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From zero-sum to positive sum: Asean turning weakness into strength

Professor Kantathi Suphamongkhon, former foreign minister of Thailand and currently a Senior Fellow, Burkle Center for International Relations (UCLA), spoke at a conference jointly organized by the Chile Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chile Pacific Foundation in Santiago, Chile, 29 October 2009. The following is an excerp of his speech:

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is so good to be back in Chile once again.  To me, I see Chile as the perpetual bright star in South America.  I have been to Chile on several occasions.  My last visit was to the inauguration of President Michelle Bachelet in 2006.

Today, I am here to share some thoughts with you on international relations in Southeast Asia.  I was asked to go a little bit into history and I shall then get you updated.   I won't give you a text book approach since you can always read the books.  Instead, you will see Southeast Asia through my eyes.


I will begin by looking at relations between Southeast Asian countries themselves.  What did the colonial powers leave us with?  After that, I shall share with you how we have been managing our relations with the outside world.  I will end with some thoughts on Southeast Asia and South America and touch on the potentials for Thai-Chile relations.

First, I am going to make some comparisons for you.  Southeast Asia, has slightly more land and slightly more population than the European Union.  (SEA: area 5,000,000 square kilometers, population 580 million.  EU area 4,325,000 square kilometers, population 499 million).

Southeast Asia is located in a strategic part of the world.  Among other things, we have the Straits of Malacca. When ships go from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, they go through Southeast Asia, they go through the Straits of Malacca.  In fact, the Straits of Malacca are the main shipping channel linking major economies for example, India, China, Japan and the Americas.  Much of world trade, including a quarter of all oil transported by sea, passes through the Malacca Straits.

We do have some pirates there but nothing like Somalia.  They tend to target small fishing boats and have not challenged the shipping lanes.  I have seen effective cooperation between maritime states in Southeast Asia with Japan, the US and Australia.  In 2005, we launched the "Eye in the Sky" initiative in which military officers from many countries petrol the Malacca Straits together by air.

Southeast Asia is also a land of diversity - cultures, wealth, languages, religions, systems of government.  Let me give you some examples.

Even I was surprised to learn that there are 350 indigenous languages spoken in Indonesia alone.  I am lucky that Thailand has only one language, but I do get confused sometimes because we have many dialects. 

When we think about the places of worship, Southeast Asia has multiple religions:  Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.  You name it and we most likely have it.  Recently, I met some Thais who were Mormons and they have brought Bangkok a little closer to Salt Lake City.  By the way, the largest Muslim country in the world is in Southeast Asia.  It is Indonesia.  In fact, Indonesia has more Muslims than Egypt, Syria, Jordan and all the Arab states in the Persian Gulf combined.

When we look at the types of government in Southeast Asia, I will tell you that we have everything.   We have an absolute monarchy.  We have constitutional monarchies. We have republics.  We even have communist countries up until today, at least by name.  It seems to me that the only thing not diverse in SEA is the weather.  It is just hot, very hot, and outrageously hot.

The population of Indonesia is 562 times larger than the population of Brunei.  Singapore's GDP is 150 times that of Myanma's.  In comparison, the GDP of Luxemburg, the wealthiest country in the European Union at its founding, was about 4 times wealthier than Portugal, the poorest.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am a little proud to say this, but I don't know if I should be.  Until after World War II, Thailand was the only sovereign state in Southeast Asia.  Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized.  I was told that we used smart diplomacy to save our independence.  As you know, other parts of SEA had been colonized by Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the US.  By the way, Thailand used to be known as Siam.  It is now over 800 years old, even older than Mongolia.

During colonialism in Southeast Asia, colonial powers discouraged positive interactions between colonies in SEA.  Therefore, when independence came, people in Southeast Asia did not know one another very well. 

I remember when I was growing up in Thailand, I was exposed to either Thai local news and films or news and films from Europe or the United States.  I would hear about a bridge being closed in the US.  I would see the streets of Hollywood. But I did not see or hear much about our neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.   When my friends in Thailand travel internationally, they would go to Europe or America and sometimes Australia and New Zealand.  You know, even today, most of my Thai friends have not visited Thailand's neighboring countries.  So, you can see how hard it is to build a Southeast Asia community today.  But we are determined to do so.


I understand that Chile and Peru are still experiencing border demarcation problems.  Well, we have the same problem in Southeast Asia.  In fact, as we speak, Thailand and Cambodia are still trying to reach agreement on our border delimitation. As you know, colonial powers often enjoyed drawing border lines for their colonies.  Many lines were drawn rather artificially separating natural communities.  I won't go into details here about the border situation between Thailand and Cambodia.  I would be happy to share my thoughts with you on that subject on another occasion. 

