By next year, Covid is likely to be behind us. China’s opening up has been dramatic. Although there might be a few more waves of diminishing intensity, China's economy will quickly pick up speed and grow 5-6% this year if not more. Transients in China send shock waves around the world because of the country's size.
The great transition to a multipolar world
US-China relations may ease a little in the coming months following the Biden-Xi meeting in Bali. This is partly the result of the Ukraine war which will likely get worse before some kind of a ceasefire is negotiated. Ukraine continues to preoccupy the US and Europe. But long-term US-China relations will remain fraught.
The US feels its global dominance threatened by a rising China. The Ukraine war has so far strengthened its leadership of the Western alliance. The West has dominated the world for so long that the emergence of China as a successful non-western system is deeply uncomfortable. The interests of Europe are however different from those of the US even though its civilisational affinity to the US is an enduring one.
While being of the West, it has become clear that Russia is not part of the West and not likely to be for a long time. Russia’s origin and history have a large Asian component which is part of its DNA. Despite being a relatively small economy, it has fearsome military technology, a huge land area with abundant natural resources and a tenacity which Napoleon and Hitler underestimated to their grief. It will always be a separate pole in Eurasia.
The Ukraine war showed to the US that India is also its own pole and not anyone’s satellite.
The Ukraine war showed to the US that India is also its own pole and not anyone’s satellite. While South Asian civilisation has a long history, South Asia, unlike China, has no long history of political unity. Islam in South Asia was never successfully digested by Hinduism which is the reason for its political divisions today.
In the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, the contestation of western dominance by China, Russia and India give hope that they too can find their own paths to the future despite past colonisation.
During this great transition, we can expect a major global financial crisis.
We are therefore in a great transition to a multipolar world which will define this century. This transition will not be smooth and may be accompanied by hybrid and proxy wars. It has become clear that the US will do everything it can do to slow down or weaken China. It is determined to deny China high technology which has strategic use. Ethnic Chinese scientists and engineers working in high-tech areas in the US are coming under increasing surveillance and feel intimidated by high profile cases.
The Ukraine war is a proxy war between the West led by the US and Russia. Apart from pious statements made in the UN, most non-Western countries are not taking sides. They often have to comply with US long-arm jurisdiction but resent it. US weaponisation of the US financial system is causing the establishment of an alternative system. At some point, the growth of an alternative system will threaten the primacy of the US dollar.
During this great transition, we can expect a major global financial crisis. With the huge liquidity overhang in the world, the crisis might have already begun.
It will take years before a measure of multipolar equilibrium is established in the world. There will be no perfect order because all the poles are changing. Some grow faster than others. The US, Europe and Russia all face enormous internal challenges. China and India will continue to grow but maintaining domestic coherence as wealth and income inequality worsen will not be easy. In the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, there are sharply divergent views on the way to the future.
Little by little, the countries of ASEAN have grown closer and the sense of a common ASEAN citizenship is slowly thickening, layer by layer, like kueh lapis.
Against all this, Southeast Asia is not doing badly. For a long time, Western commentators were often critical of the ASEAN construction. Unlike Europe, we were not clear cut in our decision-making process. We avoided voting in order to save face and preserve long term relationships. When we could not agree, we meandered, until conditions became more propitious.
On international issues, we often equivocated when our direct interests were not affected. For example, on the Ukraine war, apart from Singapore which instituted limited sanctions against Russia, the rest of ASEAN largely stayed neutral.
Indeed we are elliptical in our ways but that is not necessarily a weakness. Little by little, the countries of ASEAN have grown closer and the sense of a common ASEAN citizenship is slowly thickening, layer by layer, like kueh lapis.
There is a deep instinct to avoid taking sides whenever possible. ASEAN’s relationship with China is growing stronger. ASEAN is now China’s biggest trading partner overtaking Europe some years ago. In a few years, bilateral trade will reach a trillion USD. The first foreign visitor to China after the 20th Party Congress of the CPC was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Xi Jinping’s visit to Bali for the G20 meeting and to Bangkok for the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting was marked by exceptional courtesy. During President Marcos' visit to Beijing last week, he recalled his call as a teenager on Mao Zedong with his mother with remarkable affection and nostalgia.
The peoples of Southeast Asia have seen China in its earlier incarnations and view its current ascent with a mix of opportunity and fear. No country will likely make China an enemy whatever pressure the US may put. The US has learned this and now applies pressure on us less directly while proclaiming publicly that it does not require anyone to make a choice.
ASEAN’s neutrality is not static but dynamic. Any major power pressing too hard on us will find us moving in the opposite direction.
