COM 02/2019

Remarks by Professor Don Emmerson, Head of the Southeast Asia Programme for the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre of Stanford University

These remarks and Q&A discussion were recorded at CPG’s International Conference on Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2019. The following text keeps most of the original audio and has only been lightly edited for smoother reading.


The geopolitical context of ASEAN regionalism

The greater picture, the geopolitical context of ASEAN regionalism, is the title of the first session of our conference. Implicit in this greater picture is a smaller picture:

What should Thailand consider trying to do as ASEAN chair in 2019. Our agenda items today may be summarised as four outsiders, three topics, one concern. The four outsiders US, India, the EU and China. The three topics, terrorism, governance, economy. The one concern, ASEAN’s relevance. One way of framing the greater picture while at the same time linking it to the smaller picture is by featuring the contrast between structure and agency – I apologise for the abstractions, I am an academic.

Consider this increasingly widespread interpretation of the tumultuous character of global geopolitics and geo-economics today. On the eve of Thailand’s turn as ASEAN chair, structure, namely the American-sponsored liberal institutional post-WWII San Francisco system is under assault from within and without by the agency of resentful and revisionist leaders in power. The erratic and destructive anti-globalism of Donald Trump, the destructive anti-regionalism of Brexit and its tortured legitimation by Theresa May, and the connectedly aggressive nationalisms of Vladimir Putin in Crimea and Xi Jinping in the South China Sea all come readily to mind. Think of Putin’s attack of the Ukrainian navy recently, part of his efforts to control the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. Think of the parallel effort by Xi Jinping to militarise and control the South China Sea and potentially the Malacca Straits.

Also under assault are the liberal democratic values associated with the San Francisco system. Consider the incremental worldwide decline of liberal democracy, and the corresponding rise of illiberal democracy, as proclaimed by Victor Orban. And the versions of authoritarian rule championed in Southeast Asia, for example, by Rodrigo Duterte. These changes, as they relate to ASEAN, are too often essentialised as a single binary, a grand dichotomy, a burgeoning rivalry between Washington and Beijing that necessitates the passive neutrality of SEA who supposedly have no choice but to avoid siding with either side.

An extreme variation on this passivity is the view that reduces ASEAN to the role a homeless, impotent bystander. By likening SEA to inanimate grass, that is trampled, regardless of whether the American and Chinese elephants fight or make love. More recently, passivity is something that could be turned to strategic fatalism. The idea that China will dominate Southeast Asia, that ASEAN cannot prevent that outcome and all ASEAN can do is to agree to be dominated and return from whatever concessions it might be able to solicit from Beijing is precisely this strategic fatalism that China means to encourage in SEA, by promising a “community of common destiny”. SEA’s unavoidable fate as forever geographically adjacent to China, far from the US, and therefore destined to become, at least, its northern subcontinental portion, an eventual extension of greater China. Beijing’s involvement in ethnic wars of northern Myanmar, the expatriate Chinese gambling on ploughs in northern Laos, the depth of diplomacy that Beijing has used to pursue the expansionary Belt and Road initiative in Laos and elsewhere all come to mind.

How to handle this prospective if not already existing threat to the centrality of ASEAN may well be the single most important regional policy challenge that Thailand will face as ASEAN chair in 2019.

Already in 2018, the ASEAN related structure of regional cooperation has undergone a recent setback in Papa New Guinea, caused by the Chinese refusal to accept language in the APEC meetings’ final communique, without naming any country, simply rejected to “unfair trade”. In an echo of the 2012 failure of an ASEAN meeting in Cambodia to issue a joint statement, the APEC meeting also failed to issue such a statement for the first time, thanks again to China’s objection. Notwithstanding the implied Chinese acknowledgement that in rejecting this language, they, rather than the US, despite Trump’s trade war, are guilty of unfair trade, otherwise why would they object to that abstract phrase.