Let us take a few steps back to the end of World War II.  Europe was divided right in the middle between the communist world and the free world.  It was the Cold War.  The Cold War also came to Southeast Asia and we felt the cold, even though the weather was hot.  Southeast Asia was also divided right down the middle.  We had Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos under Communism, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines were firmly on the Western side, while Malaysia and Indonesia pursued a non-aligned policy.  Burma which is now called Myanmar was alone as usual.

During that time, the US, Britain and France created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).  The aim was to stop the Communist expansion in Southeast Asia.  You would probably remember the "domino theory".  Interestingly, SEATO only had two Southeast Asian Members, namely Thailand and the Philippines.  At one point, my father was appointed Secretary-General of SEATO.  He wasn't happy because the press told him that SEATO was a tiger with no teeth.

SEATO was supposed to be to Southeast Asia what NATO was to Europe.  But there was a subtle but substantial difference.  For NATO, an armed attack on one country was considered an armed attack on all members and joint military response was envisioned.  For SEATO, an attack on one member only obligated all other members to consult with one another immediately.  You see the difference?

Well, SEATO slowly disappeared.  In 1968, the non-Communist countries in Southeast Asia formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  It is important to note that Asean is a truly home-grown organization created by the non-communist Southeast Asian countries, with no external input or influence. 

Why did we do this?  We knew that unity means strength.  We also needed to create a framework to manage relations with our neighbors in Southeast Asia.  This framework became the beginning of our home-grown regional architecture for international relations.

I would say that we succeeded.  The Asean framework was helpful to member states in the management of their relations.  Here was our initial strategy.  Solve the solvable problems and enhance cooperation.  Shelve the difficult and sensitive problems for future discussion.  Avoid armed conflicts between member states.  I think we got an A- for that.  You see, the professor in me is showing.

In 1979, an armed conflict took place outside of the Asean area in Southeast Asia.  Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia (known then as Kampuchea).  Asean reacted effectively, using multilateral diplomacy at the United Nations.  ASEAN's message to the world was clear. Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Kampuchea was illegal and must be reversed.

Now that the Cold War is over, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam have all joined ASEAN.  With the exception of the newly independent East Timor, all Southeast Asian countries are now members of ASEAN.  There are 11 states in Southeast Asia.  10 are members of ASEAN.

Our challenge was to change the underlying assumption among Southeast Asian nations from zero-sum to positive sum.  We were jealous of one another and we had the assumption that each of us could only benefit at the expense of our neighbors.  We understand now that working together means winning together.

We came up with what we and others have called "the Asean Way."  What does this mean? It means decision by consensus.  It also means respect for member states' sovereignty.  It means adherence to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.

This leads us to a very important debate in international relations today.  Many people are seeing a decline of state sovereignty.  This is, they say, evidenced by the increasing willingness of states to interfere in the affairs of others for human rights protection and for other reasons. This means the willingness to violate and make irrelevant the principle of non-interference - the abandoning of the doctrine of state sovereignty which was enshrined in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.

How did we manage this problem in ASEAN?  What was the Asean way in dealing with this?  Well, I think we found an Asean way.  We upheld member state sovereignty.  We upheld the principle of non-interference.  We just changed our interpretation of it.

Let me give you some examples.  When we started over 40 years ago, we emphasized that domestic issues of member states must not be discussed at the Asean level.  Asean must not interfere.


Now we are saying that member state's domestic issues, with negative regional implications, may be brought up for discussion at the Asean level, without violating the principle of non-interference.  We have done this for the Indonesian wild fires.  We are also doing this with regards to human rights and democracy in Myanmar. 

We are saying that state sovereignty entails the responsibility to ensure that activities within their borders do not harm other states in the community.  We now see the extension of this idea at the United Nations in the form of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, also known as R2P.  This idea could also be extended to the fight against international terrorists.

Two years ago in 2007, at the young age of 40, Asean adopted the Asean Charter. The creation of a comprehensive Asean Community is now within reach.  At the initiative of Thailand and Singapore, Asean member states have agreed to create a, Political, Economic and Socio-cultural Community in Southeast Asia by the year 2015.  However, to be a true community, the people of Southeast Asia must interact more with one another.  They must feel that they identify with one another.  This remains a challenge.  When I was foreign minister, I emphasized the importance of a people centered ASEAN.  This concept is on top of ASEAN's agenda this year.

Now, let's turn to our relations with external powers.  As you know, we are relatively small and weak countries.  Southeast Asia is a strategic part of the world and whether we like it or not, external powers are interested in our region.  We don't want to just follow big powers' agendas like we did with SEATO.  It was important for us to be in control and have a say in the affairs of our region. 

