BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei — There are myriad happenings abroad in Southeast Asia, where the two major powers dominating the sociopolitical landscape are China and the US. This isn’t to say that other nations in the region aren’t vying for a greater voice in political matters. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently held a meeting in the small nation of tBrunei in October 2013, with heavy international interest.
The nature of the summit and the topics covered highlighted the attitudes in flux in Southeast Asia, for instance the relationship between China and the Philippines in the wake of recent natural disasters there. On full display were the most influential regional voices, including China’s Li Keqiang and John Kerry from the US.
ASEAN member nations consist of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malasia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. ASEAN was initially established in 1967 with the goals of having regional cooperation and shared economic prosperity, peace and cultural promotion.
The Brookings Institute describes Li Keqiang as an influential Chinese politician — possessing degrees in both law and economics — and has heavy communist leanings. Like Hu Jintao, Chinese leader from 2002-2012 and mentor to Li, he’s also very pro-business and supports “offering more affordable housing, providing basic health care, balancing regional development, and promoting innovation in clean energy technology.”
Jintao of course was known for instituting, “…educational and economic reforms…” early in his political career, according The Wall Street Journal. In 2013 alone, Li Keqiang assumed the roles of Premier of State Council, Director of the National Leading Group for Climate Change and for Energy Conservation & Reduction of Pollution Discharge, Director of State Council Leading Group for Rejuvenating the Northeast Region and Other Old Industrial Bases and Director of State Council Leading Group for Western Region Development.
At the October ASEAN Summit, Keqiang touted China’s economic initiatives for the region but defended the soverignty of the South China Sea, saying that the US should leave the area. Secretary of State John Kerry, filling in for President Obama at the event, called for more open waters.
According to Yahoo News, “…ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam lay claim to some parts…Vietnam and the Philippines have had recent skirmishes with Chinese ships in the sea, igniting fresh tensions.” Li Keqiang defended China’s claim to the sea with a thinly veiled remark referring to the US that China has no previous record of vast expansionism.
The South China Sea is clearly a coveted and highly contested economic tool in the region.
The summit was a success, with Myanmar taking on a larger role and Indonesia outpacing all other member nations in economic growth. The ASEAN Economic Community, a joint effort in the region, starts in 2015 and is hotly anticipated. China has been trying to woo member states poised to explode economically and simultaneously raising tempers and suspicions of nations like the Philippines, India, Japan, and the US in the process.
The increased attention on the ASEAN states only highlights both their economic potential and the international difficulties that lie ahead. Indonesia expert Endy Bayuni told The Diplomat that,
“…the group’s members are a somewhat motley collection of countries. Indeed, within ASEAN, political systems run the gamut from more or less authoritarianism (Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), forms of semi-democracy (Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia), struggling democracy (Thailand) to consolidated democracy (the Philippines and Indonesia).”
This means the bloc isn’t particularly cohesive. States have different interests and self-identity, all of which bleeds into policy. In this kind of environment, it is hard to agree on matters and get deals done, and when they are sealed, they are usually reactive in nature and scope.
ASEAN nations have clearly captured major international attention for their individual and shared economic clout; they’re important economic and political allies. For these reasons, ASEAN’s voice in Asia now arguably rivals those of China, India and the US.
– Dave Smith
Sources: The Diplomat, Brookings Institute, Wall Street Journal, China Vitae, ASEAN, Yahoo
Photo: Korea News Online