As for the communique from the G20 in Argentina – despite the protectionist America first-inclination of Donald Trump, the text avoided the word “protectionism” altogether. Perhaps, ironically, both Washington and Beijing feared that the word described their own behaviour – something I find somewhat amusing. Note also the relevance of Thailand’s positive and forward-looking mantra for ASEAN in 2019, advancing partnership for sustainability. Trump’s message in Buenos Aires contradicted the Thai monic, the American president’s isolation as the lone G20 opponent of the Paris Agreement accord, 19 against 1, implied the negation of Thailand’s ASEAN scene, not advancing partnership for sustainability, but rather undoing partnership for unsustainability. Or perhaps, retreating from partners to advance unpredictability.

Again, the dichotomy is tempting. Support for the multilateral structure of the international order versus the unilateral and bilateral distractivism of Trump the agent, an enemy of global arrangements. But the communique in Buenos Aires, let us not forget, nevertheless expresses the G20’s commitment to a “rules-based international order” and “to the necessary reform of the WTO to improve functioning”. Without delving into the details of what that reform might entail, the very idea of reform implies agency, proactivity, an effort to determine how a structure should be reformed, should be improved. In this sense, structure and agency implicate each other, even simply maintaining an unreformed structure requires agency for that very purpose. So rather than lamenting or lauding the punitive obsolescence of the San Francisco system, actors large and small, ASEAN included, in 2019, should creatively engage in ways of connecting structure with agency, thereby adapting structure to the radically evolving global environment, across key issues such as climate change, migration, and a range of political and security threats in both the real world of traditional conflict, the utopian world, and sometimes, the unreal world, that is now burgeoning in cyberspace.

Shifting again from the greater to the smaller picture, if the G20 has committed itself to the necessary reform of the WTO, to improve functioning, why shouldn’t ASEAN’s own SEA G10, so to speak, commit itself in June of 2019, at its first summit here in Thailand, to the necessary reform of ASEAN, to improve its functioning. If I may make a homely, partly, playful suggestion, why shouldn’t Thailand suggest that future chairs of ASEAN declare their themes in form of questions, questions to which ASEAN in that particular year should, guided by the chair, seek answers. In that context, in then making ASEAN more of a people-to-people organisation, which is a theme that recurs in the history of ASEAN, Thailand should invite any minister of any ASEAN country to submit answers to the question, what should ASEAN do in the given year about what, and why. That would generate a lot of, presumably, relatively, useless creativity, but it would also generate fresh ideas, and as an academic who perhaps exaggerates the importance of fresh ideas, I find that not only some sort of comparative advantage that certain intellectuals in ivory towers may have, but also a way of shaking up the assumptions including strategic fatalism that kill creativity and simply prolong the present situation, dangerous and deleterious as it may be.

And let me, at this point, shift for a bit, to just a couple of very brief and informal remarks with regard to ASEAN. Now, ASEAN is what it is, a remark with the implication that it will not change. ASEAN is an intergovernmental organisation, people like me tend to forget that. Let me try to simply say this, I have been fascinated by the debate between those who argue firmly that ASEAN cannot change and I think perhaps the most articulate is the Singaporean strategist Bilahari Kausikan, who time and again, and I have had debates with him on this subject, has said that ASEAN is a cow. And what is the purpose of the cow? The cow gets milked, so people milk ASEAN, it is not a horse because that means a horse can gallop, it can pick a direction and move somewhere, it has that kind of agency as opposed to simply existing as a structure. And what I find intriguing, and if I may say so, encouraging, are the possibilities that ASEAN could become a little less cow-like but instead more horse-like in terms of having an actual intentional direction.

