INTERVIEW | National

‘SAARC can learn from ASEAN’: Kishore Mahbubani

One of Singapore’s best known diplomats and now an academic, Kishore Mahbubani’s latest book The ASEAN miracle advocates a Nobel peace prize for the regional grouping. Ahead of the ASEAN-India 25th year commemorative summit to be held this week, with all 10 leaders of the Association as chief guests at Republic Day, Professor Mahbubani says SAARC has much to learn from ASEAN’s success.

You have called ASEAN a miracle and even recommended the Nobel peace prize for the grouping. Why?

The key point is that regional organisations are designed to fail. Because you are getting together a group of neighbouring countries, so it’s not a grouping of choice, but an accident of geography.

Most neighbours have a long history of feuds and problems, so they have to overcome the challenges of history to come together, and hence don’t do well. Except for maybe the European Union and ASEAN, and for the EU it took two major world wars before they decided to stop fighting.

ASEAN has achieved the same level of peace and prosperity without going to war, as the Europeans did. At the same time there is no other region on Planet Earth that is so diverse. You have 600 million people, of which 214 million are Muslim, 110 million are Christian, 150 million are Buddhist…even within the Buddhists you have Mahayana and Hinayana sects, then you have Taoists, Confucionists, Hindus, Communists, there is such amazing diversity.

When it was born in 1967, South East Asia was by far the most troubled place on earth. There were more bombs dropped in Indo-China (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) than all of Europe in World War II. And we overcame all that and created a community that is today so peaceful.

If you could achieve this level of prosperity in South Asia, with India and Pakistan’s problems, or in the Middle East with the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry, people would say, what a miracle, you should get a Nobel Peace Prize. ASEAN has achieved that.

Isn’t ASEAN divided too today, amidst pro-US and pro-China camps?

Look, ASEAN countries have diverse views on many things. Take for example, the Israel-Palestine issue. Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, but Singapore has a very close relationship with Israel. Between U.S. and China, I would say there is a spectrum of views. Some like Cambodia maybe more pro-China, Vietnam is more pro-America. But at the same time Vietnam’s number one trading partner is China. In 1979, the border between China and Vietnam had one million soldiers on each side confronting each other. Today, they are gone. So all ASEAN countries have different positions on US and China, but they make efforts for good relations with both.

You’ve famously said that ASEAN was started because of a 4-letter word: Fear, meaning fear of Communist China overrunning them in the 1960s and 1970s. Does that fear still guide them?

The fears that we had in the 1960s was because of the spread of communism, and if you remember Russia and China were together. China referred to the creation of ASEAN as a neo-imperialist plot. Things only turned around after the US-China Nixon détente, and then China normalised relations with all ASEAN countries. Today it is not so much the fear of China, but the fear that the US-China geopolitical rivalry will divide ASEAN.

You write that the US’s choices with China in the Indo-pacific are to “pivot, poison or to make peace”. What does that mean?

Well, I believe the biggest mistake the U.S. could do is mount some kind of containment policy of China. All China’s neighbours would be uncomfortable to join the US in this, and even Japan would be very cautious. They want to balance and hedge against China, but not contain China. The US also gives mixed signals: on the economic front they have good relations, but on the military front, the US navy undertakes fairly aggressive patrolling close to China’s shores. If America continues this, the Chinese navy may begin aggressive patrolling along California’s shores. Instead, given new surveillance technology, they should create a new conduct code for patrolling.

To turn to the ASEAN-India relationship. You were a key diplomat when India was inducted as a dialogue partner 25 years ago, and Singapore is given credit for that. All these years later, do you think the promise of the relationship is being realised?

First, I would say it was then-PM Goh Chok Tong who pulled off the Indian induction, and I’ve written in the book about how the decision was taken to make India a dialogue partner, despite pressure not to unless Pakistan was included too. However, I do think the ASEAN-India partnership has not done as well as the other dialogue partnerships with US, [South] Korea, Japan, and Australia.

What would you advise the ASEAN 10 and Indian leaders when they meet this week for their commemorative summit- what should they commit to doing right away?

The ASEAN-India relationship is not just 25 years, it’s a few thousand years old, and it is important that the leaders draw from the deep well of history to build ties. Nine out of the ten ASEAN countries, all except Vietnam, have an Indian cultural base. Even when the Philippines, a 90% Catholic country hosted the East Asian summit in November last year, it opened with a Ramayana performance. Most Indians are so ignorant and unaware of these links however. The second thing to push for is more flights between ASEAN and Indian countries, to facilitate people to people exchanges.

How important is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to improving ASEAN-India trade ties, especially given the Indian government’s misgivings on the free trade agreement?

