As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) reaches its 50th anniversary it would do well to consider the irony that as it celebrates its golden jubilee, the entity that inspired its creation in 1967 is losing one of its most important members.
With the British parliament this week passing the Brexit bill, the way ahead is clear for Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger the two-year divorce process that would remove Britain from the European Union. May has vowed that will happen by the end of the month; some Whitehall insiders have suggested it may happen as soon as next week.
While Brexit may seem like a small pebble thrown into the far-away pond that is Europe, its significance for Asean – and by extension the East Asian Summit of 16 nations – should not be underestimated. Why not?
Contrary to what the founding fathers of Asean claim, the 10-member body for regional cooperation is remarkably similar to the EU and it is built on the same principle – eliminating regional tensions.
If the European project fails, or seriously falters, why should Asean succeed?
This question is particularly pertinent when you consider the political wills that drove the creation of the two bodies.
The DNA of European integration was planted not by the likes of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant or Jean Rousseau, even if pro-European politicians like to quote them. Rather, it emerged from the ideas of former French resistance fighters such as André Boulloche. Boulloche had witnessed the horrors of the second world war – losing nearly half of his family members to Nazi atrocities – and it was from this devastation that the idea of one Europe, undivided by seemingly perpetual French-German rivalries, emerged.
Neither Asean nor the East Asia Summit has a figure equivalent to Boulloche – the focus on Asian integration is about convenience. It is driven by market logic rather than deep humanitarian instinct. Why then should its binds prove more lasting than the EU’s?
Secondly, while there is some truth to Asean’s claims that its decision making is more controlled and less structural than that of the EU – whose stifling levels of bureaucracy were a large part of the reason Britons chose to extricate themselves – the point is that all such regional integration projects are based on overarching, supra-regional ambitions – the politics of the grandiose.
Brexit has revealed such projects to be little more than organised pretences.
Indeed, with Brexit, even pretence may no longer be tenable – Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants Scotland to leave Britain in the event of Brexit, leading to the possibility that in voting itself out of one regional union, Britain will have set in motion a chain of events that will bring about the dissolution of an even older regional union – the United Kingdom.
Regardless of what ultimately happens with Sturgeon’s moves for a Scottish referendum, the message is clear. Confidence in regionalist projects is disappearing.
That’s a message that will ring loud in Asean ears, possibly tempting its leaders to dial things down and put on the back burner some of their more grandiose visions.
But doing so would leave them between a rock and a hard place. Dialling back isn’t an option due to the large income gap between China and the rest of the region. Without an ambitious project to guide countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, some of them would seek to jump on China’s bandwagon.
If this happened the region would become driven by one market logic that predominated over everything else. There would be no community – social, cultural or political – to speak of. Politicians would pay lip service to the importance of one community, and plan it to the nth degree, but its projects would have no meaning.
Meanwhile, Brexit will also have real and immediate geopolitical implications regarding China’s relations with both Asean and the East Asian Summit. The slow collapse of the EU – if that is indeed what we are witnessing – would encourage China that it could afford to ignore the two groups. That while Asean and the East Asian Summit can “talk the talk” they cannot “walk the walk”.
In turn, that might prompt Asean to attempt to enlist counterweights to Chinese hegemony like the US and Japan. But if such a balancing act were misjudged, trust in Asean would be hit and China would be encouraged to dominate and control by all means necessary.
Brexit, in this sense, gives China an advantage in its disputes with neighbours over the South China Sea. It will encourage China to be patient. If Asean is a project that may fail, let it fail on its own, Beijing will reason. When Asean finds it cannot cohere or ally with the US and Japan, it will be left with no option but to return to China’s fold.
If Asean cannot come together as a group, China will be able to follow a strategy of “divide and conquer” by persuading each claimant in the South China Sea disputes to climb on board, one by one.
If Asean and the East Asian Summit do indeed falter, Singapore and Hong Kong stand to gain by positioning themselves as the region’s best last hopes. Multinational companies will feel even more encouraged to relocate their staff and workers to Singapore, which offers the best logistical services and legal regimes.
Hong Kong, too, may stand to benefit, as more governments and companies try to park their funds in entities with a solid legal regime. But Hong Kong will gain only if it can keep its legal character and integrity.
Essentially, Brexit has laid bare the underbelly of a regionalist mantra that has been chanted for half a century. It may have taken 50 years, but a voice in the crowd is now saying the emperor has no clothes. How many more birthdays will Asean celebrate before it notices the same? ■
Phar Kim Beng is a former scholar of the Japan Foundation and president of Echo Strategic Insight