A cautiously optimistic year ahead

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EI SUN OH

THE year ahead will not be an easy one, with the world and the region getting increasingly fractured and, most prominently, the already amply demonstrated and seemingly downward spiraling dereliction of its worldwide superpower duties by the United States. With far fewer foreign-policy exceptions that appear to be the fruition of a combination of President Trump’s personal obsession and his team’s skewed perception as to what his electorate would prefer, many US international priorities are being callously set aside.

These hitherto crucial priorities include the renewed trade and strategic engagement initiatives with Asia Pacific, ranging from the effectively defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership and the no-longer-heard “pivot to Asia.” Of course, one may argue that these were priorities of previous US administrations and Trump is entitled to foreign-policy priorities of his own. The problem is there doesn’t appear to be such new priorities on the horizon. The latest US national security strategic report sounds more like a rehash of cliché challenges than a shift in priorities, much less an announcement of new proactive measures to engage such challenges.

The US withdrawals from the Paris climate change accord and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) can also be explained away as a right-leaning change in US official ideological position with a change in White House occupancy. The bans of entry to the US by nationals of various countries not favored by the Trump administration are arguably American domestic policy which the international community should not interfere with. But how account for the fact that many senior American diplomatic positions remain unfilled, especially when the US Senate which is supposed to confirm such presidential appointments (or not) remains in Republican control?

The net result of such American “remission” from the international and Asia Pacific regional scenes is, not surprisingly, the natural creation of a strategic void which almost begs to be filled, by all and sundry who are ambitious and more than willing. I won’t say it’s totally gone, but rare are the days when the US remained as the world’s indisputable superpower that polices the tumultuous lands and choppy waters of the world, defending democracies and fighting tyrannies. The North Korean regime remains provocatively defiant of international sanctions, for example. The Rohingya refugees continue to roam overland or set out for the open sea.


And despite their supposedly utter defeat in the Middle Eastern battlefields of Syria and Iraq, Islamic State and associated terrorist outfits do not abate at all in their ideological attraction for what can perhaps best be described as “volunteer affiliates.” Terrorist cells are sprouting profusely right here in Southeast Asia, adding a tremendous burden to already stretched-out security concerns of various regional countries. Globally, the emergence of lone-wolf terrorists inflict relatively low intensity but no less terrifying casualties on innocent civilians. I frankly think the frequency of such terrorist attacks would at least equal if not exceed in amplitude the previous years’. The world has witnessed similar senseless (in the eyes of the global mainstream community) assaults by anarchists at the turn of the last century, and by extreme leftists in the second half of the same century, and now it is the turn of the religious fanatics. The trend will go on for a number of years, as much as I don’t want to callously predict it as such based on historical precedents above.

But most of all I continue to be concerned with the slow economic recovery of this region in the aftermath of the world financial crisis from a decade ago. It is perhaps pointless to point a finger at the US, and especially Wall Street, as the source of such economic calamity, for even the US itself, in my humble opinion, is still reeling from the trauma of arguably its largest financial let-down. European economic performance appears lackluster, but its leaders do not appear to grasp the time-tested axiom of “it’s the economy, stupid!” Instead, they still wallow in the interminable debate over whether to build on “an ever closer union” or to decamp from such. It is commendable that the European Union (EU) enshrines and symbolizes a democratic congregation of nations and encourages democratization of its potential members. But to demand from its members that they essentially hand over more of their sovereignty in favor of a centralized supranational entity, is perhaps slightly over the top.

In any case the success and failures of the EU will always serve as a role model for our very own Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). We as neighboring nations with vastly dissimilar cultures both among and within ourselves should especially be courteous and sensitive to each other’s needs and aspirations. When we have shortcomings, however, we should similarly not mind too much the good-faith advice and even warning from our neighbors, but instead welcome their mutually beneficial suggestions. Only with such camaraderie can we leap forward to propel our much sought-after growth.

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