Well an American diplomat said publicly last week that the US knew RCEP could not be concluded within a year because they know how tough Indian trade negotiators are. I think India now needs to make a careful calculation. It will have to pay a short-term economic price for joining RCEP, but at the same time, if RCEP were formed without India, then the Indo-Pacific idea would be dead. Because if this entire region including Japan, China, S.Korea, Australia and ASEAN come together and form a thriving economic group but India is not a part of it, then what will the Indo-Pacific mean? Indo-Pacific can only succeed as a concept if India trades as much with the East Asian region as the East Asian region trades with itself. The purpose of RCEP is to draw India closer to East Asia. India may need to negotiate bilateral exemptions with China in order to join RCEP, but with ASEAN you must push for more trade.

Is there a danger of India being left out of RCEP? The government’s stand is not just about access to Chinese goods, but also about ASEAN reluctance on Indian services.

At some point, if India becomes the one country delaying an agreement on RCEP, then yes. ASEAN countries work on the “minus-X” principle. For example, when ASEAN was formed, Cambodia, Laos were not ready, so we said, we will go on first, and you can join later. There is a desire for the other countries to go ahead with RCEP, as there is a need for integration within the region, and they may just tell India they are going ahead.

The Indo-Pacific concept you referred to received a boost from the revived “Quad” meeting between India-US-Australia-Japan last year. How do you see the Quad?

I think you have to separate the Indo-Pacific idea from the Quad, as they are not necessarily the same. Indo-Pacific includes the region from the US to India including South East Asia and China. Whereas the Quad is confined to four countries on the periphery. It is an unusual marriage, a marriage of convenience for now.

A year into the Trump presidency, what is its impact on Asia?

There were huge concerns when President Trump took over, as he had threatened to declare China a currency manipulator, he said he would make Japan and South Korea defend themselves, and had a heated exchange with the Australian PM. So both competitors and US allies were worried. But then we discovered his bark is worse than his bite. In terms of policies Trump has been remarkably consistent, even on North Korea. There has been no war, and the US is backing talks still.

I ask because your next book is called “Has the West Lost it?” Is that about the worry of an American in decline, retrenching positions worldwide?

A: The US is not going to decline in absolute terms, and its GNP will keep growing. But in the 1960s, American GNP was 40% of the world GNP, and now that is down to 15% in purchasing power parity terms. It’s a very different world as a result. The US is number 2 compared to China, and soon could be number 3 to India. The Americans have great difficulty planning for this world, because they cannot accept that they are second to anyone. They ignored Bill Clinton when he said in 2003 that if America will be world number 1 for always, it should carry on. But if it isn’t then it should consider a world about rules and multilateralism more. Else they won’t be prepared.

If China and India are number 1 and 2 in the future, then will the Asian century inevitably be about their competitive rivalry?

[The then] PM Manmohan Singh said the world is big enough for both China and India to grow and he was right.

You spoke of the ASEAN miracle. How can South Asia emulate its success, given that the SAARC countries haven’t even been able to meet for years?

I think the one big lesson from ASEAN is that having regular meetings makes a huge difference to trust levels. I attended the initial ASEAN meetings with five countries in 1971, and the level of distrust was very high. Twenty years of meetings later, there was a world of difference. SAARC should consciously study ASEAN and build a habit of regular meetings at all levels. ASEAN has 1000 meetings a year on all kinds of issues. Health, infections, pandemics, are a common problem, for example. SAARC must build on these common areas.

India says SAARC cannot meet until Pakistan addresses the most common problem of the region: terrorism. How does one get beyond that?

It’s a question of what comes first. At ASEAN, Philippines claimed the island of Sabah, and Malaysia could have said we will not talk until the Philippines withdraws its claim. Now everyone has forgotten about it. ASEAN’s biggest strength is its culture of pragmatism. We look for solutions. Many said we should not have admitted Myanmar as it was ruled by the military. But we admitted Myanmar, and over time, it changed. So countries can change their behaviour because they become part of a regional coalition.

Another challenge to SAARC has come from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), where except for India and Bhutan, every South Asian country has joined. How can India counter China’s money power in the region?

The best way for India to counter China’s influence in South Asia increase India’s influence in South Asia. In theory, India should be in a much better position to have better relations with every SAARC country than China has. Even if you leave aside Pakistan, which is a dysfunctional relationship, there is so much in common with every country in the region. If you look at China and Taiwan, they both claim to be the same country, and yet they have a massive trade and investment relationship. So while technically they may be inimical to each other, economically they are practically fraternal. This is what India must do with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives etc. Integrate them so closely economically, that they will always have to consider India’s views.

It sounds easier said than done.

A: You know, I actually said ASEAN was created because of three 4-letter words, not just Fear, but also Luck and Golf (laughs). Seriously, it is important for leaders and officials of countries to spend time together, because that is an important way to understand our commonalities and to break down the animosities that two countries feel. In addition, as the biggest country in the region, India should study Indonesia’s role in ASEAN. President Suharto was wise enough to say, we will let the smaller countries of ASEAN run the group, and took a backseat, and that is something India could try to do. Maybe sometimes that group will take decisions you don’t like, but eventually the group will come closer together.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 10:09:28 PM |

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