The myth and reality of ASEAN unity

ASEAN is a divided house. In all critical issues including the South China Sea dispute, it is no longer united.
(Express illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)
(Express illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)

On August 8, 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in Bangkok. Its founding members were Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines. Many commentators have pointed out that South Asia has important lessons to learn from ASEAN. Former Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman used to say that if regional cooperation is to succeed in South Asia, India should be more sensitive to its neighbours, adopt a low profile, and learn from the Indonesian experience.

The Bangkok Declaration downplayed the political goals and highlighted economic, social and cultural objectives. The fact remains that it was in the field of political cooperation that ASEAN made progress. Former Malaysian Foreign Minister Ghazali Shafie once pointed out: “I can understand the frustration of those well-meaning observers who would like to credit ASEAN with economic success when there is precious little to talk about. … ASEAN was the result of a political declaration.” He added that political issues were discussed threadbare behind the scenes.

Explaining the concept of “togetherness” which brought cohesion, Shafie said: “ASEAN was likened to a cluster of bamboos, each of which was an independent entity, and which together could withstand turbulent winds; the tallest of the bamboos must always stoop its head. … Indonesia is a large country, but it has never imposed its will on the other ASEAN members.”

Some commentators have pointed out that New Delhi was invited to be a member of ASEAN. It is not true. In his An Unexpected Journey: Path to Presidency, S R Nathan has written that Malaysia was very keen to include Ceylon as a member. To quote Nathan: “There was also a last-minute hitch. Tun Razak announced that Tunku Abdul Rahman had made a promise to the prime minister of Ceylon regarding Ceylon’s admission to the group. An undertaking had been made and he, Razak, could not retract it. He asked for the understanding of his fellow ministers and officials. We were stunned. The geographical limits agreed and reflected in the Declaration did not extend to the west beyond Burma.” The situation was saved because the Ceylon representative did not turn up.

The member states were all aligned with the United States and naturally, India was lukewarm about ASEAN. However, it must be highlighted that New Delhi was not as critical as China was. Beijing branded ASEAN as a counter-revolutionary, reactionary, anti-democratic, and expansionist lackey of US imperialism.

Despite the tall claims, perceptive Indian observers could easily discern sharp differences among the members. During the Konfrontasi, two Indonesian guerrillas, belonging to Indonesian Marines, blasted a bomb in Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (also known as MacDonald House) in Singapore which killed a few people. The guerrillas were tried and sentenced to death. By that time, the confrontation had ended. Suharto came to power, and normal relations were established among Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Suharto and Tunku Abdul Rahman appealed to Lee Kuan Lee that in the changed circumstances, Singapore should show compassion to the guilty. Lee Kuan Lee wanted to show that his small country could stand up to Indonesia, and had them hung. The bodies were handed over to Indonesia; anti-Chinese riots followed. The guerrillas were treated as national heroes and were mourned across the country. A national monument was constructed. Despite repeated requests, Lee was never invited by the Indonesian government. He had to wait for eight years, and when at last he made his first official visit to Indonesia in May 1973, he had to lay a wreath and scatter flowers for the two marines at the Heroes Cemetery in Kalibata.

The Third Indochina War witnessed ASEAN unity at its best; the member states rallied behind the “frontline” state, Thailand, and with the support of the United States and China, isolated the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin government from all international forums. But behind the apparent unity, there were differences, with Malaysia and Indonesia maintaining that the long-term threat came from a powerful China and that an intensely nationalist Vietnam could be the bulwark against Chinese expansionism. The astute Indian diplomat K R Narayanan explained the reality: “While driving the wolf (US) from the front door and warding off the tiger (Soviet Union) through the back door, ASEAN should not allow the dragon to step in or force its way through the side door.” The entire strategic significance of Indochina revolved around this possibility.

I used to visit Southeast Asia regularly during this period to participate in several international seminars. My argument that China is one country that has used force to buttress its territorial claims—against India in 1962, the Soviet Union in 1969, Vietnam in 1979, and the Philippines in 1995 (over Mischief Reef) was listened to favourably. The situation changed soon. With China making rapid strides in its policy of winning friends and influencing people, many leaders, especially Dr Mahathir (former Malaysian PM) and Lee Kuan Lee, maintained that China was transforming into a peace-loving country.

During the Cold War, China was viewed as an “expansionist country” committed to “export” communist revolution. From 1974, Southeast Asian countries began to get closer to Beijing. After Deng Xiaoping introduced state-controlled capitalism, trade and investment registered phenomenal growth. However, with China developing economic stakes, pursuing an assertive foreign policy, employing more Chinese technicians in their projects, and also encouraging Chinese illegal immigration, a new era has begun. ASEAN today is a divided house. Cambodia is supporting China to the hilt. In all critical issues including the South China Sea dispute, ASEAN is no longer united. Myanmar is embroiled in a crisis of its own and ASEAN-Myanmar relations have taken a nosedive. Jakarta and Hanoi have expressed their apprehensions about China’s long-term goals.

In one of his last interviews, Lee Kuan Lee said: “Competition between the United States and China is inevitable, but conflict is not.” Lee’s hope (the part about conflict) is unlikely to be fulfilled. With the United States and its allies veering around to Henry Kissinger’s view that China, once it becomes a great power, would try to establish a “Middle Kingdom”, Southeast Asia is entering a turbulent era.

V Suryanarayan
Founding Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras

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