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Don’t lose the shirt off our back

WHILE they should not be negative about China, Asean member states should not however surrender their sovereign rights or abdicate from their commitment to greater regional integration in South-East Asia.

Alas, one or two Asean states have completely sold out. Others are measuring cost and benefit of deeper involvement with China, trying to balance and hedge. Another one or two try to show they have options without particularly wanting to antagonise the rising power.

The need to protect what is yours, usually hard-earned, is not just about abstract sovereignty or about the protection of international law, extremely important though they may be. The rule of law is without fail the most significant foundation of human society, domestic or international.

There are nonetheless real interests and rights also involved.

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Asean needs to think again

AFTER the deserved 50th anniversary celebrations, Asean needs to take a long, hard look into the future, and to be ready for it.

The trouble is the future is here. And Asean might just fall short.

In my contribution to the book “Asean FutureForward: Anticipating the Next Fifty Years”, published by the Institute for Strategic and International Studies, I highlighted two developments that threaten to tear up the script on Asean’s future shape.

Leaving aside the definite rise of China which will, planned or otherwise, rewrite and disrupt assumed intra-Asean relationships, I would like in today’s column to draw attention to the other deterministic development – Digitisation.

Now popularly dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Digital Economy is already upon us, while in the Asean narrative its greater economic integration will attract foreign manufacturing investment based on low labour cost in such destinations as Myanmar, Indonesia, even Vietnam.

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China – friend or foe?

THE 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerston is reputed to have said: “There are no permanent friends, and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”

This has become a truism in international relations. China is and will be the same in its conduct of global politics, even if its style and idiom are different from the last over two centuries of Anglo-Saxon diplomatic action and language.

Malaysia, too, should look to secure its interests in its international relations, including of course those with China, with whom the country has become close.

If Malaysia does not do so, any country getting the opportunity – not just China – will take the shirt off our back. This has happened in the past, particularly in the long colonial period under the British.

In the Asean region, the case of Vietnam is a good example of the ebb and flow of relations and interests. After its victory over the Americans in 1975, an ascendant Vietnam was viewed as a threat by the original five Asean member countries, a fear that was magnified by the Vietnamese invasion of what was then called the Democratic Kampuchea on Christmas Day, 1978.

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Asean: Due credit and formidable challenges

FIRST, let us give credit where it is due: 50 years of continued existence in half a century of challenge and change is a feat of achievement. Asean can consider that the cup is half full.

The problem with Asean is that not enough is known about it. And what is known is usually about where it has failed, like its failure to take a common stand or to propose creative cooperation in the South China Sea disputes.

Or its pusillanimity in removing non-tariff barriers (NTBs) which are seriously hindering Asean economic integration and establishment of a single market and production base.

The fact that so many things – the half-full cup – are happening on the ground, is lost. Taking just the Asean Economic Community (AEC), how many Malaysians, for instance, appreciate there are over 1,000 of our companies all over Asean, taking advantage of regional growth against the frustrations of investment laws and domestic bureaucracies?

How many are aware of huge Thai companies like Charoen Pokphand (one of the largest private conglomerates in the world, employing 500,000 people across the globe) with big plans to make Malaysia its halal food hub?

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Singapore predicament, Asean challenge

SINGAPORE is no longer a boring political place which finds its substitute excitement in neighbouring Malaysia or Indonesia. It has plenty of its own now.

However in grappling with it and, no doubt, measuring cost-benefit, one probable consequence could be the strength of its leadership of Asean whose chair the island republic assumes next year.

The “small state should behave like one” debate among Singapore’s foreign policy elite that uncharacteristically broke into the open is as highly significant as its domestic political worries.

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Lessons from tragedy and romance of British politics

FORMER British Prime Minister David Cameron went for the Brexit referendum to strengthen his position in the Conservative party and end the warring among the Tories over the European Union, thinking the Brexiteers would lose.

His complacent and cavalier approach to the referendum in the British system of representative (not direct) democracy, without a robust presentation of the facts, resulted in a campaign driven by passion, emotion, prejudice and lies – and the vote by a whisker a year ago to get out of the EU.

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New heights of China’s rise

ONE of the striking features of the map in China’s Belt and Road initiative is that America is not on it.

This is not necessarily intentional, because the routes that are being revived predated the discovery of the Americas.

Nevertheless, as we look to the future today, we cannot but be struck by how America has gone AWOL, just as China takes more global responsibility – as over the issue of climate change – and makes its presence felt, particularly in South-East Asia.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of the last 30 years is China’s re-engagement with South-East Asia. We know China is Asean’s leading trading partner, coming to US$500bil and looking at US$1 trillion by 2020. Asean, in turn, is China’s third largest trading partner.

While America is by far the largest foreign investor in Asean – exceeding US investment in China, Japan and India put together – it is noteworthy China’s investment in the region has been growing very fast from its low base.

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Circling around the Asean problem

THERE is a Malay saying: Tak kenal maka tak cinta. If you do not know, you cannot love.

So International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed is to be congratulated for taking the lead in establishing the Asean Circle, which was launched yesterday.

Its remit is to raise the level of awareness and knowledge of Asean in Malaysia, and of what it means to the people. A survey in 2015 by the Asean secretariat found 76% of the general public in the region lacked basic knowledge of Asean, its aims and objectives.

That was in the year the Asean community was announced! Clearly this huge void, of just basic knowledge let alone meaning and content, has to be filled. Not just in Malaysia of course, but in other member countries as well.

Asean being Asean, it is up to the other countries to do their own thing. The level of awareness of Asean in Indonesia is extremely low, whereas the newer members from the 1990s – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam – are more enthused.

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Trump-Washington disorder drags world down

IN Washington, the swamp Donald Trump is trying to drain is in tumult. The centres of the established order are fighting back against the elected president with a mandate who is doing what he wants.

On the one hand, there is a system of governance based on the rule of law which accords rights and limits the exercise of power. On the other, a president with a style of rule that transcends and challenges that order.

Whether it is working with the enemy, government by executive order, unrestrained authority in a centralised executive arm, president Trump who is already temperamentally in accord with it feels fully supported by those marginalised and on the periphery who had elected him. He sees it as a battle against the elites. Indeed, he increasingly depicts himself as a victim of the elites, especially the media.

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America vs China: odds narrowing

Leaders meet: A file picture showing Trump welcoming Xi to the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida during the latter’s visit to the US recently. Xi has a growing economy too behind him, whatever the hiccups. Trump only promises one, without any clarity or logic. – AFP

THE contrast could not be greater. While United States president Donald Trump raves and rants – and belts this or that person – China’s president Xi Jinping looks measured and assured as he offers a global future to the world.

Xi is no angel of course, as his political opponents would know, but his system conserves and protects him, as Trump’s would not. If only Trump were the leader in a centrally controlled political order – but even then his temperament would blow it apart.

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Thank God for North Korea!

THE chairman’s statement at the end of the 30th Asean Summit last week was at its clearest on concern over rising tension in the Korean Peninsula. With respect to other parts of the long statement, the world was treated to the usual prevarication on the South China Sea issue and sanguine satisfaction with progress in the Asean community pillars as well as its other integration projects.

Asean leaders, without qualification, identified North Korea’s belligerence and roguish behaviour as having caused the threat to peace, even if they called for restraint to preserve it.

The fact that China has a 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea, which technically obliges Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defence in the event of an attack on North Korean territory, did not deter Asean from insinuating Kim Jong-Un has been asking for it with his antics.

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