A new paradigm shift in Asean

opinion December 05, 2011 00:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

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Normalisation of US-Burma relations will further strengthen the Asean-centric perspective and bargaining power, especially in the context of overall Asean-China relations.

However, it is not so much about what the US is trying to do in relations to China but rather the impacts of US diplomatic assertiveness on the future diplomacy of Asean towards major powers near and far. As Burma is becoming a normal Asean member – lest we forget after 14 years of admission – fully recognized by its own peers and abroad, the grouping must ponder further how the newly acquired solidarity will impact on its internal and external dynamics. Strange as it may seem, if the reform efforts continue and intensify unimpeded coupling with the peace process with the minorities, Burma could easily become a vital Asean member which can wake and shake up Asean. A new paradigm shift is at work.

While the Western sanctions will take time to dismantle depending on the progress of reforms inside Burma, President Thein Sein will move fast to further consolidate his power base and integrate his country with Asean. Knowing full well that the next three years will be crucial to make a great leap forward into regional and global stage, the president will use the reform platform as the main vehicle. In the chairman’s statement at the Bali summit, the Asean leaders just expressed “support” of the Burmese chair, not fully endorse as widely reported. If there are undemocratic actions or roll-back in the future, Asean would not stay idle by. Therefore, until Naypyidaw hosts the Asean summit in 2014 – with at least additional 12 summits on the sideline, Burma would need to more to firmly embed in the region.
With the full collaboration from the opposition party leader, Dawn Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s international position has been greatly enhanced. President Barack Obama’s telephone call to her from Bali during the Asean summit about the US State Secretary Hilary Clinton’s trip to Burma was a tipping point. It simply showed the person the US trusts and wants to work with. Indeed, Burma’s dramatic democratic transition with Suu Kyi emerging as the main driving force reminisced of the charismatic South African statesman Nelson Mandela accomplished after his release in 1990. In a brief period, he was able to mobilize the global goodwill in transforming his country into a fully democratized and respectful member of the world without the past dreadful apartheid policy. With or without an official position, Suu Kyi is the most recognized name in among the Asean leaders. Her influence goes beyond Burma.
Better access and improved ties with the US and EU, Burma’s voice and position within Asean and beyond would be stronger. For better or for worse, at the moment Burma has a better story to tell, not to mention its vast reserves of natural, mineral and energy resources which would attract foreign investors. Consultations between Burma and Asean will intensify in days and weeks to come on all issues. On the surface, all eyes would be zeroed in on Burma as China’s influence is by far the greatest among the Asean members that share the land border with the middle kingdom. It was not surprising why Clinton immediately invited Burma to take part in the Lower Mekong Initiative, which enables US to fully cooperate and gain direct access to Mekong River with all lower riparian countries. As such, they are now considered the frontline states – a bulwark of sort – to check Beijing’s southward spread from its backyard (hou men). Cambodia, Burma and Laos would be the Asean chair in 2012, 2014 and 2016 respectively.
Before the current transformation, Burma’s views and positions on China were considered an anathema in Asean and dialogue partners in the past two decades. However, the much heralded decision to temporarily halt the construction of US$3.6 billion Myitsone Dam by the Thein Sein administration was timed. It also demonstrated how an Asean member with a heavy-dependency on China could still say no. It mutely serves as a catalyst for other Asean countries with similar dilemma to seriously think of this option. Apart from Vietnam and the Philippines, the two most vocal claimants of the South China Sea disputes, no other Asean country has ever come close at poking at China’s face so blatantly than the recent Myitsone Dam’s decision. If this trend continues, it eventually could encourage Asean to form a more united front vis-à-vis China which would redefine the Asean-China relations as the grouping did in March 1995 when Asean issued the first joint statement deploring Beijing’s actions at the Mischief Reefs. If Burma plays its card right, it can turn around its role – from a divider to a unifier.   
For the time being China’s position has been neutralized somewhat at least diplomatically, the Asean and dialogue countries can start anew to shape the future policies aim at reducing Burma’s reliance on China. This unique opportunity would require a high-level of political will of major international players. The experience of and great benefit derived from the post-Nargis cyclone was not lost on the Burmese leaders, who wisely used Asean and international organizations to provide much-need humanitarian aid to circumvent foreign meddling albeit its own failure to do so. Burma has miraculously turned the threats of foreign humanitarian interventions into nearly US$200 million worth of rehabilitation and recovery packages. But the benefits went beyond the cyclone victims. The military regime’s confidence was further boost with increased cooperation with Asean, international organizations and donors – a prelude to the present day unfolding reforms.
Deep down, the internal dynamic of Asean is what matters the most. The future Asean coordinators with dialogue countries and chairs in the next few years will make or break the grouping’s ties with major powers. Burma, as the incoming Asean coordinator of Asean-US relations for the next three years (2012-15), would inevitably shape these future ties. In fact, the swiftness of US-Burma normalization gives insights to the future of Asean-US relations under Burma’s tutelage, beginning next July. In the past three years, the Philippines successfully attracted the US active engagement in the region and obtained stronger commitment of the issues related to South China Sea Conflict. So was Vietnam, as the country coordinator of Asean-China relations (2009-2012) and the Asean chair in 2010. Hanoi meticulously crafted the year-long agenda to enable the US to maximize its concerns over the freedom and safety of navigation in South China Sea much to China’s anger that has led to strengthening of maritime security cooperation between the US and Asean.   
Coincidentally, Thailand will also take up the country coordinator of Asean-China ties (2012-2015) after Vietnam, beginning next July. Obviously, it will be a different ballgame. How Thailand will play itself out as the Asean coordinator with China of which it has close multi-dimensional relations and the US which is its key military ally remain to be seen.  Whatever Bangkok does in the name of Asean or its own behalf will have far-reaching repercussions on Asean and regional security landscapes. At the Bali summit, for instance, Vice Foreign Minister Jullapong Nonsrichai lashed out at the Philippines for pressuring Thailand to accept the draft of fourth Asean-US joint declaration specifically mentioning the maritime security cooperation. Fortunately, the event took place at a corridor outside the formal session. Earlier in Bangkok ahead of the summit, the Foreign Ministry was approached by the Chinese Embassy to help convince other Asean countries to delete the sensitive cooperation. Thailand eventually gave in as the rest of Asean did not budge.
If and when a democratic Burma can fully integrate in Asean, it will open up the grouping further and could tip the democratic scale. The past three months saw the unprecedented changes inside Burma that would put some of Asean members to shame. For instance, Nayphydaw has recently established National Commission for Human Rights, joining Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Its labor law, as it stands today, is far liberal than many of Asean countries with the rights to call on strike. Of course, the jury is still out concerning mechanisms to protect human rights. Before the current transformation in Burma, Cambodia was considered the game changer in Asean because it was the freest among the new members admitted. Burma will be the Asean chair when there will be a review of Asean human right mechanism.
The new paradigm shift in Asean will be tested during the upcoming Cambodian chair, which has already started informally at the end of Bali summit. Under the region’s longest reigning leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen is keen to be the center of these major powers’ competition.