ASEAN’s neutrality is not static but dynamic. Any major power pressing too hard on us will find us moving in the opposite direction. This is not only ASEAN’s position, but the position of every country in ASEAN with minor variations. The small countries — Singapore, Brunei and Laos — feel this need for balance even more keenly because our margins are tighter. I still remember how Singapore had to stand firm on the caning of Michael Fay.
There is a tendency for the US bluntly and Japan subtly to view their influence in Southeast Asia versus China as a zero-sum game. This is a mistake and reflects a lack of understanding of Southeast Asia. The more our accounts with China grow, the more each and every one of us in ASEAN want diversification. Without the need to mention China at all, the US, Japan and Europe are all naturally welcome in Southeast Asia.
No country in ASEAN is going to turn down opportunities that come their way in China, but every country worries that too great a dependence on China will constrain our autonomy of action. No one wants China as an enemy; everyone wants the US, Japan and Europe to be friends, provided we are not asked to choose.
ASEAN as a convening platform
ASEAN’s response to multipolarity has roots in its history. One can even say that Southeast Asia’s history is partly a response to multipolarity in different periods of history. As a collection of peninsulas and archipelagos between the great civilisational areas of East and South Asia, Southeast Asia received their alternating influences. No kingdom or empire emerged in Southeast Asia to unify the entire region and threaten others beyond.
In all periods, there were others beyond who were bigger and more powerful than us. We have therefore internalised a modest view of our own power and influence. Conversely, no major power before the Europeans arrived, incorporated us into their realms because there was no need to. Tributary relationships were a way to keep each other at arm’s length.
No foreigner from whichever part of the world he comes from feels unwelcome in Southeast Asia. Our heterogeneity is thus also a strength in a multipolar world.
Culturally, Southeast Asia is the most diverse region in the world in terms of civilisational influences, ethnic mix and religious beliefs. It is a region in which diversity lives and is therefore fitted to the diversity of a globalised world. No foreigner from whichever part of the world he comes from feels unwelcome in Southeast Asia. Our heterogeneity is thus also a strength in a multipolar world.
Of course, it is hard to generalise across all of Southeast Asia because it is a vast region of land and water. One way to look at it is to see Southeast Asia as a region into which many mandalas radiate and overlap. It is an idea I borrow from Professor Wang Gungwu who once described Singapore as a place where the mandalas of China and India overlap.
For Southeast Asia, the mandalas are from East, South and West Asia. In the last few centuries, they were also the mandalas from the West. Every major religion shines into our region, including the different forms of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Naturally, our diversity is also a source of domestic difficulties but these have on the whole been manageable.
It was not an accident that President Trump’s first two meetings with President Kim Jong-un were held in ASEAN.
ASEAN’s advantage in a multipolar world is therefore not simply the result of policy choices; it springs from a pattern of behaviour rooted in our history. ASEAN centrality is often held up by the major powers. They do not always mean it as shown in their actions from time to time. But, all of them know that there is no better driver behind the wheel. To be sure, we are not an F1 driver; some might even think of us as a Mr Magoo, sometimes being a little confused when passengers shout their preferences. But they know, slow as we are, that no one is in danger.
At the ASEAN Regional Forum, ministers from North and South Korea, Russia and the US, and many others sit around the table as required by ASEAN to engage in civilised dialogue. The dialogue may not be productive but it is still better that diplomats meet and talk however divergent the views. It was not an accident that President Trump’s first two meetings with President Kim Jong-un were held in ASEAN.
In a multipolar world, it may be possible or even necessary for ASEAN to catalyse global discussions on issues of common concern precisely because we are not a major protagonist. Take for example the weaponisation of space. At some point, there must be a conversation about how we should not be fighting each other on the moon and Mars. In an earlier period, countries were wise enough to formulate an agreement on Antarctica.
I read recently a concern raised by NASA that China may take over some of the moon’s resources for itself. Leaving aside that this fear might have been expressed to get more funding from the US Congress, there is a strong case to be made for an early discussion of the subject. It is in the interest of all countries with capabilities to establish colonies in outer space to begin scoping the subject.
Unlike other countries, ASEAN has to insert itself into the Myanmar problem, not by force, but in the traditional face-saving ASEAN way.
Problem of Myanmar
But, to have credibility, we must put our own house in order. The military coup in Myanmar is a big setback for us in ASEAN. Unlike other countries, ASEAN has to insert itself into the Myanmar problem, not by force, but in the traditional face-saving ASEAN way. I know this is easier said than done but ASEAN has considerable experience in dealing with the Tatmadaw in the past.
I hope Indonesia’s chairmanship of ASEAN this year will enable ASEAN to re-engage. President Jokowi was an outstanding chair of the G20 Summit in Bali. Indonesia did not interpose itself, but by being an excellent host, created conditions for leaders to talk to one another politely. His handling of the polarising war in Ukraine was artfully deft.
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