Bilahari Kausikan is a retired diplomat who was previously Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) from 2013 to 2018. Prior to this appointment, he was the Permanent Secretary of MFA from 2010 to 2013, and Second Permanent Secretary from 2001.
This is an edited excerpt of his remarks, "Asean's Agency in the Midst of Great Power Competition", given at a Webinar at the 35th Asean Roundtable 2020 organised by the Asean Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute on Oct. 23.
The sub-headers were added by Mothership.sg.
Agency is always present
Let me start with a general -- even philosophical -- point. There is always some agency even in the most seemingly dire of circumstances.
This is demonstrable both historically and theoretically as a characteristic of all human systems whether they encompass your personal affairs or international relations. There is always something to be done.
There is always agency, but, of course, whether we have the wit to recognise it and the agility and courage to use it, are entirely different matters.
Meaningless to criticise Asean for what it is not
Of late, observers have begun to question Asean’s agency, usually for all the wrong reasons. This is not new; it happens periodically and there is a tiresome repetitiveness in many of the criticisms.
I am not claiming that Asean is beyond criticism.
Having agency does not mean you will always use it wisely or correctly. But as I have too often had to point out, it is utterly useless to criticise a cow for being an imperfect horse.
I want to focus on some of what I consider valid criticisms.
First, let me point out that some of us -- and by ‘us’ I mean decision-makers and opinion-shapers in member states -- unfortunately take some of our critics far too seriously, and some of us take those who flatter us far too seriously as well.
In both cases this leads to a degradation of agency: we either think action is pointless or unnecessary.
This is not trivial because a sense of fatalism can be fatal to small states, as fatal as a sense of complacency, and I think we are in some danger of being infected with both.
Asean is not new to great-power competition
Being in the midst of great-power competition is not a novel experience for Asean.
Asean was born in the midst of Cold War major power competition, and on the mainland the Cold War was far from cold.
One of Asean’s fundamental purposes is to maximise the agency of its members in order to preserve national autonomy in the midst of major power competition.
The basic approach is to manage relations between members so as to minimise the opportunity for external powers to take advantage of internal divisions to advance their interests at the expense of our interests.
In short, to enhance regional cohesion in order that we may have the autonomy to pursue our own national interests as we define them and not have them defined for us by external powers.
National interest must take into account regional interest
How it works in practice was neatly captured in an Indonesian slogan that has somehow fallen out of use: national resilience enhances regional resilience, and regional resilience enhances national resilience.
Singapore’s first Foreign Minister, the late S. Rajaratnam, made much the same point at the signing of the Bangkok Declaration when he said that henceforth the regional interest must be some part of the national interest.
It cannot be denied that this sense is weaker in some of the newer members than in the original members.
Speaking about a year after the 2012 debacle in Phnom Penh where Asean for the first time failed to agree a Joint Communique because the then Cambodian Foreign Minister refused any compromise on the South China Sea, Hun Sen said supporting China was “Cambodia’s political choice.”
This betrayed Cambodia’s lack of understanding of how Asean works.
We are an inter-state and not supra-national organization. No member is required to give up its sovereign right to define its national interests as it chooses.
Cambodia’s right to make its own political choices was never at issue. What was at issue was whether Cambodia had in any degree taken the regional interest into account when making that political choice.
Achieving a consensus among all Asean members no mean feat
One of the mistakes Asean made was expansion without adequate socialization of new members.
But that is water under the bridge. It should also not be forgotten that less that a week after the fiasco in Cambodia, thanks to the tireless efforts of Pak Marty, Asean did reach consensus on six principles that still form the fundamental basis of the Asean consensus on the South China Sea.
It is a weak consensus, but nevertheless still a consensus. Reaching any sort of consensus after that highly contentious meeting was no mean achievement as was it maintaining it for eight years.
It was an exercise of agency whose significance should neither be exaggerated nor down-played.
U.S. & China not destined for war
The great power competition that now confronts us is of course, U.S.-China competition. This is less immediately dangerous than the previous U.S.-Soviet competition, but also more complex.
It is less immediately dangerous because while the major powers, China in particular, are not without their proxies in Asean, the devastatingly destructive proxy conflicts of the type that characterised the proxy conflicts in Southeast Asia during the Cold War are today highly improbable.
In fact, as during the Cold War, nuclear deterrence makes war by design between the principals highly improbable.
The so-called Thucydides Trap in which the U.S. and China are ‘destined for war’ is a particularly foolish theory.
Accidents could happen in the South China Sea, but if they do, they will not involve proxies because the likely proxies do not have the capability, and the principals will act quickly to contain the accident.
Taiwan is another matter, but that is beyond the scope of this event.
