibility will continue to hinge on the political will of all ASEAN Member States to maintain our sense of unity and to underscore ASEAN Centrality. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is a good example of how ASEAN has outlined our own perspective on how external partners should engage and cooperate with our region on our own merits.
Next, let me touch on ASEAN’s growth potential. We believe we have got the economic winds on our side, with a population of 661 million and a combined economy of three trillion US dollars. We expect this to double, and hopefully quadruple, over the next one and two decades. If we succeed in this, ASEAN will become the fourth largest economy in the world by then. Do not forget that our region has a positive demographic dividend to harvest, because 60 percent of our population is under the age of 35. If you look at the demographics in Europe, China, Northeast Asia, you will realise that this demographic tailwind is a significant strategic advantage for all of us in the next two decades.
We are also stepping up our efforts to enhance regional economic integration through ASEAN-led frameworks and FTAs. For example, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which (Choi) Shing Kwok mentioned just now, which came into effect at the start of this year, eliminates tariffs for about 92% of goods traded amongst the signatories. The signatories are the ten ASEAN countries and China, Japan, (Republic of Korea), Australia and New Zealand – I should add that the door remains open for India. ASEAN is also pursuing Free Trade Agreements with new partners such as Canada, and we are upgrading existing free trade agreements between ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand, and the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, to ensure that these agreements remain relevant and fit-for-purpose in the post economic recovery.
ASEAN is also exploring opportunities to harness digital technologies to transform our economies. ASEAN is ready to commence negotiations on a Digital Economy Framework Agreement, which we hope will create a seamless digital trade ecosystem across our entire region. Similarly, we welcome external partners to deepen their cooperation with us through the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, particularly in areas including sustainability, digitalisation, intellectual property rights, and of course, energy transformation and green economy.
To summarise, the point I am trying to make is that the question is not new. Even the geostrategic narratives are not completely new. The actors may change, but the driving forces and dangers have not changed. But I hope I have given you enough of a sense of the great potential for ASEAN. Not to lose our heads, not to lose our wits, not to panic. To maintain our flexible bamboo-like ability to absorb stresses and strains, but nevertheless, maintain integrity, unity and Centrality, and harvest the enormous opportunities. Similarly, to also show that in fact our agenda is full. So therefore, there is only one conclusion – ASEAN remains relevant. Thank you all very much.