So the theme of the Thailand chair is not just an abstraction, it implies actual steps in a particular direction, concrete steps. Just recently Bilahari published some relevant comments and I would just like to share a couple of comments on that myself. China, he said, is mistaken in believing its own propaganda about the US being in irrevocable decline. Interesting that he would say that. Of course, there is factual evidence, but some estimated 46% of wealthy Chinese would like to emigrate. Those of us who have seen the movie Crazy Rich Asians may have been struck, Singapore-based as it is, by the utter absence of references to the PRC, in relation to the dynamism of the diaspora which is quite different from what people in Singapore call PRC, people from mainland China, who behave differently and are obligated in a different way to come talk to the government in Beijing. The second comment was that an open international order cannot be based on a largely closed Chinese model. Now, if that was true, the ostensible passive neutrality of ASEAN geometrically between China on the one hand and US on the other does not really make sense because if ASEAN is committed to an open international order, this cannot be based on the Chinese model. Interesting. Finally, and this is his conclusion, which contradicts his previous position, ASEAN has, in recent years, become too timid for its own good.

Lastly, there are specific ways of reforming ASEAN: should the secretariat be strengthened, should dues be proportionalised, there is the minus X formula and the question whether it should it be transferred from the experience of economic cooperation, which was relatively successful, to security, which is more fraught with controversy and sensitivity. With regard to Chinese security, an argument might be made that we are reaching the point where China is attempting to construct a set of regional arrangements that actually are beginning to compete with the regional arrangements sponsored and maintained or hosted by ASEAN. An interesting example is what has just been renamed as the Beijing Xiangshan forum, which reached out to ASEAN states, saying: let’s get together and have a joint control of the South China Sea. And on that occasion, the ASEAN states responded, I thought, rather bravely by saying let’s do that, but let us do that under an ADMM plus effort, which would require, first of all, the participation of the United States, which China did not like. In 2018, China’s security diplomacy has succeeded in such arrangements, having taken place in joint military ventures. Presumably, ASEAN will turn around to do the same thing with the Americans, to maintain the equidistance, but it seems to me to be very interesting to suggest the possibility that China, in issues like the Belt and Road, another topic we could discuss, is beginning to develop a set of arrangements that are not only challenging the centrality of ASEAN that would, if fully implemented, replace it, and we would have Sino-centricity rather than ASEAN-centricity.



Question: You mentioned the binary choice between China and the US, and I was wondering if this binary choice perhaps obstructs the role of other powers in the region. Perhaps, it is not as destructive as we think it is, internationalism, destructive internationalism, China pulled countries in various directions, perhaps, we look at it too negatively, perhaps this is the chance for a new re-arrangement of multi-polarities in dealing with this. We see Japan increasingly stepping up, India being ever more interested, even though remaining way behind their possibilities, Australia, having a gravitus to the region, perhaps even the EU. So, the question I would like to pose is, do you think that perhaps this binary pull between the US and China, this negative force, is not as destructive as many commentators make out, but actually a chance for a new multi-polarity that you may, as an academic, depending on a theoretical lens, see as a good or bad thing, but perhaps this is a chance for a multi-polarity in the Asia Pacific that may well be stable and may well open a lot of choices for smaller and better powers. 

Q: I have two questions. I wonder how ASEAN can maintain their centrality in all of this. I think a lot of people have looked at ASEAN centrality from the beginning with a very negative vision and feel. To me, ASEAN centrality has done quite well thus far. But up till now, when ASEAN cannot even maintain their unity in a lot of issues in the region, do you have any suggestions how we can maintain it? The second question is regarding ASEAN socio-cultural community. My problem is that even among ASEAN’s 650 million people, I don’t think many are aware of what ASEAN is, even at this moment. As you said, ASEAN is an intergovernmental organisation, and even if we have celebrated the 50th  anniversary, I think the 650 million people in ASEAN are not aware of what ASEAN is and what they can benefit from it. What can we do about it?

