The 10 Asean countries, with a population of more than 650 million people, are becoming one of the world’s most important political and geographical alliances. In the new era Asean has been steadily rising and valued in equal partnership with all major powers, including the United States, China and Russia.
Some world powers have tried to influence over some Asean member states to challenge political power and interests against one another. Those world powers are more cautious than ever when it comes to economic resources, utilisation and cooperation.
We need to acknowledge that although Asean is one, it currently does not have an overall state model. But Asean has a common spirit. All nations in Asean commit not to depend on any one power. It commits not to allow any major world power to colonise the countries as in the past 60 years when many countries in Asean experienced bitterness under foreign colonisation. Now, each country is striving to avoid the return of colonialism.
Similarly, Asean has a clear common interest in economic prosperity. Simply speaking, in the new era, Asean is smart enough on how to get money from world powers to build up their nations. Previously, colonisers collected resources from Asean nations to build their countries. Now it is time for Asean to take back the money from the superpowers to rebuild their nations.
What is the spirit of the Asean way in taking advantage of the superpowers? Regarding the forms of governance, each country in the bloc is not following the same style. Singapore adopts the republican rule, “rule by discipline and by laws”. Thailand, a royalist country that has experienced coups many times, is currently under a junta rule. Vietnam is using the same governance form as Laos, which is a one-party state. Myanmar is in the midst of a human rights issues and partly ruled by the military. The Philippines, under the leadership of Rodrigo Duterte, uses heavy handed suppression of drug trafficking and destroying of Islamic terrorism at the cost of international criticism.
For Asean, the priority is economic prosperity. Despite the fact that some countries follow a republican regime, a socialist regime or a monarchy regime, each adopts the same “free-market economy” towards achieving economic development. So, what does Asean want? It wants to grow economically and socially, rather than emphasising politics and ideology.
There are two ways that the superpowers assert their influence on the Asean countries – through financial aid and ideology. In reality, ideology is no longer effective or receptive for the locals while practical development aid is far more influential. We must say that the US continues to use ideology to demand, place blame and discriminate while the Chinese authorities focus on effective practical assistance. In other words, where the Americans talk supposed wisdoms to assert influence, China donates the real money and equipment with less talk and more respect.
For Asean, it is a consensus that ideology always weakens national integrity. It is a fact that when ideology is alive and thriving, the nation is dead and regressing. On the other hand, if the economy grows, the nation is alive and the people’s freedom improves drastically.
Cambodians have also shown their strengths on this point by jointly destroying foreign ideological agents who are not concerned with growth. They also spread new opportunities for colonialism to re-enter Cambodia. But Cambodia has decided to choose economic stability and development in all sectors.
Asean is very smart now based on more recent practices. Although widely speaking ill about the US administration and challenging China, Mr Duterte made US President Donald Trump feel warm and could take the financial backing of China to build his country.
Vietnam, despite the bitter past with the US and being called a communist country, can attract investment, military aid and other assistance from the US. Cambodia which is liberal democratic can certainly be a good friend of the US.
An oft-cited proverb politics and diplomacy say: “There is no eternal friend nor enemy.” Cooperation that respects each other and benefits the players equally is ideal. In this new era, Asean is truly gentle with the superpowers, but none of the Asean countries bowed to the new colonial powers in all its forms.
Asean’s predominant political line in the new era is economic growth. National economy is the first, above and beyond anything else. Thailand is willing to suspend democracy in order to stabilise and further develop the country. This is not different from the US in the current administration of Donald Trump which utilises the American First policy.
Similarly, Cambodian people are wise to negotiate at a bilateral or multilateral level at private or state meetings to attract investment and obtain financial aids to help the nation’s development work.
A banker says: “Only a person with good record could be loaned the money. If you are not, you can’t.”
National interests are always at the front. Economic interest must be a higher priority than politics. Cambodia’s economy is certainly in good condition, thanks to the growth of more than seven percent in the last two decades.
Thus, under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia has Asean values and stands equally with other countries in the region and the world. This is the so-called “Asean value”: independence in both political and national interests.
Dr Eng Kok-Thay is President of the Cambodia Center for Peace and Development