American foreign policymakers are turning the tide against the notion of multilateralism, pushing instead for a unilateral world where “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) will be more meaningful.
In the path to MAGA, the rules of globalisation are getting torn apart, a heavy dose of protectionism is in place in the United States and everyone else is seen as a potential enemy trying to dislodge America from its number one position.
One of the tools used by the US, besides tariffs, is the breaking-up of everything that was built on the basis of multilateral cooperation.
From the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Asian Pivot (American military and diplomatic rebalance toward Asia), all went down the drain.
Not to forget also the attacks on the World Trade Organisation which is a tool devised to make globalisation look great!
The White House also expressed its disbelief at the “Brexit” deal reached between British Prime Minister Teresa May with the European Union.
US President Donald Trump said it sounded like a “great deal for the EU” that would stop the UK trading with the US.
Under the deal, the UK will not be able to pursue an independent trade policy during the 21-month transition period after Brexit.
However, the whole idea that pushed Brexit in the forefront of British and European politics was the freeing of the UK from EU’s economic bondage.
And as intended by Mr Trump, the unilateral approach is taking a toll on the rest of the world. But the question for us here is whether Asean will lose its relevance in this game-changing scenario?
One thing is for sure. Now more than ever, Asean has to battle harder to keep its centrality and to foster greater unity among its members.
Even more pertinent is whether with the global policy shift coming from Washington, multilateral groupings like Asean will be forced to rethink their existence and current roles.
On top of that, Asean has a serious dilemma in its hands, with a noose tightening around it in the form of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI is proving to be a game-changer for some Southeast Asian nations, but it does not always augur well for Asean as a multilateral grouping.
The controversial BRI – in taters following policy shifts from Malaysia and the Maldives and turmoil in Sri Lanka – gives the impression it is promoting a stronger China on the back of a weaker Asean.
The BRI has already shown its divisionary nature – pulling Cambodia and Myanmar closer to China – but it is the impact of Beijing’s capture of the South China Sea (SCS) that has divided Asean further.
With China’s BRI, the construction of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in the SCS takes precedence.
It is good also to note that the SCS conflict is the direct result of China’s rise as a global economic powerhouse.
So far, Asean has failed to protect the interest of its member states amid the awakening of the dormant giant, while it is totally lost in Beijing’s rollout of the BRI.
Both have a positive and negative effect on the region. Among the negatives is the effective weakening of Asean with the division planted by China on the SCS issue in particular.
Asean has also shown a lack of vision in the sudden American turn against multilateralism.
The American pull-out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership left the region stranded in the face of a stronger China breathing over its neck.
With all this happening, it appears it might be harder for Asean to transit into this unilateral world.
As a result, Asean is seeing its member countries taking more liberty in their actions to pursue their own unilateral designs.
Some Asean member states have shown they can carve their own deals away from Asean even though this might create division inside the grouping.
Asean is also vulnerable to China’s desire to ignore the grouping in its handling of geopolitical matters, such as the SCS conflict.
Beijing is dealing on an individual basis with Asean member states, a policy that is aiding it in its conquest of the hotly contested seas.
For example, the Philippines has taken steps to break-away from Asean in the SCS conflict. It deflected the threats of ‘aggression’ from China through a unilateral deal with Beijing.
The one-on-one approach – preferred and promoted by China versus an Asean-wide deal on the SCS – helped Manila ease the growing tension with the red army in the seas.
The recent visit of President Xi Jinping to Manila got German publication Deutsche Welle to ask whether Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ‘surrendered’ to Beijing on the SCS.
But did the Philippines have a better choice, alone in the face of potential wraith form Beijing, while Asean could not act as a united force on the SCS despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling?
Mr Xi signed 29 bilateral deals with the Philippines on this landmark visit, one that was not thought possible after the said PCA ruling.
Ironically enough, it was the Philippines – under Benigno Aquino – that pushed for the International Court case against China. Manila won, but it was not a victory that would assure unity among the Asean nations.
It was the victory against China that brought the Philippines closer to the aggressor in a strange reversal of fortunes for Asean in the SCS conflict.
This alone exposed Asean’s weaknesses and questions its relevance today in a world increasingly on the verge of unilateralism.
Where will Asean end up in this disruptive situation, created by the United States in the first place when it killed the Asian Pivot promoted by President Barack Obama?
One of the fundamental principles of Asean is the right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion, or coercion, thus free from any overbearing presence of the Southeast Asian entity.
This has been part of the backbone that gave the organisation the allure that attracted the 10 member states.
But while one would think this principle could salvage Asean in a unilateral environment, it might turn out to be the weak link instead.
Asean is nothing like the EU. It remains a loose organisation that is used by its member states to further their own national gains while they are free to make it or break outside its framework.
Hence it begs the question: How long will Asean remain relevant to its members when they can strike better deals outside its realm at a time when the organisation is believed to be in a weak spot?