Professor Emmerson: I like the notion of reversing a negative into positive, that pleases me a lot. And if only as a pattern of thought. One wishes it can mitigate the risks involved in that binary, sharp, often essentialised dichotomy. Here, of course, the first image that arises is the famous Thucydides trap. That is, if the binary escalates to the point of physical conflict and after all, it is conceivable that what happened in the Sea of Oslo, could well happen in the South China Sea. A book about the Thucydides’ trap interestingly uses a fictional example of a clash, of an incidental, accidental clash between American and Chinese navies in the South China Sea, as the origin of a massive escalation that leads to a global war and the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people. When I read that, I was somewhat amused to remember that actually, you could take that incident of this clash and identify it as having actually occurred in the South China Sea, some years prior, without generating that particular result. So, I like the idea that the competition may be positive in some sense, but there is of course, that substantial risk of escalation. I’ll return to that in a moment when I answer the second set of questions. The issue here is to get beyond the binary, do we then invoke an internationalisation involving smaller powers, Japan, India, Australia and so forth? And here we get into the details of what the Indo-Pacific may mean: is that an invitation to internationalising some of these unfortunately intensified dichotomies between American and Chinese power in Southeast Asia? And if one had a sense from these candidate participants, Japan, India and so forth, that they were thinking strategically, and were actively getting involved in some sort of arrangement that might preserve ASEAN centrality to at least some degree and fend off dissatisfaction of SEA. Now, with positive results, more or less for all concerns, except perhaps for Xi Jinping, that would be encouraging.

But my own reading of the diplomacy of these countries is less encouraging. Even in SEA, ask yourself a journalistic question without getting into the details of defining terms and all that: which country in SEA is truly strategic? Which countries among those that are listed (like Japan) are truly strategic? One might argue that in SEA, there are only two countries that are strategic, namely Singapore and Vietnam, for all kinds of historical and political reasons. I am not prepared to defend that in detail, but I am simply throwing out examples. If we look at the candidates for your solution, which is a solution that I certainly approve of, that hopefully could occur. What about the diplomacy coming out of Tokyo? Obviously, it is not just a question of Article 9 and the history of Japan, but the nature and character of  the cultural underpinning Japan’s foreign policy restraints its ability to generate the kind of creative moves that I have talked about earlier, though that is changing incrementally especially under Abe’s leadership. But how long will it last?

On India, it is disappointing that even with its gigantic size, the fact that its economic growth rate exceeds the economic growth rate of China by some substantial measure and has done so for several years, one would have thought that Modi sitting in New Delhi would have seen this as an opportunity for proactivity on India’s part, in terms of linking up in the context of a quad, for instance. But we also know the amity between India and Australia with regard to issues like the quad and we know of issues of personality. It is not just Trump’s personality, which matters for America’s foreign policy, but Modi’s which matters for India’s foreign policy.

With regard to the issue then of how ASEAN can maintain centrality. How can ASEAN do this, if ordinary people do not even know what ASEAN is? If you ask millions of ASEAN people to submit policy ideas, they might be motivated to learn about ASEAN, to learn about the cow and see if it could be a horse, and if so, how and so forth. One of my suggestions is looking at the ASEAN foundation.  It  is devoted solely to propaganda and not to encourage intellectual creativity within ASEAN.  But why could it not be rebranded to do things such as popularising ASEAN and getting at the problem of ignorance at the base. Disperse the elitist character of ASEAN diplomats, in general moving from one luxury hotel to another and continue that campaign of publicity and public relations. It could at the same time, in that very same context, generate ideas from the base, which would make ASEAN more attractive, and this would kill two birds with one stone.


Q: How can we break up the “strategic fatalism” you mentioned earlier?  Especially if the power that favours it is so strong and growing.  Secondly, how does one differentiate between “legitimate” claims and “undue exercise of power” of a growing power in the region


Professor Emmerson: These questions are excellent. They all reveal my ignorance and my ability to reply in a satisfactory fashion. With regard to the difficulty of how one opposes strategic fatalism: first of all, we acknowledge that, although we should not exaggerate, the extent to which Donald Trump’s, America position has helped to create the perception that certain vacancies or absence in Southeast Asia, strengthens strategic fatalism greatly. So it is not just geography and that the US is on the other side of the world, but that the US is seen to not really care.