Asean might have to cut Cambodia & Laos if they make wrong choices
This is not to say that those inclined to act as proxies cannot get into serious trouble.
To state things bluntly, I see Cambodia and Laos teetering precariously on the edge of making a parallel mistake as that which led to very tragic results for their countries in the late 1960s and 1970s.
That mistake is to entrust what agency they have to an external power or trying to be passively neutral.
Neutrality does not mean lying low and hoping for the best.
True neutrality means knowing your own interests, taking positions based on your own interests and not allowing others to define your interests for you by default.
But I don’t think all is lost. Neither may care very much about the South China Sea.
But they must care about control of the Mekong because that is an existential issue to them as it directly affects the livelihood of their own peoples and ultimately regime survival.
We shall see. They have some difficult choices to make. And if they should make wrong choices, they will confront Asean as a whole with difficult choices.
We may have to cut loose the two to save the eight.
That too would be an exercise of agency. If that ever comes to pass, it will be for the future. But it is worth thinking about even if only as a contingency.
We should not dismiss the possibility out of hand.
Inaccurate to say the U.S. & China are in a "new Cold War"
For now, what we need to note is that while less dangerous, U.S.-China competition is far more complex than U.S.-Soviet competition ever was.
This is one of the reasons I think using the metaphor of a ‘new Cold War’ to describe U.S.-China competition is intellectually lazy and dangerously misleading because it distorts the essential nature of that relationship.
This is an error that several Asean members have fallen into, limiting their strategic imagination.
U.S. & China intertwined with each other in same system
The U.S. and the Soviet Union led competing systems and their competition was over whose system would prevail.
The U.S. and China are both vital components of a single system and compete within that system.
Both countries compete while entangled in a web of supply chains of a scope, density and complexity never before seen in the global economy and which certainly did not exist between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
These supply chains distinguish the current type of interdependence from previous periods of interdependence and both conditions the nature of their competition.
This has created a more complex environment for all of us, and complexity of a different sort than during the Cold War when the fundamental choices may have been very difficult but were essentially binary.
Not likely for the U.S. and China to completely decouple
The complex supply-chains within which the U.S. and China compete make their competition far from binary even though both sides would like to force binary choices upon each other and on us.
Some bifurcation in specific domains has already occurred and more will occur as they try to mitigate their vulnerabilities.
But the very complexity of the supply chains especially in the technology domain makes total across-the-board decoupling of the U.S. from China improbable, as improbable as China creating an entirely new alternative system or becoming totally self-reliant.
If these are their goals, both will fail.
We should not be paralysed by complexity. Complexity in fact creates agency.
In any situation complexity broadens the range of choices because the course of events is never entirely predetermined and themselves depend on choices we as well as others make, which in turn further opens out the range of choices. This is what distinguishes the complex from the merely complicated.
I don’t want to exaggerate the point because the choices are never infinite. But they generally do always exist in some degree. At very least, we need not align our interests in the same direction across all domains.
Southeast Asia is multipolar
As a strategic cross-roads, Southeast Asia, indeed the Indo-Pacific as a whole, is a naturally multipolar region.
Multipolarity enhances agency because it maximises manoeuvre space.
Southeast Asia is not and is very unlikely to ever be in a purely bipolar situation.
Not all the poles, will be of equal weight, but they do exist and whether we realise it or not, Asean-created forums like the Asean Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit, and the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus do help promote the natural multipolarity of our region by providing additional supplementary platforms to anchor major powers in our region.
Please note I said additional and supplementary platforms. They are never going to be the sole or main platforms, but they are instruments that we have created and we should think hard about how to better use them for their essential purpose.
That essential purpose is not necessarily problem solving but as anchors.
What we need to think about is how to make them more useful and interesting anchors to our partners.
We have not been very creative in this respect, generally resting on our laurels and just doing more of what we have always done, or retreating into painfully detailed consideration of house-keeping matters, or making speeches at each other and pretending that they are strategic discussions.
We have not optimally used the agency we process. Why is this so?
In a word leadership. I do not claim that any of what I have been describing is going to be easy.
As I pointed out at the beginning, agency depends on having the wit to recognise it, and the agility and courage to use it.
Earlier generations of Asean leaders at all levels faced even more daunting situations and were able to deal with them.
It is not that the present generation of Asean leaders is more dull-witted or timid than their predecessors.
But they now operate within more complex and pluralistic domestic political environments, and this is true even of the one-party systems.
It is harder to get domestic consensus and without domestic consensus, there can be no regional consensus.
I state this not because of nostalgia for Southeast Asia’s non-democratic past, but merely as a reminder that few things are wholly good or wholly bad and that leadership -- and agency -- begins at home.
Top image adapted via East Asia Forum