Mahbubani: ASEAN's Strength Is Its Imperfections

Last update: 13/10/2017

By Manik Mehta

NEW YORK, Oct 13 (Bernama) -- While many have in the past characterized ASEAN's strength as 'unity in diversity', Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Singapore-based Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore, preferred to say that 'ASEAN's strength is its imperfections!'

With a flummoxed Daniel Russel, the former Assistant Secretary of State (Asia/Pacific affairs) in the Obama administration politely staring at him, Mahbubani went on to explain that ASEAN's remarkable success at maintaining peace and stability was due to its 'imperfections' because the countries of Southeast Asian were then constantly in conflict with each other.

This scene was played out at the Asia Society In New York on Wednesday night when Russel, now a diplomat in residence and senior fellow at the Asia Policy Institute, quizzed Mahbubani on America's goodwill reservoir in Southeast Asia.

Mahbubani highlighted the concerns of Asian leaders who feel that U.S. President Donald Trump has so far not seriously reinforced America's commitment to the Asia Pacific region where China is increasingly asserting and even engaging in bellicose conduct in proportion to Washington's waning interest.

Mahbubani, who was Singapore's two-term permanent representative to the United Nations and had diplomatic postings in Malaysia, Cambodia, and Washington DC, was introduced to the audience as ?one of the leading thinkers not only of Asia but also the world? by Josette Sheeran, President and CEO of Asia Society.

"America has the opportunity to preserve the reservoir of goodwill in Southeast Asia," he exclaimed, adding that the past 30 years had been the best 30 years of humanity (for ASEAN), reflected in developments such as better healthcare, reduction of poverty and growth of the middle class.

The ASEAN of today was, once, condemned to failure when it started out 50 years ago, given the conflicts, dichotomy and suspicions between the individual member states at that time.

"But ASEAN succeeded because it is imperfect," he noted.

ASEAN was an ?American creation? - a pro-American group - in the backdrop of the Cold War,? he said, observing that the US-ASEAN cooperation worked very well.

But, he said, America has been inconsistent in its dealings with ASEAN.

He urged America to develop a 'deep internal consensus and treat ASEAN as an asset'.

However, he cautioned that America's presence should not be manifested just by the presence of the 7th Fleet and there was need to increase America's economic, social and cultural presence also.

He cited the case of the American education system which was coveted by ASEAN students.

The fallout from U.S.-China rivalry in the region would, invariably, be negative for ASEAN; he recalled that China's trade with the ASEAN had soared from some $8 billion in the 1980s to now $400 billion, with some even suggesting it would further surge to $1 trillion.

"ASEAN wants the U.S. as an alternative to China. The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) was supposed to strengthen U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific."

"After the U.S. withdrawal, China stands to benefit from the U.S. withdrawal. My advice to the U.S. is that China's influence is rising and Washington should be aware of that," he said.

Although the U.S. had walked away from the TPP, the remaining 11 members would pursue the TPP and could leave the door open for the U.S. to come back.

"The U.S. is important to every Southeast Asian country," he maintained.

Mahbubani also spoke of the need to financially strengthen the ASEAN Secretariat.

"The European Union Secretariat's funding, by comparison, is 8,000 times larger than that of the ASEAN Secretariat," he claimed.

ASEAN had immensely benefitted its member countries. Malaysia, for example, had made huge strides in eliminating poverty to near zero level, besides making great progress in healthcare, economic development, etc.

Vietnam was also expected to drastically reduce its poverty level since joining the ASEAN while Indonesia's growth was faster than that of Brazil.

Mahbubani, who also signed copies of his latest book, The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, at the Asia Society, stunned the audience when he spoke of 'strong rumours' about President Trump's visiting only South Korea and Japan in November, and not Vietnam and the Philippines where the East Asia Summit and the APEC summit would be held respectively.

"That would be a mistake, because it is important for an American President to turn (up) in ASEAN capitals. So, if he comes, he will be hugely appreciated ? I know symbolism does not matter too much in American eyes, but in Asian eyes symbolism matters a lot," Mahbubani said.

"So, I would say that if President Trump turns up at Vietnam and in the Philippines, it would be very important for us in terms of signaling and maintaining an American presence."