There is a footnote here that I really have to put on the table, it is very difficult for me, as an American citizen to know how to present my view of Trump to audiences that I do not want to draw the interpretation from my very critical view of Trump, that they should give up on the US. Let us remember that the bad emperor problem which we could potentially see in China is at least one thing that democracies can deal with. Trump’s presidency may not outlast his first term, and number two, even though the number of adults in the room, the professionals, is becoming fewer and fewer, it is not yet down to zero.

Furthermore, there are things that the Trump administration has done that mitigate against strategic fatalism, including its proactivity, greater than that of the Obama administration, in the South China Sea. I remember vividly, if I can share some dirty linen from the inside, that there was real tension between the Obama administration, the White House, on the one hand, and the folks in Honolulu, that is to say, the navy on the Indo-Pacific side who wanted a much firmer policy with regard to opposing China in the South China Sea. That firmer policy which I think it is fair to say Obama was not inclined to support, is now very much present. Congress has played its part to provide evidence to SEA that US is not abandoning the region.

But a much more interesting, in some ways, and certainly more global set of answers, involves the BRI, and the future of the BRI. If the BRI, the Belt and Road Initiative, and of course, in particular, the Southern and so-called maritime version of it that runs through Southeast Asia and South China Sea, if the BRI turns out to be a smashing success, it will cement the notion of strategic fatalism in the minds of Southeast Asians who will see not only Chinese ambitions in their region, but Chinese success around the world as Greece for example, through Chinese control of Piraeus, becomes a Cambodia inside the European Union. I find that fascinating and very disturbing comparison, in which the pearls along the way, and we can go on to identify them, become part of a strategic expansion of China around the world, and that would certainly strengthen greatly the argument for strategic fatalism in Southeast Asia. But there is counter-evidence on not just the pushback that is occurring in a number of these countries, but the very capacity of China to maintain this scheme.

In recent months, I have been quite struck by the evidence suggesting that there are Chinese citizens looking at their own government and asking why they are spending billions of dollars around the world when the part of China they are living in does not have even have adequate education for their children. That kind of pushback generated from within, I think, should not be completely ignored. And so it is a complex equation. Part of it is the Chinese ability to do the things that would continue to persuade Southeast Asians of a rationale of strategic fatalism, and on the other hand, at least, take for example, again the BRI.

But we also have the AIIB, which is an example of how the internationalisation can occur and thereby restrain Chinese ambitions of the BRI. Because unlike the BRI, which is strictly bilateral, in which China can do whatever it wants, as it were in Pakistan, and do something else in Sri Lanka, the AIIB is multilateral and provides for the kind of transparency the BRI lacks, the assurance against corruption and politicisation and so forth. It is possible that China will lose so much money and prestige in trying to press the BRI that this would affect domestic politics in Beijing and the future of Xi Jinping.

Finally, with regard to the moral equivalence here which is really problematic, the American administration is of course, guilty of exerting pressure on other countries ever since the United States fancied itself a superpower, even perhaps before then. There is such a thing as American arrogance, I know it all too well. But there is one major advantage, I think: the American may criticise his own government. Listening to a Chinese, especially an official, that will not happen. At a panel meeting once in Jakarta, I happened to be sitting next to the Chinese ambassador, and the Chinese ambassador said, why don’t you trust us, and I said to him, because you do not even trust your own people. It suggests that, as was pointed out earlier, there is a link between domestic politics and the legitimacy of what is being done elsewhere. I detest Trump, I find him morally objectionable. I have to say this. There are more than 30 individuals associated with Donald Trump who have been indicted. There are 4 of his associates who are now in jail, I mean it is possible that if this man were not president of the United States, he would be in jail as well. And so my views on this are clear, and the possibility that the US could engage in the kind of pressuring behaviour that it accuses China of doing, absolutely yes. My father was a foreign service officer, perhaps that is why I have excessive faith in public service and the possibility of the so-called professionals, their time will come again. And if I were a Southeast Asian, I would certainly pray for that, and I would not succumb to strategic fatalism.