Saturday, May 5, 2007

A New Day for ASEAN?

I woke up today at dawn to the morning call to prayer in Jakarta.

Carnegie Endowment scholar Joshua Kurlantzick and I are traveling through Manila, Jakarta, and Singapore, asking businesspeople, government officials, journalists, and scholars what China's rise means for the future of ASEAN and business and human rights norms. The subtext is that China and Japan are trying to outdo one another in creating goodwill in this battleground for influence.

The topic of China's relationship with the developing world is very timely. I spoke at the New School's Project Africa program and at Wellesley College on the same subject last month. Kurlantzick also just published a book on China's soft power in Southeast Asia called Charm Offensive, and UCLA scholar Josh Eisenman will be presenting his new book on China and the developing world at the Carnegie Council this May.

In my mind, the question is: What will China's economic weight and activity do to business, environmental, and human rights norms around the world? Particularly since state to state war seems less and less likely in East Asia (or "unthinkable" as ASEAN puts it), rivalry between big powers falls into the more nuanced games of economic diplomacy, investment, institution building, and fighting nontraditional global security threats, such as climate change, pandemics, and piracy.

It could turn out to be a net positive in which China keeps trying to attract markets and business partners in areas previously believed to be the domain of Japan and the United States, such as Indonesia or Philippines. China may also build ties in areas in which the West will not go, such as Sudan. Or the story could end up in nasty rivalries, rampant suspicion, and a virtual cold war. But so far the tone is positive.

ASEAN is courting anyone who will dance—the United States, Japan, and China—in what some call "promiscuous diplomacy." Whether ASEAN can be the hub for a vision that increasingly seems to appreciate the importance of social responsibility at the upper levels will depend on whether ASEAN can become a more coherent, political entity. That in turn will depend on ASEAN resolving major debates on the noninterference principle and on decision-making by voting. It will also mean gluing together the world's largest Muslim democracy with tenacious Communist states, and exemplar market economies.

Whatever the outcome, ASEAN is waking to a new reality.

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