More than 50 years ago, Indonesia’s President Sukarno, Malaya’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Philippine President Elpidio Quirino started dreaming of a Southeast Asian region, united as sovereign states originally from the Malay Race, supplying the world with raw materials, finished goods and services.
Critics and political analysts I interviewed then as a correspondent for international news services said: “improbable.” Their cultural differences molded by their varied colonial histories will make it really improbable.
The Dutch colonialized Indonesia; the British were in Burma (Myanmar), Brunei, Singapore, Malaya and even Hong Kong; the French were in Indochine (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam); and Spain colonized the Philippines, then the US and Japan occupied it during the last world war. Thailand was never colonized and remained a Kingdom until today. Their national interests “will never run parallel.”
The Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, in his prize-winning The Asian Drama, looked at the gaps in their poverty levels as deterrents against their true regional integration for economic progress.
But Indonesia, Malaya and the Philippines started with the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) in 1959. It developed into Malaya-Philippines-Indonesia (MAPHILINDO) but was suspended by the two breaks (1963 and 1968) in Malaysia-Philippines relations over Manila’s Sabah claim.
Despite these setbacks, Singapore and Thailand later joined and the five sovereign states, all members of the United Nations, continued their diplomatic work. Finally in 1976, they formally signed in Thailand, the Bangkok Declaration, the birth of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) with regional integration as its ultimate goal.
Signatories were the five foreign ministers: Abdul Razak for Malaysia; Adam Malik for Indonesia; S. Rajaratnam for Singapore; Thanat Khoman for host Thailand; and Narciso Ramos for the Philippines. Asean could be the counterpart of the European Economic Community (first known as the European Coal and Steel Community), the forerunner of what is now known as the European Union (started in 1957).
The region was to be known as the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOFPAN). At the forceful suggestion of Indonesia, it was to be friendly to all economic and military powers—the Communists (Russia and China principally) and the Democracies (the US and its allies mainly) who were the superpowers. This was the main effort to render Asean members free from the geopolitical and military tensions—and a shooting war—between the superpowers.
(Indonesia under Sukarno was the first Southeast Asian country to host the first Afro-Asian Conference in Bali in April 1955. It was designed to pressure the Democracies and Communist powers to exempt the continents of Asia and Africa from the Cold War. India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Egypt’s President Abdul Gamal Nasser, China’s Prime Minister Zhou En-lai and the Philippines’ General Carlos P. Romulo were there).
The Asean integration has three phases depending on the ease (or lack of impediments) that can be reached: 1) the socio-cultural phase; 2) the economic phase as a common market; and 3) political and regional security phase.
Indonesia had successfully inserted the word “mushawara” as a prerequisite in arriving at any formal decision for Asean. Literally translated in English, it means “consensus.” But in the Bahasa Indonesia language context, it means decisions must be arrived at unanimously. Thus, any one objection to any proposal, plan or decision from one member is sufficient to scrap it off.
China knows this. And Beijing strategically uses it to divide Asean members geopolitically and economically now that China’s economy has rendered it as the world’s No. 2, next only to the US.
China, which has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan in the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (signed and ratified by China), has claimed almost all of the South China Sea with its 9-dash line in the area.
The Chinese knows the UN as a world organization has no police powers nor law-enforcement agencies to enforce international conventions, just as the League of Nations was ineffective with Hitler and his Nazi Germany, when he invaded Poland in 1939 and started the second world war.
But China has adopted new strategies. On one hand, as it continues to violate the UNCLOS in its South China Sea disputes, Beijing now gives economic aid to developing sovereign countries in Africa and Southeast Asia –with strings attached. Objective is to get more than it gives. It is a copy of the American (and its allies) “aids” to development countries through the international banking system and on a bilateral basis.
It is not surprising that China has offered billions of dollars in aid and trade for infrastructure to the Asean 10—most in telecommunications, land transportation systems, railways which connect the Asean capitals and market centers, to Beijing. Most of the networks will be passing through Bangkok.
But the offers were made to the individual governments only and never to the Asean as an economic group, nor as a regional organization.
Recall that Beijing invited Thai General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet members, after he led the successful coup against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra a couple of years ago, to offer an economic aid package.
Closer to home, President Rodrigo Duterte brought home $24 billion worth of trade and pledges of aid from China after his four-day visit to Beijing late last month.
Financing for the aids will come mostly from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) at concessional rates, competing against the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank.
Splitting the Asean 10 in pursuit of its hegemonic objectives vis-à-vis the American influence in the Asia-Pacific region, China has proven it when it succeeded over the last three years in preventing the Asean Summit meetings in Phnom Penh, Luang Prabang and Yangon from issuing any statement condemning its 9-dash line claim of the South China Sea.
Beijing’s backdoor diplomacy in these three Asean summits worked for her. For the uninformed, it appeared that China is benevolent with foreign aid to the “poor” economies of Asean. Swept under the rug is the fact that China reminded them their “aids” could be jeopardized with such statements against China.
Next year, the Philippines will host the Asean Summit. With President Duterte’s statements against the US but pro-China and Russia—in an effort to wean away from the Americans and be friends with ALL economic giants for his country’s benefits—nobody is betting there will be any statement blasting at China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.