Published on Jan 02, 2015 in The Edge Review

2015 is a banner year for ASEAN as it takes the long-awaited leap towards integration. But obstacles to success remain formidable

This is supposed to be a pivotal year for Southeast Asia as ASEAN approaches its stated aim of creating an integrated market and boosting regional connectivity across the bloc of 10 neighbouring nations.

But recent history suggests the grouping is nowhere near its goals and enters 2015 comparatively weaker after Myanmar’s minimalist leadership as chair last year and increasingly divided by persistent differences over the role of a more assertive China.

The immediate spotlight will be on Malaysia, which has assumed chairmanship after Myanmar’s shrewd tactic of keeping expectations low for much of 2014, effectively building on its diplomatic skills and using ASEAN as a vehicle to cement itself as part of the international community and as an important member within the bloc.

But Malaysia does not have the luxury of setting its own agenda this year, and faces a major challenge in its dealings with China. After a year in which relations with China were soured, first by active drilling around James Shoal – a submerged bank in the South China Sea believed to sit above lucrative oil and gas reserves claimed by both Malaysia and China – and then by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 en route to Beijing in March, both countries will have to work overtime to maintain amicability.

China’s apparent refusal to sign a multilateral maritime code of conduct and its perceived greater territorial intrusions into the region are not winning friends as they have led to a number of countries in the region taking stronger anti-China positions. Among them is Vietnam, whose Le Luong Minh is the current ASEAN Secretary-General.

China, in turn, has relied more on its ties with Cambodia to put a wrench in ASEAN unity. Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cabinet colleagues have only been too happy to oblige, given that Chinese investment and “no strings attached” aid have become a large share of Cambodia’s economy.

Between 1994 and 2014, Chinese investment reached more than US$10 billion. Chinese aid is also important. In last November’s bilateral meeting on the APEC sidelines, Hun Sen was able to secure promises of at least another US$500 million in soft loans annually, on top of US$2.85 billion secured between 1994 and 2014.

In spite of the derision it receives at home and regionally for being China’s proxy, Cambodia sees its interest clearly with promoting China’s position within ASEAN. These geostrategic considerations will not make it easy within ASEAN to find common ground over security in the South China Sea, the region’s most active conflict zone.

It does not help that ASEAN members are not looking at the grouping with the same level of attention as in the past. Consider Indonesia, which is now a valued member of the G-20 and has long played a guiding role in ASEAN as it has Southeast Asia’s largest economy and population.

Its new president, Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, is positioning Indonesia as a broader regional player and has laid out a new maritime doctrine, where Indonesia will serve as the fulcrum between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, acting as a bridge across islands and with greater attention to Indonesia’s non-ASEAN east.

A lead role in ASEAN is now too small for Jakarta’s ambitions, and how the grouping moves forward will depend on Malaysia, which is unlikely to get much assistance from its other core members.

Introversion will be the norm.  Thailand’s junta is still grappling with inner turmoil, as its “stabilising” efforts have only served to foster greater conflict. The Philippines and Singapore are gearing up for elections in 2016, with campaigns effectively under way already.

All of this inward orientation will be taking place in a less favourable economic regional environment that will only absorb more attention at home. By default, ASEAN will be less important.

The less supportive regional climate for Malaysia’s chairmanship could not come at a more difficult time, the year that is supposed to mark community-building. The idea of an ASEAN economic community – formally in the planning for 12 years now – envisages the creation of a single market with a combined population of 600 million people and a total annual gross domestic product of US$3 trillion.

Alongside this central pillar are two others: the concepts of a politicosecurity community, aiming to spread shared values and norms across the bloc, and a socio-cultural community that seeks to forge a common identity and improve quality of life.

Conditions in the region today fail to provide a foundation for these pillars to stand, or arguably even materialise. The divide between the region’s more democratic countries of Indonesia and the Philippines and the other, more authoritarian, members is wider than ever.

By way of an example, Jokowi did not properly acknowledge Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chanocha at last November’s ASEAN meeting in Myanmar. Different values and norms are cuttingly evident.

On the economic side, the distance between the goals and reality is even wider, as protectionism and government-led interventions overshadow a genuinely competitive market. While Southeast Asia shares the objective of improving living standards, the numbers of those vulnerable to poverty remain high as the trend has leaned towards inequality rather than an inclusive rising tide in economic standards.

Lastly, an ASEAN common identity is even further away as regional governments from Vietnam to Singapore feed nationalistic sentiments to enhance political positions at home.

Malaysia thus faces a difficult task. With security divisions prevalent, distracted partners and less than attainable goals on the docket, the hurdles ahead for the chairmanship are high indeed.