Book Review

Mahbubani K., J. Sng, (2017) The ASEAN Miracle. A Catalyst for Peace, Singapore: NUS Press.

In 1993, The World Bank entitled its annual Development Report ‘The Asian Miracle’, with the original intention to acknowledge the specific economic path of countries like Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Now Kishore Mahbubani – an eminent scholar and diplomat from Singapore, author of the global bestseller The New Asian Emisphere – and Jeffrey Sng have written a book on the ‘ASEAN miracle’, meaning the success story of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations. Established in 1967 with a clear anti-communist agenda by five states (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and The Philippines), after 50 years the Association is still with us with ten members, becoming – according to the authors – ‘the second most-successful regional organisation in the world’ after the European Union (EU). Is that true? Where is the evidence? What are the changes that ASEAN has to implement if it wants to adapt to the new challenges of the 21st century and celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2067?

In general, Western commentators and scholars have tended to define ASEAN as a useless or unfulfilled project of regional integration. On the one hand, ASEAN has been dismissed by realists as a mere ‘talking shop’ among national leaders, without any serious impact on countries’ own destinies. On the other hand, in the eyes of functionalists ASEAN has never lived up to its potential to unite Southeast Asia in a single supranational entity, comparable to the EU. The problem is – and this represents the core argument of the book – that ASEAN was never meant to become another EU, but by using the EU as a benchmark many commentators were blind to the significant achievements that ASEAN has obtained, probably against all odds: ‘What makes ASEAN truly remarkable is not just that it was born in unpromising times and nurtured on unpromising soil. If ASEAN had been a human baby, it might have not reached full term. Instead, the precarious baby became a world star’ (p. 6).

Indeed, Mahbubani and Sng show how lessons can be drawn from the ASEAN experience. Start with history: thanks to its geographical – mostly maritime – comparative advantage, Southeast Asia has been at the crossroads of the world (and of civilizations) for over 2,000 years. Four major cultural waves have hit the shores of the region – namely, Indian, Chinese, Muslim and Western. Three of them travelled peacefully across Southeast Asia, and the authors – as they were removing a pebble from their shoes – underline how it was only the fourth one that arrived ‘on a tide of violence’ (p. 12). It is remarkable then that in such a complex cultural landscape, on which colonialism has impressed a lot of scars, ASEAN has become an ‘ecosystem of peace’: contrary to many doomsday’s voices, Southeast Asia has never been ‘Balkanised’, nor it has seen the disruption of state structures due to sectarian violence like in the Middle East. Furthermore, ASEAN has taken profit of the favourable geopolitical situation – mainly, the U.S.-China rapprochement in the 1980s – to position itself at the center of all multilateral institutions in East Asia ‘civilizing’ the giant (close and far-away) neighbours, to the point that ‘all the great powers, including America, China, India, Japan and the EU, have a stake in keeping ASEAN together’ (p. 13).

Thanks to its economic ‘miracle’, ASEAN is now bound to overcome the growing pessimism in the West about the future, because, building on permanent consultation and consensus, ASEAN members have thrived, while at the same time tolerating each other’s differences: for Mahbubani and Sng ASEAN is really a ‘microcosm of our global conditions’ (p. 1). They argue that the regional bloc’s strength now and in the future is precisely to have learnt how to manage diversity – a skill to be appreciated in a world fast becoming multi-civilisational. For all these reasons, the authors suggest that ASEAN should – like the EU once – be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The ASEAN Miracle does not skip dealing with ASEAN’s weaknesses and shortcomings. First, the ‘absence of a natural custodian’ (p. 184), i.e. the role played in Europe by France and Germany: Indonesia could be the most likely candidate, but the Indonesian establishment is not unanimously convinced that Jakarta should lead ASEAN. Second, the absence of strong institutions: there is no enforcement mechanism for decisions, ‘no monitoring of compliance, and no sanctions’ (p. 188). Third, the budget of the association is quite limited. As this were not enough, the book lists a series of threats, like the rapidly deteriorating geopolitical context, where U.S.-China relations have deteriorated, shrinking the room to manoeuvre of the ASEAN member states, and the strong domestic focus of their leaders.

And yet the reader is convinced that a region – and the world – without ASEAN would fare much worse. The two authors have been in fact Singaporean diplomats, and they often know what really went on behind the scenes – apparently, in a few cases like in the aftermath of the ‘Cyclone Nargis’ in Myanmar and in the 2008 temple dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, ASEAN leaders managed to avert major crises.

However, the book does also remind ASEAN that it cannot stand still if the organisation wants to survive. A project always owned by the government elite should now create a sense of ownership also among the people. Even though it cannot become ‘the East Asia’s EU’, it should turn in a proper institution, starting from a bigger empowerment of the ASEAN Secretariat through an increase in pro-quota budget contributions. And finally, it should be promoted as ‘a beacon for humanity.’ Well-balanced, informed and thought-provoking, The ASEAN Miracle is also a subtle and fascinating (self-promoting) critique of Western perspectives in Southeast Asian. Will the future be ASEAN? Nobody really knows, but if the search of the future global order in Asia and beyond needs any guide, this is one of the best books to start from.

 

 

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