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Asean at a crossroads

As the present world order weakens, the mega confrontations have appeared more likely: On its post-Soviet revival quest, Russia has become increasingly assertive in the Euro-Mediterranean theater and beyond. Sino-American relations have been increasingly adversarial, with escalating frictions over trade, advanced technology, human rights, and global strategic influence.

Currently, both sides, as president of the United States Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass stated, “are developing scenarios for a possible war.” The two countries’ rhetoric has grown so hostile that its speed and severity is unprecedented in the post-World War II period, and rather belongs to the forgotten vocabulary of the 1910s and 1930s.

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Strategic decoupling between the biggest manufacturer of American goods, China, and its largest consumer, the United States, seems inevitable. It also appears increasingly irreversible, no matter if the change of leaders in Beijing or in Washington may or may not happen beyond 2020. This will, of course, trigger a global realignment and new fragilities on default lines on land and seas, in skies, cyberspace, and even near outer space.

It was expected that by the end of the 2020s, Asian economies would be larger than the rest of the world’s economies combined. Of course, that was only a prediction made before COVID-19 and the sudden Sino-American rift.

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Past the demise of global communism, many in Asia enjoyed for decades the best of both worlds: cheap products from China and military protection (or at least an implicit security guarantee) from the United States, nearly for free. This especially goes for Southeast Asia, large sways of South Asia, and the Far East.

The imposed realignment will hit them particularly hard — from a prosperous meeting point of goods, cultures, and ideas to being politico-military default lines. This painful readjustment may last for decades to come. Opting for either side will not only impact economy, trade, and security, but will also determine the health of populations and societal models, too.

Unprepared and unwilling for “either-or,” Asia missed to build what I have called for, for over a decade—a comprehensive cross-continental security setting (the pan-Asian Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).

The United States—after its initial hangover—is undergoing a painful adjustment: There is a growing consensus among all stakeholders in Washington that the strategic engagement with Beijing is a failed policy—something that obviously did not preserve US interests. China is not a dangerous (trade) rival, it is a foe.

All this will now seek binary acclamation all over the rest of Asia. The time of “you’re either with us or against us” will come, and Asia has no third option readily prepared to offer but only alignment with one or the other—reminiscent of pre-World War I Europe with two rigid blocs.

Beyond the Sino world, the rest of Asia is also dominated by megademographies, brewing social mobilizations, expectations, and migrations, inward-looking regressive political cultures (often lacking world-view perspectives and contributions), insecure nuclear powers, and a history of rather hierarchical international conduct and architecture than of a vibrant, active, multivector foreign policy (bandwagoning instead of multilateralism).

All this necessitates that Southeast Asia should revisit the fundamentals of, and reload, Asean. But even more, to rethink and reinvigorate the best of the Non-Aligned Movement, which saved the world from past irresponsibilities and frictions.

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The case of the European Union—Asean’s twin sister—is indicative: At present, the European Union is destructive in the Middle East and North Africa, dismissive with Russia, neuralgic on Turkey and the post-Yugoslav space, obedient to China, and submissive to the United States. None of this serves Europe’s interest in the long run.

Asean should desirably learn from its twin. Between confrontation and bandwagoning, it is time for true multilateralism.

—The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

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Anis H. Bajrektarević is professor and editor of the New York-based Geopolitics, History and International Relations journal. His eighth book, “No Asian Century,” is scheduled for release in winter 2020-21.

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The Philippine Daily inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 media titles in the region.

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TAGS: Anis H. Bajrektarević, Asean, Asian economies, Commentary
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