To achieve this goal, we became rather creative in the use of  multidimensional diplomacy.  Our individual bilateral relations with external powers would serve as the foundation.  To supplement that, we created what I would call, a regional architecture, with Asean as a key player.

ASEAN began to engage key external powers by inviting them to individually become ASEAN's Dialogue Partners.  We would then have meetings with them under the Asean Plus One formula.  Countries such as the United States of America, Japan, China, the Republic of Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand are now interacting with us in this way.

In 1993 we felt that we wanted to interact with 3 major powers at the same time.  We set up an Asean Plus Three meeting by inviting China, Japan and the Republic of Korea to attend.  This formula worked well and it became institutionalized. 

Although Southeast Asia has seen relative peace compared to many other parts of the world, we nevertheless felt that we needed a forum for us to engage with key countries on political and security issues.  Thus, in 1994, we created and hosted the Asean Regional Forum (ARF). This is part of our preventive diplomacy. 

The ARF now has 27 members, including the US, the European Union, Russia, China, India, Japan as well as both North and South Korea.  It is indeed the only regional forum where both North and South Korea are members. When the Six Party Talks on the Korean Peninsula cannot convene, the ARF could serve as a venue to talk to North Korea.

The ARF's goal is to build confidence among participants and then when appropriate, engage in preventive diplomacy. 

In 2005, we started the East Asia Summit (EAS).  Members are Asean countries, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.  Unlike other conferences, the EAS uses the top down approach where heads of state and heads of government would meet without preparatory meetings at lower levels beforehand. 

Last Friday in Washington, DC, Professor Amitav Acharya at the American University noted that Asean was the only organization in the world where weaker countries would host and set agenda's for more powerful countries to follow.  I agree.  This is indeed unique.  And we were able to achieve this through the creative construction of the Asean regional architecture or Asean regional groupings to engage external powers.  Please note that these different groupings have different compositions.  For example, the US is in the Asean Plus One formula and the ARF, but not in the Asean Plus 3 or the EAS.  The Asean Plus conferences and the EAS are at the summit level, but the ARF is at the ministerial level. 

ASEAN is the only thing that all these groupings have in common.  All meetings are hosted and initiated by ASEAN.  Participants are selected by ASEAN.  My colleagues liked to emphasize that Asean must always be in the driver's seat.  I understood what they meant, but I warned them to be careful about insisting on being in the driver's seat.  I mentioned that many drivers, especially in Southeast Asia are, in fact, chauffeurs.  I suggested that we should, instead, focus on ensuring that Asean plays a central role in all the meetings.  We have a consensus on that.  No one insists on being in the driver's seat anymore.

This was how Asean created strength from relative weakness.  Now, let's look at the economic front. Thailand initiated the creation of an Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA).  This agreement was signed in 1991.  This was because we realized that globalization, together with the rise of China and India, would make it hard for 10 smaller individual markets in Southeast Asia to compete in the world.  AFTA created an Asean market place of over half a billion in population.  As I mentioned earlier, this is larger than the European Union.  AFTA increased exports between Thailand and other Asean members dramatically and Foreign Direct Investment poured into Southeast Asia.

Kevin Brown noted in his 22 October 2009 article in the Financial Times that with a combined GDP last year of $1,500 billion, ASEAN's economy was bigger than India's.  "If Asean were a single country, it would have the world's fifth largest trade flows after the US, Germany, China and Japan."

Keeping this in mind, when I was Thailand's Trade Representative back in 2001, I looked for trading partners in South America.  I came to Chile and I met with President Lagos.  We discussed the possibility of negotiating a free trade agreement between Chile and Thailand.  I also went to Peru.  I am pleased to report that Peru and Thailand has finished over 90 % of our free trade negotiations.  I hope that more can be done between Chile and Thailand.  There are tremendous opportunities for mutual gains if only we would recognize them and work together for rapid achievement. 

The distance between Thailand and Chile is similar to the distance between Thailand and the United States of America.  However, there are direct flights between Thailand and the US.  That makes a big difference.  We need to work together and see how we can cut travel time, travel cost and travel distance between Latin America and Southeast Asia.  Above all, we need to ensure that our business communities are even more aware of the great opportunity for Chile and Thailand, for South America and Southeast Asia to work together and to win together under globalization.

I call on my Chilean friends to look west and discover The East.  Interact with Southeast Asia more.  Trade and invest in Southeast Asia more.  Come and enjoy our larger markets by making good use of our regional and global free trade agreements.

The organization of this seminar at this time is therefore very appropriate. 

Thank you very much.

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